I still remember the first time I heard the terms comfort food and soul food. It immediately brought up images of not-too-well-done toast topped with boiled tomatoes, and a light dusting of salt and powdered cumin. Growing up, if there was one meal that I wanted irrespective of the weather or my state of well-being, it was boiled tomatoes on toast. Over the last two decades, I’ve added several dishes to my personal list of soul food, many of which are hearty stews and soups.
The lemony chicken and carrot soup became a staple a few years ago, and is my go-to soup as soon as the mercury starts dipping below 18, or if one of us is down with a cold. Laced with pepper, it never fails to make me feel better. Then there’s the tomato, chicken and spinach soup that I started making on my first trip to Toronto, convinced that the Popeye element in the soup would give me the strength to battle those harsh winter days. It’s now a regular even in Indian winters!
More recently, I’ve discovered the joy of hearty vegetable stews. The lockdown saw me crawling the web for a way to use up some odd bits and pieces of vegetables left over in the fridge at the end of the week – pumpkin, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach (there’s always some lying around in my fridge), french beans and carrots. That’s when I discovered this amazing recipe for a vegetable curry with south-Indian flavours. As usual, I played around with the recipe, and tweaked it according to the ingredients I had with me. I am not convinced about the south-Indian flavours touted in the recipe, but it’s definitely a dish that can be classified as soul food.
Last month, Chef Thomas Zacharias shared the recipe of Rushichi bhaji, a vegetable preparation made on Rushi panchami, the second day of Ganesh Chaturthi. Prepared without any spices (since the Rishis living in the forests wouldn’t have had access to them), this dish was right up my alley!
You can check out the recipe by Chef Zacharias on his Instagram account, but here’s my own modified version, made after discussions with several friends, including a Goan, who told me about their twist to the dish. The preparation may seem laborious to some people, since it involves a lot of vegetables, but I’ve already professed how I enjoy chopping vegetables, so it’s my favorite part!
1 small or ½ big bottle gourd
2 small ridge gourds
1 large or 2 medium sized sweet potatoes
1 raw banana
1 bunch of red amaranth leaves
1 coconut (grated) or 2 packets of coconut milk
1 cup peanuts (fresh, if you get them – I used the peanuts I add to our breakfast poha)
¼ cup tamarind pulp
2-4 green chillies (based on your preference)
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp ghee
Finely chopped cilantro (or coriander) leaves for garnishing
If you don’t have pre-made tamarind pulp lying around in the fridge, soak some tamarind in water.
Prepare the amaranth leaves first, by washing and chopping them. The stems can also be used, so don’t discard those. Chop the vegetables into medium sized batons – ridge gourd, bottle gourd, sweet potato, raw banana.
Melt the ghee in a heavy-bottomed pan and add the cumin seeds to it. Stir on a high flame for a couple of minutes, before adding the green chillies, and the stems of the amaranth leaves. Stir for a few minutes, and then add the leaves. Season with some salt, and cover, allowing the leaves to cook. Next, add the sweet potatoes and raw banana. Season, add a few spoons of water, cover and let it cook for around 10 minutes, before adding the gourds. Add some more water, salt, coconut and peanuts at this point.
Bring to a boil, add the tamarind pulp and let it cook on medium heat for another 7-10 minutes. Check the seasoning at this point. If like Chef Zacharias and me, you don’t have an aversion to sugar in your food, add a spoonful of brown sugar to balance those flavours, and cook for another few minutes before turning off the heat.
Garnish with finely chopped coriander, and serve hot with puris, plain rice or jowar bhakris….or just eat it by itself. The subtle flavours of the vegetables combined with the lovely coconut and a hint of tamarind will heal your soul before the first bowl is over!