A Beginner’s Guide to Tamil Greens: Stir-fried Amaranth [Mulaikeerai poriyal]
Understanding greens, or keerais as they’re called in Tamil, means also understanding the poṟiyal [பொரியல்]–which is a category of Tamil cookery as much as it is a dish, usually dry, made of steamed-and-seasoned or gently stir-fried vegetables. Equivalents and variants of the poṟiyal exist in all regional Indian cuisines, but for us an essential ingredient is a handful of fresh coconut. And no turmeric!
Poriyals are fast to prepare, very lightly seasoned, and very gently cooked–in essence, antithesis to the idea of “curry,” as Westerners understand Indian cuisine, and answer to every common outside critique of Indian food: “It’s always so yellow!”–“They overcook their vegetables!”–“Everything has a sauce..”–“It’s too spicy!”
In other words, poriyals are everything you ever thought “Indian” could never be. And a lesson in turmeric-use, besides: we are not indiscriminate in our use of this all-important ingredient. Especially when there’s beautiful, freshly grated, dazzlingly white sweet coconut around, the aesthetics of Indian home cooking demand that turmeric take a back seat.
Basic poriyal preparation involves tossing a teaspoon each of split black gram dal (urad dal) and black mustard seeds into a couple of teaspoons of hot oil — followed by a red chilli and a pinch of asafoetida (hing) — adding chopped vegetables (which can be pre-steamed, if they take longer to cook, as with beans and carrots) — stirring in salt — covering — and leaving to steam lightly. Fresh grated coconut is added at the end, a finishing flourish.
Some folks fry onions and garlic before adding the vegetables, but that is optional. Simple poriyals can be made with just about any vegetable, but typical poriyals feature beans, carrots, chow chow (or chayote), cabbage, and greens. More involved poriyals can have their own spice blends added in, but I’ll leave those for another time.
Keerai poriyals per force begin with cleaning the greens and separating leaves from stalks. This is most important for mulaikeerai whose stems can be thick enough to be vegetable-like in their own right, and less critical for other greens whose stalks are more delicate to begin with, or thinner. You can decide whether to skip this step or to go through it–as I do, in a sort-of commitment to making food slowly.
I sit on the floor to watch a movie, pile of greens on a paper before me.
By and by, I’ve separated all the stems from leaves. Sandra Bullock is still busy tripping over herself when I’m ready to start chopping the stems. This time, I’m working with muļaikeerai :
Mulaikeerai comes in two varieties, green (above) and a beautiful purple-red:
I set the leaves aside, and mince the stems:
And quite frankly take time out to enjoy the colors and the process of no-waste cooking:
When the green stems are seasoned and lightly stir-fried, a handful of fresh coconut gets tossed on top, to give the dish a sweet finish (recipe below):
I treat the stems as companions to onions and garlic all the time. Here is a seasoned rice with the red stems:
The leaves themselves don’t need much more than a gentle saute in olive oil, with a bit of garlic and minced red chilli for bite (recipe is below):
You can go even further and make pasta sauces — but that’s neither stir-fry nor poriyal and a post unto itself besides–and I’m frankly just keeping it simple for now so I can get back to that movie I was watching.
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 dry red chilli, broken in half
- 1/2 teaspoon split black gram dal (ulutham paruppu, urad dal)
- 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds (kadugu)
- generous pinch asafoetida (perungaayam, hing)
- a sprig of curry leaves
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
- 3-4 small green chillies, minced (yes, that many)
- 3 shallots, diced
- 1 bunch mulai keerai stems, finely chopped
- a handful of fresh grated coconut (optional, but really a lovely addition to the classic poriyal)
- salt to taste
- In a wide pan or wok, heat the oil until it is nearly smoking.
- Drop in the dry red chilli and the split black gram/ urad dal, and when the dal browns just slightly follow with the mustard seeds, which should pop and crackle right away.
- Add the asafoetida and curry leaves -- stir -- and follow with the curry leaves, garlic and green chillies.
- When these are fried (a minute will do it), add the onion, and sauté until transluscent but not browning.
- Add the minced stems and salt, stir well, reduce the heat to medium-low -- cover, and allow the stems to steam for about 5-6 minutes.
- Note that more mature stems will take longer to cook, and might require a sprinkling of water to help them steam.
- If you are using coconut, add it now. Mix well, and serve hot with kootu or any other dal and chapatis or rice.
- 1 bunch Amaranth greens, separated from stalks (and the stalks saved for later use), and the leaves very roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (can use extra-virgin)
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds (optional, for a more Indian flavor)
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds (jeera), (also optional, for a more Indian flavor)
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1-2 small red chillies, minced
- In a wok, heat the olive oil until it's nearly smoking.
- If using the mustard seeds and cumin, drop them in now and stir until the mustard seeds pop and the jeera crackles
- Quickly drop in the minced garlic and chillies, stirring constantly. Don't allow the garlic to burn.
- Drop in the chopped amaranth greens in large handfuls, mixing well each time.Wait until the greens wilt slightly before following with the next handful.
- Add a bit of salt to taste (greens are already salty, so go slowly).
- Serve hot with dals or other more saucy dishes and rice.