Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mumbai - an Avial

- by Janaki Krishnan
Having lived in Mumbai for more than seven decades, I have a strong affinity for all things that belong to this city. For breakfast, I love sabudana khichdi and kanda poha. But at lunch time, my South Indian tastebuds take over. My favourite is the avial.

I love the avial's rich mix of vegetables, simmering in coconut gravy. My mother used to say "Aadu thinnada elai illai, Avialukku podaadha kaaikari illai" (There's no leaf that a goat won't eat, and there's no vegetable that you don't put in an avial). White pumpkin, red pumpkin, yam, raw banana, beans, drumstick, and can use whatever you like in an avial. Mumbai's chefs have added carrots, peas and dudhi to the list of avial veggies, and in some homes, I've seen bitter gourd used as well. White pumpkin is essential, and makes up almost 40% of the avial.

You need a minimum of 5 different vegetables to make an avial. Cut the vegetables into 2 inch long strips. Harder vegetables like yam are cut thinner while others are cut slightly thicker. Cook the vegetables with turmeric and salt, making sure each vegetable piece is intact and not mashed into others. Every vegetable must be visible separately. Grind coconut and green chillies, and add to the cooked vegetables, along with sour buttermilk. Stir gently, so that all the vegetables float colourfully in the gravy. Garnish with a spoon of coconut oil and curry leaves. Serve the avial with hot rice and papad. Or, like many south Indian households in Mumbai, serve it with phulkas.

Cliched maybe, but I like to think of the avial as a metaphor for Mumbai. People from everywhere arrive here, and the city seems to welcome them all. Although they're different from each other, very soon they begin to fit into the city, and become part of the city's unique cultural blend. Like the fresh aroma of coconut oil from the avial, the Mumbaikar has his own unique cosmopolitan flavour - a strong work ethic, a tolerance for differences, and a willingness to adjust to multi-cultural life in the city.


CanisLupus said...

Can I get some, to go ? ;) You do need a better pic, this one's out of focus. Interesting segue into the Mumbai metaphor, topical to say the least :)).

There is a (apocryphal??) story about when the Parsis first landed in Gujarat, and went to meet the king/chief of the time to ask for permission to settle in his region. The king ordered for a glass of milk, and then poured water into it until the milk was diluted and started flowing out of the glass. The Parsi man then ordered for another glass of milk and poured sugar into it and stirred it, thereby earning the king's trust and permission to stay.

Back to avial:

There is also the dry avial, and for some reason its best at traditional TamBrahm feasts, for something about cooking in volume in the brass vessels lends it a unique taste. The only time I liked to eat chenai was with dry avial.

Anonymous said...

Deepa, what a great post! Very appropriate at the time when political honchos are fanning the flames of division and hatred.
I am a newcomer to Mumbai - just moved here about 2 months ago from the US - and I feel quite comfortable in this city.

P.S. I am making avial today for dinner! LOL

Anonymous said...

Sorry, on a second look, I noticed that it was not posted by Deepa, but by Janaki. My apologies.

Anonymous said...

Just a comment on the recipe. I think you grind jeera ( cummin seeds ) along with the coconut and green chillies. We love avial at home. We eat it with rice, puri, adai, chappati, coconut rice or better still just eat it plain!!

Anonymous said...

Avial actually is the dish prepared the last day of the wedding or feast when the cooks just want to use up all the vegetables that are left over. However, these days we go specifically to the market to buy vegetables for the dish. And what is prepared is the wonderful dish Avial - compare it with Mumbai or the other wonderful cities of India where we have such a blend of cultures. Or atleast it will be till the selfish politicians arrive.

Deepa said...

After consulting various aunts and relatives and family friends, my mom has come to conclusion that the palakkad avial has no cumin. The branch of culinary tradition that we come from scorns the jeera for avial, and will use it only in mor-kootan. The final pronouncement on the jeera issue was made by naala-number-athai (our ex-neighbour at the number 4 flat), whose cooking has been the stuff of legend for over 50 years. She came to see my mom, and a great culinary discussion ensued over this. Athai was firm. Sorry, no jeera.

Unknown said...

You are absolutely right- Palakkad avial has no jeera. My husband's family is from South Kerala. My mother-in-law and many other relatives from those parts always cook avial with jeera in it. They sometimes use red chillies in the place of green chillies. There is always a discussion at home on which avial to prepare- "amma avial" -the palakkad style or the "thathi avial"- referring to the one that thathi (my mil) makes. Either way it is fun to eat!
There is another variant worth considering - avial with onions added... haven't tried it though.

CanisLupus said...

avial as a metaphor for B'bay in the post, and then (scornful ;))) positions taken on the choice of spices, another metaphor for B'bay, may be ? :)))).

Deepa said...

Ah canis, it is not scorn, it is just a purist's delight in doing things just as they should be done.

I still remember your crazy mixed up upma recipe!

Sharon said...


I love this blog -- and this food looks delicious!

I found this blog because I was searching for appropriate attire in Mumbai. The older post that talks about this is very interesting, but I'm wondering if you have any suggestions for an American woman who is coming to work in Mumbai for a week and will be traveling alone.

Thank you for such a great blog! I love all the pictures, too, and this is getting me very excited for the trip!

Alison said...

I'm writing from the USA. The avial recipe looks most intriguing, but what are drumsticks? I'm assuming some kind of vegetable?

Anu said...

Avial looks very yummy! Very creamy too :)

I have posted my version of Avial in my blog. Do visit my blog in ur free time. would be happy to receive ur comments :)