Saturday, 14 January 2012

When Life Gives You Tomatoes, Make Thokku

I am not a particularly wise shopper. Whether it be food or clothes. I have often bought things that look great in the shop window and in the clever lighting of the trial room, but look terrible in my brutally honest mirror at home.

It is not very different when I go grocery shopping. Taken in by shiny vegetables or fruit, I often forget that on an average day, there is only one person I need to cook for - me. A few weeks ago, I went shopping in preparation for a new year's eve dinner at my place for a few friends. Heaven knows what I was thinking when I was jostling with crowds inside my neighbourhood supermarket. I realised after my (rather successful, if I may say so myself) dinner party, that I had over a kilo of tomatoes left over in my fridge. And that is where the title of this post comes from. I decided to make myself some tomato thokku. I must qualify that by saying that this is my version of thokku and I cannot claim that it is authentic in any way. Malayalis cannot stake any claim to thokku - we only make piggles (ha ha ha!) and achchar (stressing the "chch" with as much stress as it is humanly possible to place on one syllable).

I love my pickles and chutneys. The spicier and the tangier, the better. I still have vivid memories of the fiery tomato pickle that we sampled at a Telugu family friend's place in Goa many, many years ago. I must have been around 12 years old. I made my love for it so obvious that the hostess packed a little bottle for me to take back home!

One of the ingredients that this recipe calls for is asafeotida or hing as it is called in Hindi. I wonder whose idea it was to come up with the convoluted "asafoetida" as the English equivalent of the simple hing.

It is an ingredient that I have only ever come across in Indian cooking. I am assured by that reliable, modern fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia that it hing is indeed now "generally forgotten" in Europe although still used extensively in Indian cooking. 

Hing was a staple in my mother's kitchen and it made an appearance in several traditional south Indian dishes including sambhar, rasam etc. It has a distinctive aroma that I find a little difficult to describe but adds a new dimension to spicy South Indian food.  You could call it the Indian equivalent of ajinomoto, but without any negative effects. In fact, if my constant companion Wikipedia is to be believed, it is a cure for everything from epilepsy to indigestion.

In all these years, I have only seen one brand of hing in Indian homes, including my own. I forget the name now (cannot be bothered to hobble back into my kitchen and check!) but vividly remember the packaging. A tiny white plastic jar with the image of a particularly voluptuous woman with cascading hair. Sexy spices.


6-8 tomatoes
1 tsp kashmiri red chilli powder
1/2 tsp asafoetida
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
salt, jaggery and tamarind paste to taste
as many curry leaves as you like.

Puree the tomatoes and keep aside. Heat oil. Once hot, add in the mustard seeds. When they sputter, reduce the heat and add the fenugreek seeds (they burn quickly, in my experience anyway). Now add the curry leaves. When they emit their delicious aroma, add the red chilli powder and turmeric powder and asafoetida. Before they burn, add the tomato puree and just a little salt. Now let it simmer until the whole lot reduces to a jam like consistency. Add jaggery and tamarind paste alongwith more salt, adjusting quantities depending on your taste. Cool, store in a jar and serve with whatever you like!

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