Geeta Rajagopal Cooks Ukkarai

Geeta Rajagopal Cooks Ukkarai

#1000Kitchens is a series that goes into kitchens all over the country, documenting heirloom recipes that tell a story. In this edition, Geeta Rajagopal cooks a traditional ukkarai from South Arcot.

Geeta Rajagopal's home smells like fresh coffee grounds. The quiet sounds of kitchen clatter hum in the background, as three generations of women potter about the house. Geeta is wearing a blue jamdani sari that belongs to her daughter Cauvery, and little Maithili, her granddaughter, is running circles around her Paati. “Mythili put on some pants, you can’t run around like that.”

Geeta is from the South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu, but lives between Mumbai and Singapore with her two daughters and their children. When we first meet at her home during Vishu, she welcomes us with mango pacchadi, spooning a mouthful to each of us in turn. Made with raw mango, jaggery and neem flower, the dish is a poetic greeting for the new year, wishing for you the flavours it embodies: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, all at once: May your new year be as rich and varied as this dish.

Today we watch as she measures dal, and sets jaggery to boil, to cook a traditional Ukkarai from South Arcot. It is a dish she hasn't cooked in 20 years.

1000Kitchens Arkot recipe
1000Kitchens Arkot recipe

South Arcot, a former district in the state of Tamil Nadu, includes the towns of Thanjavur, Chidambaram, and Kumbakonam. Historically a centre of Jainism, traditional Iyengar cuisine from South Arcot bears evidence of their influence in the absence of onion and garlic. A rich and diverse cuisine, famous for jackfruit and cashew, using gram and lentil, coconut and poppy seeds, and spices like pepper and cloves, most family recipes are still handed down orally. The Ukkarai is a sweet dish cooked during Diwali and other celebratory days, made with a handful of ingredients – toor dal, jaggery, cardamom and cashew nut.

Geeta rummages through her kitchen cabinet, looking for a funnel to pour out a packet of gingelly oil. She shakes her head. "Every time I go to Singapore I buy a funnel, one in each size! But I never know where they disappear. Like those small screw-drivers; always missing." She pulls out a Muji double-strainer to separate sediments in the jaggery. Then she sighs with a delicious South Indian exclamation, "I love, pah! All the Muji stuff. It’s expensive but it’ll last forever. Unlike Ikea," she says, leaving no room for debate.

1000Kitchens Arkot recipe
1000Kitchens Arkot recipe
1000Kitchens Arkot recipe

"This recipe was passed from my grandmother to my mother, and then to me. You can use mung or chana dal, of course. But I use toor dal, because thats the way my mother made it." Geeta learned to cook by that wonderful old method of osmosis; simply hanging about the kitchen, watching her mum and grandmother cook, keenly absorbing everything. "We weren't allowed into the kitchen in my grandmother's house. Just standing by, once in way, I picked it up,” she says with an easy shrug. Perhaps this is a lost art, we remark. We hung out in the kitchen a lot, but picked up close to nothing. She laughs, “Maybe it'll come to you later.”

As she roasts cashews in the hot wok, a gentle clanging echoes through the house. "Use just a little ghee when you roast, so it browns evenly " she instructs. "And no non-stick. It changes the chemical composition of food.”

Geeta shops carefully for her girls. She goes to the organic store in Chennai to buy ragi for the baby, and dark palm jaggery for the home. "All that soda used to bleach jaggery will give you a throat ache." She buys banana flower from the farmers market, to make vazhaipoo vadai and kashayams for her daughter to drink before bed. "Don't ask me what all I've eaten in life,” she smiles. “Such a variety! And now I'm desperate for a rice-and-rasam. But life is so busy, I barely have time."

She turns off the flame and reaches into the wok for a taste. Then, triumphantly: “I managed it, ya. After 20 years!" Satisfied, she adds, “You know, it is always there inside; you never really forget."

1000Kitchens Arkot recipe
1000Kitchens Arkot recipe

(Serves 4)

3/4 cup toor dal (soaked for 2 hour, and pulse to a rough grind in the mixer )
3/4 cup jaggery (melt in a spoon of water and double strain for any impurities)
2 tbsp of ghee
4 tbsp sesame oil
3 cardamom pods, powdered
Handful of cashew, roasted in spoon of ghee till brown

Pre-soak the dal in water for two hours. Then do a quick blitz in the mixer, to get a coarse grind.
In a heavy bottomed wok, heat the ghee and sesame oil together.
Add in the dal and stir continuously until it changes colour.
Now add the jaggery. The mixture will be a loose, fluffy mix as it combines.
Turn off the flame, and add the cardamom powder and mix again.
Stud the mix with roasted cashew and serve warm.

Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen; photographs by Aysha Tanya; and illustration by Nandini Moitra.