Celebrations of any sort, big or small, all around the world revolve around food to a large extent. I sometimes think it is more so in the Palakkad Iyer community where traditionally, even the daily food follows a certain ritualistic style. It is especially so because we mark not just the religious and social rituals we brought along with us from Tamilnadu when we first migrated, but also those that we adopted from the locals in our newer home state of Kerala.
Kali and Kari (we also call it Kavatthu while others in Kerala refer to it as Puzhukku) are two separate dishes, one savoury and one sweet that are made for the festival of Thiruvathira as ritual offering which is then served to everyone at home. One thing we don’t do traditionally, is serve cooked spicy and savoury food with a sweet dessert like dish together as a combination but this is perhaps the one exception to that rule.
Thiruvathira is a festive occasion celebrated by Hindus in the Southern Indian states of Tamilnadu and Kerala, sometime on a full moon night in the months of December/ January. In Kerala, Thiruvathira is considered by many to be the birthday of the Lord Shiva and is celebrated with prayer, and fasting through the day from dawn to dusk by abstaining from rice based foods. Women folk in the house get together in the evening for the Thiruvathirakali, a very graceful dance with singing is performed in the evening around a lit lamp.
There are a few other stories in Hindu mythology behind the celebration of Thiruvathira. One is that it is the commemoration of the demise of Kama deva, the God of love. Another that it is the celebration of Goddess Parvathy’s marriage to Lord Shiva. As the stories go, Goddess Parvathi wanted Lord Shiva as her husband but he was in deep meditation for many years together. So she got a little help from the Kamadeva, the God of love to gain his attention. Kamadeva, unfortunately earned Lord Shiva’s displeasure for interrupting his meditation and was burned to ashes by the fire emanating from Lord Shiva’s third eye! All ended well though as Goddess Parvati did marry Shiva and both she and Kamadeva’s wife pleaded for him. So Lord Shiva brought him back as Ananga, meaning one without a bodily form but embodies the spirit of love.
In my home, as in others in our community, Thiruvathira is celebrated a bit differently. Those who maintain fasts keep to it, and it is a day for visiting the Shiva temple in one’s neighbourhood and offering prayers but we don’t however follow the other practices in Kerala of Thiruvathira dance and song. Kali and Kari is prepared in a manner that is more Kerala style with the generous use of coconut, and ritually offered to Lord Shiva before it is partaken of by the family.
Of the Kali and Kari that is cooked this day, Kali is a sweet and almost dessert like dish made from coarsely powdered rice and moong lentils which are cooked with jaggery, coconut and cardamom into a soft pudding like consistency. Cashewnuts are traditionally not used in Kali though I’ve used them here.
In Tamilnadu, the Kari is called Thalagam, a dish with gravy that resembles Sambhar somewhat, and is a savoury preparation that is traditionally to be cooked with 5 or 7 different kinds of vegetables. In Palakkad Iyer homes, Kari is usually made as a soft cooked dish with very little or no gravy.
In Palakkad Iyer homes, some still stick to the practice of using 5 different vegetables but most of us cook the Kari with a mix of three or four vegetables of which two vegetables would be “Avarakkai” or Hyacinth Beans and a root vegetable called “Kaavatthu” or Kaachil” or Purple Yam (grows as pinkish purple and white varieties also) which is usually in season at this time of the year. In fact, I grew up hearing the Kari referred to as Kavathu Kari, and sometimes the combination of the two dishes for Thiruvathira would be referred to as Kali and Kavathu rather than Kali and Kari!
The other vegetables commonly used include raw plantains, elephant yam, sweet potato, pumpkin, and “Koorka” (Chinese Potato or Country Potato) which is a vegetable much used in Kerala. Modern versions of Kari tend to include “English” or non-native vegetables like green beans, green peas, carrots, potatoes, etc. but this is not traditional.
I don’t get Kavathu/ Kachil (Purple Yam) where I live in Goa so I used a combination of Koorka (Chinese Potato), Elephant Yam, Pumpkin, Avarakkai (Hyacinth Beans) and Raw Plantains to make my Kari. The vegetables for Kari, except the Hyacinth beans should be peeled (the raw plantains should have a thin layer skin remaining on them) and cut into approximately 1” cubes. The Hyacinth beans should be trimmed and chopped into about 1/2” thick pieces.
Kali & Kari/ Kavathu – Festive Fare For Thiruvathira Celebrations
For the Thiruvathira Kali :
- 1 cup raw rice (not steamed, par boiled or processed)
- 1/8 cup moong lentils
- 2 1/4 cups water
- 1 cup jaggery powdered
- 1/4 cup coconut fresh grated
- 4 to 5 pods cardamom , powdered
- 1 1/2 tbsps ghee
- 1/8 cup cashews broken (optional)
For the Thiruvathira Kari :
- 1 cup potato Koorka / Chinese , cubed
- 1 cup pumpkin , cubed
- 1 cup plantain raw , sliced chunks
- 1 cup Hyacinth beans , chopped
- 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 cup coconut fresh grated
- 2 to 3 green chillies
- to taste Salt
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 1/2 tsps black gram lentils
- 1 sprig curry leaves
- To make the Kali : Dry roast (toast) the rice in a pan over medium heat until it gives off a nutty aroma and is just beginning to turn golden. Do not let it brown. Take it off the heat and let it cool. If the rice remains in the pan, it will darken. In the same pan dry roast (toast) the moong lentils the same way and let this also cool.
- Once cooled, run the rice and lentils together in you mixer/ grinder to a coarse powder that is like coarse cornmeal or semolina. If it is powdered fine, the texture of the cooked Kali will become sticky and will not have the desired fluffy texture.
- Heat the water in a non-stick or heavy bottomed pot, add the powdered jaggery and let it dissolve. When this starts boiling and turn down the heat to low, slowly add the coarse powdered rice and lentils while stirring constantly. Let this cook until the water is completely absorbed, and the Kali looks dry (but moist) and fluffy.
- Stir in 1 tbsp of the ghee and the powdered cardamom. Now stir in the coconut as well, and take it off the heat.
- Put the remaining 1/2 tbsp ghee and the cashewnuts in a pan and let them fry to a light golden brown. Take off the heat and stir it into the Kali. Let the Kali cool, then serve at room temperature with the Kari.
- To make the Kari : Put all the vegetables into a pot (or the pressure cooker if you use one) with the turmeric powder and cook with a little water until theyu2019re done and cooked to reasonably soft consistency. There should be very little water left in the vegetables.
- Grind the coconut and the green chillies with very little water into a very smooth paste. Put the cooked vegetables and the coconut paste and enough salt into a pot. Bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and add a little water if required. The consistency of the Kari should be on the drier side but moist, but some people like their Kari with just a hint of gravy.
- When done take it off the heat. In a smaller pan, heat the oil for tempering. Add the mustard seeds and when they splutter add the lentils. Let them turn golden brown, then add the curry leaves, stir once and take it off the heat. Stir this into the Kari and serve hot with the Kali.