Friday, November 13, 2015

SPICES 101: Post 2: Vadouvan, Vadagam, Vadakam, Vadavam, by any name is still a spice blend!

Do you know of any culinary connection between Tamil cooking and French? 

Seems rather unlikely, doesn’t it? I discovered the intersection of the two cultures in the story of colonialism in India and one French sounding word -- vadouvan. This spice blend has been a trendy ingredient in the Western world of haute cuisine for the last few years, with gastronomic celebrities adding it to everything from chicken to stews and from grains to salads. However, both the spice and the word originated in Southern India, as did many other popular spices and the infamous spice blend called curry powder. Vadouvan is often referred to as French curry powder or in the French language as “qu-ree.” 

The French, on a smaller scale than the English, had colonial territories on the Indian subcontinent and administered them for over three centuries under the auspices of the French East India Company. Arriving in India in the mid-seventeenth century, they established factories as far west as Surat and as far south as Masulipatnam. These were taken over by the British less than a century later. There was only one territory on the Indian subcontinent that the French held onto for a considerable period of time. This was Pondicherry in eastern Tamil Nadu, which they acquired in 1673 and occupied till the middle of the twentieth century.

And the Pondicherry region was the birthplace of vadouvan. Known in Tamil as vadakam, vadagam or vadavam, this unique blend was made annually during the hot, dry summer. Vadakam consists of whole mustard seed, cumin seed, crushed fenugreek seed and udad dal (split black gram lentils) to which garlic, onion, salt, and sometimes curry leaves, were added. What was really unusual was that unlike spice blends in other parts of India, this was made of dehydrated ingredients and shaped into a ball for easy storage and distribution amongst family members. The ball was an easy, quick way of adding flavor to dishes when garlic and onions were not always easily on hand. 

To use, a ball of the spice was broken into the desired portion, added to hot oil to allow the mustard seed to pop and then used as a base for other ingredients like chicken or vegetables. 

The French version, vadouvan, varies somewhat. Rather than sun drying the ingredients, they are dehydrated in a hot oven. The recipe diverges from its pungent, savory roots with the addition of chili powder, cardamom, cloves, fennel seed and nutmeg. Lastly, the blend is not made into balls but left as a powder. And that is how I first discovered it at a farmers’ market in Versailles, just outside Paris.

Here is a recipe for the traditional Tamilian version. Add it to your favorite ingredients to give them a new burst of flavor. 

Vadouvan Spice

Urad dal (split black gram lentils), 175 grams
Fenugreek seeds, 1 teaspoon
Onion, 0.75 kg
Garlic, 125 grams
Bengal gram, 1/2 tablespoons
Mustard seeds, 125 grams
Cumin seeds, 1/2 tablespoons
Turmeric, 1 teaspoons
Salt, 125 grams
Edible castor oil as needed

Rinse 25 grams udad dal well. Soak it and the fenugreek seeds in water for 60 minutes. Then grind them into a coarse paste. Set aside.

Peel the onion and garlic. Crush them coarsely in a mortar and pestle or pulse in a food processor to break them into pieces. Do not crush them so that they release their juices. 

Place the onions and garlic in a large mixing bowl or platter. Add the remaining udad dal, Bengal gram, mustard seed and cumin seed and mix well. Stir in the ground dal paste, turmeric and salt. 

Rest the mixture covered for one day. On the second day, uncover and rest it in the sunlight. On day three, stir the mixture well and shape it into balls, using castor oil to bind them. This oil acts as a preservative so the vadakam lasts for a year. 

Dry the balls in bright sunlight for ten days till completely dehydrated. Alternatively, use a warm oven to slowly dry out (but NOT bake) the balls (200 degrees Fahrenheit for 4-5 hours). You can also dry out the powder in an oven, at the above temperature, stirring it  occasionally so it drys evenly. Cool and store the powder or balls in an airtight jar. 

Chicken, Vegetables Or Dal with Vadouvan Spice

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 kg chicken, cut into serving sized pieces OR 1/4 kg vegetables (carrots, peas, potatoes, beans, etc.) OR 1 cup too dal, cooked
1/3 ball or 1.5 tablespoons vadouvan or vadakam
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
lime juice
salt to taste
cilantro leaves for garnish

Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the vadouvan and let the mustard seeds pop. Stir the ball to break it into small pieces. Add a touch of red chili powder, if you like. Sauté well for 1-3 minutes. 

Add the chicken, vegetables or dal to the pan. Stir to mix with the spices and cook till tender, adding water if needed. Mix in lime juice if needed and add salt to taste. 

Serve hot garnished with cilantro.

Try the recipe and tell me how it turns out. You can reach me at