Pulikaichal – Tamarind Concoction for Rice

Pulikaichal has always been a staple of our household. It, usually, is associated with festivals where “flavoured rice” is rigueur du jour! As a kid I didn’t know which syllable to stress on – stress on the L and it might mean “dotted fries”. But we all enjoyed it thoroughly. One problem with too much of pulikaichal was stomach acidity. It was very difficult to say no & the next morning was usually spent wincing in pain. But the ordeal was well worth it.

There is no one definite recipe for pulikaichal (which basically means a concentrate of tamarind pulp). Each district of Tamil Nadu has its own recipe. Each family in any district had its own recipe. Varying any of the ingredients ever so slightly produces a different taste. Varying ingredients themselves, produced a spectrum of flavours. Add to this the notoriously evasive notion of “Kai manam” (or the fragrance of one’s hand) and you are left with no hope to reproduce or standardise this heavenly dish. So divine is this concoction that it finds admission in austere temples. The Iyengar puliyogare/pulihora/puliyodharai is famous amongst discerning populations for being the pinnacle of this dish. But as the temples themselves declare, there is no one recipe and whatever amazing flavour turns out, it is attributed to the divine will of the presiding deity of the temple – another loophole in the quest for a definitive recipe.

What remains common throughout the recipes I have heard & versions consumed is the use of tamarind (and there is a concept of new and aged tamarind; one must use only aged tamarind) & sesame oil. Sesame oil is also known as gingelly oil (though technically, they differ in how the sesame seeds are processed to extract oil) or nallaennai (Tamil) or til ka tel (Hindi). I would not recommend the dark coloured sesame oil of South Eastern countries as that brings in a different flavour that is not best associated with pulikaichal. Back to the versions – some use red chillies (spherical versus long), some use coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, groundnuts/peanuts, etc. Some use the seeds whole and some will grind them. Some will grind them without roasting. Some will add the ground powders at the end or only in the rice and not to the concoction. Variations abound and what you are going to read is my version based on a study of what adds flavour the best. There might be versions that suit your taste palette differently. Work with these ingredients and figure it out. Readers of this blog know that I am not good with measurements. The reasons are simple: I cook with my hands & nose. I don’t use measuring spoons or cups. Secondly, each crop of ingredients bears a different flavour. Finally, your tastes and mine are also different. You will need to try and iterate till you get a good idea. When you buy a fresh batch of ingredients, you will need to repeat the process. I might provide you with indicative quantities.

What I will be using for the recipe are as follows:

Paste:

  1. Soak 2.5 golf ball sized lumps of tamarind in warm water
  2. Heat sesame oil (about 10 tbsp) in a wide wok or saucepan. Vessels with a heavy/thick base work best.
  3. When hot, add mustard seeds (black).
  4. When they sputter, add a pinch of cumin seeds.
  5. Add torn dried red chillies (about 4 spicy ones and not the byadige/kashmiri kinds).
  6. To this add 2 tbsp of split chickpea (kadalai paruppu or chana dal) and 1 tbsp de-skinned whole black lentils (ulutham paruppu or urad dal).
  7. When they begin to brown, add roasted, coarsely ground peanuts/groundnuts followed by asafoetida/perunkaayam/hing. You could use a solid chunk of hing as well.
  8. Add fresh curry leaves and mix well. Add turmeric powder (about 3 tsp) to this.
  9. Now add the tamarind pulp (without any fibres) to this. Be careful as this is water being added to hot oil. Add salt to this. Mix well and keep stirring till cooked and the oil separates. This might take about 10-30 min depending on the amount of water in your pulp as well as heat from the burner.
  10. When the water has significantly reduced, add the Powder #1 (below) and mix. Now add a little jaggery/vellam/gud.
  11. When the dish is nearly done and you intend turning off the heat, add Powder #2 and take the vessel off the stove.

Powder:

This is what is referred to as “mel podi” as it is the powder that is added on top of the concoction. These come in 2 parts. One is added about 7 min before you are done with the paste & the other is added about 30 sec before you turn off the heat and lower the vessel from the stove.

  1. In 1 tsp sesame oil, fry 2-4 byadige/kashmiri red chillies, 2 tbsp coriander seeds, 2 tsp split chickpea & de-skinned whole black lentils (each), 1 tsp black peppercorns and 2 tsp sesame seeds. The chillies are largely for the colour. Once cooled, grind this to a fine powder. This will be added when we are nearly in the last leg of the cooking.
  2. Dry roast about 2 tsp of fenugreek/vendhayam/methi seeds and, when cooled, grind to a fine powder. This will be added when done and just before lowering the vessel off the stove.

Rice preparation:

The rice must not be sticky and be separate.. Ensure that it is cooled a little. Add a little sesame oil to the rice and mix well.

Rice topping:

This is really up to your flavour preferences and what follows is but one method.

  1. Grind roasted sesame seeds (black, white or a mix) & sprinkle the powder on the rice. Mix well.
  2. Add cashew fried in oil (or ghee) and mix.
  3. After mixing the pulikaichal in the rice and mixing it partially, add fresh curry leaves and mix well.
  4. Cover and let the warmth of the rice and the flavour of the pulikaichal serenade with the curry leaves and the sesame powder.

Your puliyodharai/pulihora/puliyogare is ready to eat.

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