Ulli Theeyal (Shallots In A Tamarind Base)

Kuzhambu is very popular in the South Indian states, especially Thamizhnadu. While the term ‘kuzhambu’ is generic to many dishes that are mixed with rice, the term also means curries in a tamarind base. Kuzhambs are often spicy and thick. It is used sparingly with rice to make a thick mixture. In days of yore, this mixture of rice and kuzhambu ware then shaped into balls and consumed. Each kuzhambu is unique and tastes wonderful. I have heard my sister-in-law often say that anyone who has not tasted a vathal kuzhambu (a variety of kuzhambu) has not really lived life. That is the iconic status that this dish holds in the South Indian culture.
Kerala does not boast of very many kuzhambus – but this ulli theeyal is one of the most well-known of dishes from this Southern state. And it deserves every bit of the status it has come to acquire.

Ulli Theeyal

150 gms shallots
An Indian gooseberry sized ball of tamarind, juice extracted (about 1/2 cup)
A pinch of turmeric powder
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp date paste (optional)
For The Masala
1/2 tbsp coriander seeds (sabut dhania, kothamalli varai)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds (sabut jeera, jeeragam)
1 heaped tbsp black pepper corns (about 15)
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds (sabut methi dhana, venthiya varai)
2 dried red chilis, broken into 2 pieces each
1/2 cup grated coconut
A little water to grind
To Temper
1/2 tsp mustard seeds (sarson, kadugu)
1 dried red chili, broken into 2
1 sprig curry leaves
Peel the shallots and wash them (soaking the shallots in water for 30 minutes will make it easier to peel)
Set aside
Preparing The Masala
Heat a wok on low flame and add all the masala items except coconut
Roast for about a minute or till the mixture becomes aromatic (ensure that the chilis are not burnt)
Add the coconut and mix well
Stir continuously till the coconut turns golden brown
Remove from flame and cool
Once cooled, transfer to a blender and add 1/2 cup water
Grind to a smooth paste
Set aside
Putting It Together
Heat a largish wok and add the peeled shallots
Roast till the edges of the shallots are slightly browned
Add turmeric powder
Mix well
Add tamarind juice and mix again
Add the ground masala and mix again
Add about 1/2 cup water and salt (you can adjust the consistency later by adding more water, if necessary)
If using, add the date paste and mix well
Cook on low flame for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally
Remove from flame and cover
Set aside
Heat a small wok and add the mustard seeds
When they begin to splutter, add the curry leaves and the red chili
Continue to roast till the chili changes colour, but ensure it does not get burnt
Pour the tempering into the theeyal
Keep the theeyal covered so that the flavours are infused
Serve hot or at room temperature with red/brown rice

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