Why do I love coconut oil so much? Growing up in Kerala, coconuts became an intrinsic part of my diet. Most Kerala curries would have grated coconut, coconut bits, coconut milk or coconut oil. So the flavour remained etched on my palate.
When I started cooking, coconut oil became a favourite ingredient. I would fry everything in it, slather it when I marinate meat or fish, drizzle it on avial (an assorted vegetable dish), fish curry and even salad.
Ulli theeyal (made with shallots or pearl onions) captures the very essence of coconut as a pivotal ingredient in Kerala cuisine. Some coconut oil is used for tempering and frying, but much of the oil comes from the fried grated coconut. You turn off the flame the moment coconut oil starts separating from the curry. And that’s so flavourful.
Besides that, another of my favourite ingredients find a place in theeyal: fenugreek. It gives a distinct taste and aroma to sambhar and fish curry. It’s not dominant in theeyal, but works in a supporting role.
Little wonder, ulli theeyal is one of my favourite dishes. Instead of ulli (shallots or small onions), eggplant, okra, or bitter gourd can be substituted as the main ingredient. Everything else is the same, so the flavour remains the same except when bitter gourd comes into play.
Ulli theeyal gets a heavenly twist with the inclusion of prawns or shrimps. In that case, I would use less grated coconut.
Whatever may be the main ingredient, ulli theeyal is an excellent accompaniment for rice. I would even dunk chappathis, Kerala parottas and even dosas in ulli theeyal.
If you don’t like coconut oil, don’t go anywhere near theeyal. But for Keralites, theeyal will rank high in the list of favourite dishes. It’s spicy, tangy and tasty.
Here’s how I make my ulli theeyal.
For the masala
- 1½ coconut, grated
- 1 tsp coconut oil
- 2 tbsp coriander seeds
- 5 red chillies
- 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 or 2 red chillies
- 1 tbsp mustard seeds
- ½ tbsp cumin seeds (optional)
- ¼ tbsp asafoetida (hing)
- 2 sprigs of curry leaves
For the gravy
- 1½ cups of shallots, sliced
- ¼ tsp turmeric powder
- 1 cup tamarind water (dissolve a small lime-sized ball of tamarind in 1 cup of water)
- Salt, as required
- Heat 1 teaspoon of coconut oil in a pan. Add coriander seeds, fenugreek and red chillies, and fry them on low flame for 2 minutes.
- Add grated coconut and fry till it turns dark golden brown. Do not allow it to brown. Remove the pan from the flame and pour the ingredients immediately onto a plate or a container to cool. Or else, the heat from the pan will char it.
- Once the ingredients cool down, put into blender and grind it by adding water little by little. When the paste becomes smooth, set it aside.
- Start tempering by heating 2 tablespoon of coconut oil in a pan. Add mustard seeds, and cumin seeds. When they splutter, add asafoetida, followed by a red chilli (tear into two or three pieces) and 2 sprigs of curry leaf.
- Turn the flame low, add the sliced onions and fry till they are tender (about 8 minutes). Throw in the turmeric powder too.
- Pour the ground masala and tamarind water into the pan and mix it well.
- Add salt and bring it a boil.
- At this point, if it’s not spicy enough, add a bit of red chilli powder or black pepper powder.
- If the curry is too thick, add water to get the required consistency
- Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes. Wait till the oil separates from the curry and floats on top, before turning off the stove.
The magic of coconut oil and its tradition in India
Coconut oil has been a key ingredient for things other than cooking as well. While coconut oil is used popularly in southern India, the use of it enhances each dish to a whole new flavour. But apart from this coconut oil does have a few perks.
Whether it is skincare, haircare, or just to strengthen one’s immunity, coconut oil has been proven to improve the overall well-being of the consumer. Due to its rich content of healthy fatty acids, coconut oil has been used quite often to help reduce belly fat, curb appetite, and also help prevent heart disease. According to Havard Medical School, “Coconut oil largely consists of saturated fat (80 to 90 per cent of fat in coconut oil is saturated), making it solid at room temperature.”
These saturated fats, or what is known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), are absorbed quite quickly by your body, which are then turned into energy or ketones (compounds produced by the liver to break the fat instead of glucose or sugar).
Given the present scenario of COVID-19, speculations of coconut oil consumption lowering your chances of contracting the virus have also surfaced. While science and research is still yet to confirm the same, coconut oil does have a few antimicrobial effects due to the lauric acid present in it.
What's more? Cook a dish in coconut oil and you'll discover a whole new dish altogether!
- With inputs from Sharon Benjamin, Features Writer
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