Vathal or vendhaya kuzhambu is the ultimate Tambrahm rustic dish, made when you don’t have fresh produce on hand, especially during the monsoons when the sundried vegetables from the previous year come in handy. Vathal means dried stuff basically any vegetable or certain berries like turkey berry (sundakai in Tamil), black night shade (manathakkali in Tamil) in their sundried form are added to a thick tamarind extract, with basic kuzhambu powder (spice mix) and boiled to a thick jam-like gravy, and eaten with rice. The flavor comes from the tadka/thalippu/tempering in sesame oil and the tart tamarind extract, the tartness balanced by the vathal or vegetable of your choice. Fresh vegetables such as drumstick, red pumpkin, onions/shallots are also used and are typically my favorites. If you have no vegetable or vathal on hand, one version of this uses papads. Fry the papads broken in pieces in the initial tempering, and proceed as usual.
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).