Kuzhambu is a generic thick, sour gravy in Tamil cuisine, meant to be eaten with rice or as a side for idli/dosai/pongal/etc. It is generally made with a tamarind base, although it can also have buttermilk/yogurt as base. It is not the same as sambar, although the base stock is tamarind for both. Kuzhambu may or may not have dal (paruppu/lentils) whereas sambar will always have dal along with the tamarind stock. Both may have vegetables. Sambar is generally slightly thinner than kuzhambu. This recipe is one of those which is by definition hot and spicy - "kaaram" means hot (red chili hot). Kuzhambu means a thick slurry/gravy. The stars of this recipe are shallots, garlic, and lots and lots of curry leaves (kariveppilai). The flavor is enhanced by using virgin, cold pressed nallennai (unfiltered sesame oil).
1small piece of jaggery (gud) or a tsp of brown sugaroptional, to balance out the pungent tamarind and the hot spice powder; I almost never use it
1 or 2red chiliesoptionaltempering
Soak tamarind in 2 cups of warm/hot water for about 15 minutes to soften; extract a thick liquid by squeezing out the juice, discard the pulp
Peel the shallots and garlic, chop tomatoes and eggplant if using; I didn't use eggplant in this instance; wash curry leaves. Keep everything handy
Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan. I used my mother-in-law's stone pot (kalchatti). When made in a traditional material such as clay pot or stone pot, the rusticity of this dish improves
When the oil is hot (sesame oil heats up quickly so watch it carefully), add the mustard seeds and let them pop. Then add the fenugreek seeds and fry to brown them, not burning, followed by the red chilies if using.
Add the onions/shallots, garlic and saute in the oil; add the curry leaves.
Add a tiny bit of salt for the onions, and the spice powder and fry them together for a couple of minutes on low heat. This step is to remove the raw smell of the powder
Add eggplant and tomatoes and cook together for a few minutes; If not using either, skip ahead to the next step
Add tamarind extract, salt and turmeric; adjust water (add more) if needed, and if it looks too thick.
Let it all cook together for about 10-15 minutes. The gravy should thicken and reduce in volume. Add jaggery/gud if using. Turn the stove off.
Extra mile: I drizzle a bit of oil while finishing up to add a little extra glamour!
Serve with hot rice, and a mellow side dish such as spinach dal
This kuzhambu is pretty spicy and is the poster child for rustic village cuisine. It can truly bring alive dead tastebuds. This is one of those dishes that makes me grateful I was born a Tamil!
If your kuzhambu is too thin after cooking for about 20-30 minutes, dissolve a spoonful of rice flour in quarter cup of cold water to make a slurry, and add it to the boiling kuzhambu, stirring to remove any lumps that may form quickly when rice flour is cooked. It might de-intensify the taste a bit (bring down the pungency and heat), but will thicken it. Use it to also de-intensify the taste 🙂
Using something sweet (jaggery/brown sugar) is a classic technique to round out the flavor profile of a tangy, spicy dish. I never liked it when I was young, and therefore forget to do it now when I cook. But when I do, I must admit I do love it!