Do not be put off by the long list of ingredients, this is Indian cooking in a flash! Thoran is like a South Indian stir fry, very quick to get together and whip up. Its one of those dishes that easily slots into the ‘staples’ category of your recipe repertoire. Small efforts are rewarded with massive and delightful flavours. Definitely our way of doing things.
The ingredients for this have been adapted to Wales, a subtle change from steaming, tropical Kerala. I’ve still gone for some non-native ingredients, pepper and sweet potato, but swede and parsnips just don’t seem to fit the bill (although I did use them for a soup – coming soon……)
Thoran is what the Indians would call a ‘dry’ side dish, normally served with a saucy curry (like Sambar) and rice, some coconut chutney would finish things off like a tropical Keralan dream. Thoran is cooked especially well in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and this part of the world is a vegans heaven. There are very few dishes which are reliant on ghee (clarified butter) that dominates the cooking of North India. In the south its all about the coconut and sometimes, if you’re lucky, the odd cashew. The food is lighter and seems fresher, without the reliance on uber rich, spicy sauces (which I might add are extremely delicious).
Thoran is an essential part of a Sadya, which is basically a very elaborate South Indian Thali, normally served on a banana leaf (if you’re in the right joint) at festival times. Sadya showcases the depth and diversity of Indian cuisine, the way for centuries it has been designed and modified to tantalise all of the tastebuds and senses. Sadya will have dry curries, saucy curries, fluffy rice, crispy papads (poppadoms), sour chutneys, creamy/ herb based chutneys, smokey chutneys, banana chips, spicy pickles and normally a tamarind based soup (Rasam) to aid digestion of all of this. In fact, a full on Sadhya served at a big festival can consist of around 28 dishes (some even go up to 60!) I would have to say that to get the most flavour from your Keralan food, it has to be eaten with (well washed) hands. Roll up your sleeves and dive in. A Sadya sounds like an elaborate feast but its actually quite a normal meal, inexpensive and versions of it are served in modest restaurants all over Kerala. I think we normally paid around one pound for an all you can eat Sadya. Yes ONE POUND for all that deliciousness! Welcome to India! The dishes all come out in a specific order and a nice gentleman will come over and just keep spooning things onto your welcoming leaf. It is quite a complicated process, but when you’re the recipient, you just scoop away and smile.
I have just got back from the Mother land and while I was there stayed in some amazing homestays. I spent the first six weeks travelling from Delhi to Kerala with my Dad (see out blog ‘The Jalebi Express‘) and then we met Jane in Delhi and Jane and I travelled the Himalayas and spent time with the Tibetans up in Mcleod Ganj. Homestays are not normal in India, they vary greatly, some are just like hotels although many hotels in India can soon become something like a homestay. If you hang around for a while, you are bound to get to know all the people that work there. More so than in other countries. Even in the heart of Delhi, I now know all the people who work in my favourite hotels, restaurants, shops and chai stands.
Whilst travelling around the spectacular North of Kerala we stayed at Varnam Homestay, just outside Wayanad National Park. There, I had the pleasure of cooking with Beena (our host) and her amazing team of lady helpers. Wayanad is tucked away in the northern tip of Kerala and is a stunning area, the flora and fauna are dense and spectacular; wild elephants and tigers roam the land and the people are gentle and very hospitable. The way of life hardly wavers above a gentle amble. Beena and Varghese our gracious hosts were amazing and could not have made Dad and I more welcome. When I mentioned my passion for food and cooking they immediately roped me in to helping out with the next days lunch and dinner prep. I learnt so much and was amazed to see their chopping skills. You pull a plastic sheath over your index finger and use it as a mid-air chopping board. The knives are sharp and occasionally you end up cutting through the flimsy guard. Once the blood is stemmed, you carry on with a new colourful finger guard. This of course never happens to the ladies.
We prepared many dishes, but the Plantain Thoran was one of the highlights, cooked over a wood flame stove with minimal fuss. We also made a Keralan classic sauce, with highly roasted coconut and ginger as a base. A very unique flavour and something I will be cooking very soon (I forgot the name, it may be called Inchi Curry – see here for a recipe). Once i find a good supply of coconuts up here, our kitchen is heading towards Kerala again.
Varnam Homestay is set in acres of its own land and we were served only ingredients that grew on their land, that included the rice, coffee, all the sensational fruits and vegetables and even milk (they had a few cows roaming behind the kitchen). The family were so friendly and warm, Dad and I stayed an extra two days, mainly exploring the locals hills and testing out the hammocks for comfort and durability. They all seemed to work well. We also saw a tigers footprint, which looked fresh, but I am no expert. It sounds like I’m belittling the whole experience but the food was a highlight and to be served only homegrown, was a rare and highly tasty treat. Another wonderful aspect was the other guests, not something you can say in every hotel. They were such a good bunch from all around the world, we ate together on a large table and during the delicious meals, very quickly became friends. I think eating is the best way to meet new people, we all relax over a good curry!
Indian food is mind boggling at times and can be complex, but that’s why I like Thoran, its cheap and quick. The other wonderful thing about a dish like Thoran is it is there to use up any seasonal produce. In Kerala for example plantains are a regular ingredient, as well as bitter gourd, yucca, yardlong beans, giant arums, red cheera and several different types of flowers. Even banana flowers make a mean Thoran. In Britain, you can opt for potato, green beans, carrots, I’d even go for asparagus.
The Bits – For 4 (as a side dish)
2 tbs coconut oil
400g sweet potato – or 1 big one (peeled)
1 onion (peeled)
1 large red pepper (deseeded)
(all finely diced)
4 large handfuls spinach leaves
1 teas mustard seeds
1 teas cumin seeds
1 handful curry leaves
2 dried chillies (cut down the middle lengthways)
2 tbs grated ginger
1 tbs turmeric
1 massive handful grated fresh coconut (or desiccated coconut will do)
1 large chilli (finely sliced)
1 handful fresh coriander (finely chopped)
Thoran cooks quickly, so best have all your ingredients to hand and prepared. Stay with the pan for most of the cooking time, stirring gently with a non-metal spoon or spatula. I love this kind of cooking, its exciting!
In a large, heavy frying pan, preferably with a chunky bottom, warm your coco oil on high heat. Add the dried chillies, mustard seeds, when the seeds pop a little add the curry leaves. Fry for a minute and then add your sweet potato, onion and peppers, stir. After a couple of minutes, add the ginger and turmeric and a little water if things begin to stick to the bottom. Fry for a couple of minutes and then scatter the spinach on top and cover the pan with a lid. Lower the heat a touch, leave to cook for five minutes.
Check that the sweet potato is softened, then stir in the grated coconut, fresh coriander and chillies. Reserving a little of these for a final flourish.
Spoon into a preferably warm and striking serving dish and sprinkle on your ‘final flourish’ ingredients. Munch with relish and dream of swaying palms and endless rivers of mango juice. Check out those vibrant flavours!!
Sweet potato is packed with beta-carotenes. In fact it is one of natures best sources of Vitamin A. They also boast plenty of vitamin C. Although SP’s are a starchy root veg, they actually help to maintain and regulated our blood sugar levels, mainly due to their high levels of dietary fibre.