There's a certain condiment I always make sure I stock up on when visiting India. Its almost practically unheard of outside the Southern states and in cities like Mumbai, you get it at the South Indian provision stores. Four little ping-pong shaped spheres wrapped in cellophane and bound with two mismatched rubber-bands. Vepillakatti - an oxymoron of a term akin to pineapple (neither pine nor apple & yet its called a pineapple ?)
Vepillakatti when translated from its native Tamil / Malayalam basically consists of two terms -'Vepillai', a.k.a Neem leaf, and 'Katti' - lump. This condiment thankfully does not involve anything remotely related to Neem. As for the lumpy part, yes its initially measured and shaped out into little spheres, which is then crumbled at the first morsel you add to your food.
The key, and I mean absolutely critical ingredient in this condiment is fresh lime leaves, preferably fresh picked off the tree so that it retains all its wonderful aromatic citrussy essential oils. And you need a LOT of it, about 7 cups packed. The closest substitute that you may or may not find readily are Kaffir lime leaves that retail for about 5.00 $ for about 10-12 measly specimens.
I had my stock of store bought vepillakatti sitting right there on the the counter and from that point on, there was going to be no pickle, even if it meant I had no idea how I was going to use the fruit the same away as leaves. I even stripped my precious hibernating tree for fresh curry leaves.
I followed the basic guidelines from Ammini Ramachandran's book 'Grains , Greens and Grated coconuts, but while the flavor may be the same as the original condiment, remember, leaves and fruits are very different and I had to tweak the method considerably to arrive at a similar end product. Last but not least, faced with a barrage of queries about how I could call it by its original name when there were no lime leaves involved, I had to even tweak the name. 'Vepeelakatti'
So, the next time you spot one of these curvy fingered citrus beauties, give in and buy it!
Buddha's hand chutney powder (Vepeelakatti)
1 large Buddha's hand citrus
8-10 red arbol chillies
12 - 15 sprigs curry leaves
Salt to taste
1 large marble sized piece of tamarind pulp
1/4 teaspoon Asafetida powder
2 + 1 tablespoon sesame oil
After thoroughly washing and drying the fruit and the curry leaves, carefully peel off the yellow zest from the citrus fruit. A little bit of the pith attached (i.e you do not have to use the same care needed to get zest for cookies and cake batter, a vegetable peeler works beautifully) ) does not affect the flavor much but please don't cut up the pith into cubes and add it to the mix.
Heat one tablespoon of the sesame oil and toast the arbol chilies until they turn color to a deeper shade of red and sprinkle the asafetida to bloom. Remove from heat and allow it to cool to room temperature.
In a food processor, combine the citrus peel, curry leaves, toasted chillies, tamarind, salt. Let the processor run and drizzle the remaining sesame oil, just enough for the ingredients to get pulverized to a coarse paste.
Spread this mixture onto a parchment paper lined over a baking tray. Dry out the mixture for about 4-5 hours in an oven heated to 200 F. (unlike the citrus leaves, the peel still contains enough moisture that may invite spoilage, and hence this is rather necessary). Once the moisture has evaporated, you will be left with chunks of the chutney as seen above. Give the chunks a spin in the food processor (not in a dry grinder, you do not want a fine powder) and sift the contents in a coarse sieve to obtain the chutney powder.
The most common way to savor this chutney is to sprinkle it over yogurt rice, but it pairs fabulously with rice and rice noodles. but I'll save it for the next post.