Ambica Selvam's Secret Ingredient

Ambica Selvam's Secret Ingredient

#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition, we visit Ambica Selvam in her home, where she whips up a typical Mudaliyar meal.

ambica selvam 1000 kitchens

Ambica Selvam mashes dal by the philodendrons in her sunny living room. A thin film of perspiration glistens on her face, and she glances up at the camera shyly. Her soft, husky voice belies the efficient overachiever that lies beneath. Ambica has made a career as food stylist and photographer, shifting from a profession very far from these skills. Now, at the top of her game, she works with some of the most well-regarded brands, restaurants and TV channels in the country. Her home bears evidence to her passions: flooded with sunlight, there are flowers everywhere. On the kitchen counter, produce glows like a painting. “I have this guy at the market,” she winks. Spinach stands upright like a tropical arrangement in green. This is an artist's home. The table has been laid with white jasmine and chrysanthemums.

Her home is cool despite the balmy weather outside. Lunch is hot rice with ghee, on green banana leaves that look like summer. Keerai kadayal runs a small river through the rice, an unctuous kuzhambu is tangy, there are spiced potatoes, fried yam, and buttery soft Arcot makkan pedas dusted with pistachio (which we are not ashamed to say, we both started and ended the meal with).

ambica selvam | 1000 kitchens

As we chat about food, markets and train journeys, a neighbour rings the doorbell to bring over a generous wedge of cake. Lemon, dusted with icing sugar. “We moved a lot on dad's job, and it showed us so much of the country. But also so much of our own cuisine, because mum would cook Mudaliyar food to make us feel at home, no matter where we were stationed.”

In the kitchen, tomatoes gleam alongside garlic and curling green chillies in a luminous beaten copper plate. “One of my KR Market finds.” And most intriguing of them all, 3 plump balls that smell funky and piquant, of spices and faraway aromas that are both familiar and new. “Vadagams,” she says, pinching off a small bit. Inside, it flakes apart, and we spot bits of dals, mustard seeds, garlic, and chilli. “My aunt sent them on short notice from Trichi.”

Vadagams are the Mudaliyar equivalent to chicken stock, or miso (or MSG!) — a secret back-pocket ingredient to carry with you into any kitchen in the world, with the promise that a small addition will amplify the flavours of any dish. Vadagams are hand-made in the scorching summer months, in Tamil Nadu; an activity that typically employs all the women in the family. These labour-intensive flavour bombs are made with shallots and garlic, mustard, fenugreek, curry leaves and lentils, and as is common in India, other ingredients that vary from family to family. The ingredients are ground, hand-pressed into balls, and laid out to bake in the sun. Then they are crumbled back down and laid out a second, and third, and fourth day, until the ingredients shrink, dehydrated, flavours intensified, blackened in the sun. They are finally taken in, and handed out to daughters and daughters-in-law, to be stored safely and used with the most sparing hand, to temper dals and curries, egg roasts and meats. A tiny pinch off the ball, cast into hot oil, releases heady aromas of spices and preserved ingredients, that bump up the flavours of any dish several notches. “Black gold,” we all agree.

ambica selvam | vadagam
ambica selvam | 1000 Kitchens

“Vadagams prepared during weddings, though? They are the real thing,” Ambica tells us. Before a wedding, vadagam is made by five sumangalis, and presented to the bride as she sets up the kitchen in her new home. The balls are bigger, and made by the expert hands of older women in the family, who have been doing it for years. “Truly a labour of love.” 

In a Chettinad cotton sari that belonged to her mother, carelessly draped over a crop top, Ambica fastens the lid on the cooker. She wears it with the easy grace of someone who wears saris often. “Everything I'm making today, in fact, are things my mother loved. Things she'd make for me, things I've come to love too.” She brims with the quiet confidence of someone who is cooking a favourite, familiar dish. Ghee sputters. The vadagams are going into the Keerai Kadayal: mashed greens in toor dal.

ambica selvam | 1000 Kitchens

Ambica Selvam’s Keerai Kadayal Recipe

2 medium onions
2 tomatoes
5-6 green chillies, chopped (depending on their spice levels)
1 bunch spinach, washed & chopped ( leave the stems on if they are tender)
1/2 cup toor dal
7-8 pods of garlic
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp ghee
1 tsp thalippu vengaya vadagam
2-3 dried red chillies
1/4 cup tamarind water
Salt, to taste

Pressure cook the toor dal and set aside. (To cook, add half cup toor dal to one and a half cups water, and cook on low flame for 10 minutes after the first whistle).

Heat the ghee in a pressure cooker, add in the chopped onions, tomatoes, green chillies, garlic and spinach. Sauté well.
Add about two cups of water and cook for 2 whistles on the cooker. Allow the steam to escape, drain the water and set aside. (You can use the water for rotis, soup or curries).

In a traditional mann chatti (or In the same pressure cooker), add the cooked toor dal and mash well. You can use a traditional wooden masher, but the back of a ladle will do the job just as well.

Now, in a heavy bottomed wok, heat a spoonful of ghee. Then add in the vadagam and red chillies.
Allow the vadagam to splutter.
Pour the spinach and dal mix into the wok, and stir well.
Add salt to taste.
Now add the tamarind water, and bring to a gentle simmer.
Cook for two minutes on low flame, then remove from the heat.
Serve with hot rice, ghee, karuna kizhangu varuval and appalam.

Ambica recommends buying vadagam online here.

ambica selvam | 1000 Kitchens

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; and illustration by  Patti Blau.