Kootu is a well known preparation of vegetables and daal in the southern states of India, most prominently in the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Unlike a sambar or rasam which are more fluid in consistency, a kootu is much thicker. Kootus typically contain one type of vegetable – the type of vegetable that will not disintegrate easily when cooked for a long time. That puts vegetables like cabbage, chayote squash, white pumpkin, yellow pumpkin in the running, although I have also seen a variety of greens that are used to make kootu.
Kootus fall in the category of comfort food. A bowl of hot rice topped with kootu, some ghee and pappadums on the side will soothe the soul and stomach. Some spicy Indian pickles will be even better.
The characteristic taste of a kootu comes from the spice paste that is a blend of fresh grated coconut, cumin seeds and green or red chillies. Some kootus contain a souring agent such as tamarind pulp or tomatoes, but purists will argue that you must leave the souring agent out.
I’ve eaten a variety of kootus growing up in India, thanks to my diverse set of friends at whose homes I would regularly eat lunch after school. One of my friends was from the lovely region of Kodagu or Coorg in Karnataka. Her mom would make an absolutely delicious kootu with spinach and tuvar daal, flavored with a spice paste made from coconut, urad daal, tamarind, cumin seeds, red chillies. Another friend’s mom made a different version with cabbage, moong daal and sambar powder that we used to eat with steamed rice and ghee while watching cricket matches on TV.
The idea behind a kootu is to first cook the vegetables and daal until they are close to being mushy. Then you combine the spice paste with the vegetable daal mixture. After that, you make a seasoned oil with popped mustard seeds, asafetida and fresh curry leaves. The asafetida imparts an umami flavor to the dish and is mandatory to round off the taste of this dish.
KOOTU WITH CABBAGE Cooking time: 45 mins to 1 hr Serves: 8 Ingredients: 4 cups chopped cabbage 1 cup moong daal, rinsed and drained 1/4 cup fresh grated coconut or unsweetened coconut flakes 1 tsp cumin seeds 1 small tomato, chopped 1 thai pepper 1/2 tsp red chili powder 1/4 tsp turmeric powder 2 cloves garlic, optional seasoning: 2 tsp coconut oil or ghee 1 tsp mustard seeds 1/2 tsp asafetida 4-6 curry leaves Method: Combine the chopped cabbage and moong daal with 1 cup water and 1/2 tsp salt. Cook in a pressure cooker on medium heat for 10-15 minutes or two whistles. Remove from heat, and set aside until it is safe to open the pressure cooker. You can cook the cabbage and daal without a pressure cooker too - just combine the cabbage and daal in a heavy bottomed pan, add about 2 cups of water and 1/2 tsp of salt. Cook on low heat, uncovered, until the cabbage and daal are very tender. While the cabbage mixture is cooking, blend smoothly the coconut, cumin seeds, tomato, thai pepper, red chili powder, turmeric powder and garlic cloves along with one cup of water. Combine the blended spice mixture and cooked cabbage, mix well and adjust salt to taste. Add a bit more water to the blender jar to rinse it out and add that rinsing water to the dish too! To make the seasoning oil - heat the 2 tsp coconut oil or ghee in a small saucepan, and add the rest of the seasoning ingredients. When the mustard seeds start to pop, combine the seasoned oil into the cabbage and daal. Cook an additional 5 minutes until the flavors meld together. Serve hot with rice, quinoa, or rotis.