The South Indian diet is a rice-based vegetarian one. For acaryas from other regions of India, it is a dish they discover when they work in Bangalore and Kerala. It is a beloved dish for its savory nature, complex with spices with that dash of sour. Dada Agryabuddhyananda, who was posted in South India during the 1980s, told me about how they had virtually no donations and they could only afford to make one meal per day and that was tamarind rice for lunch.
The recipe has been passed down over 1,000 years and there are thousands of variations. It is often made as part of a wedding feast. It is also made by the Hare Krishnas, copied from the Iyengar Brahmins who are followers of the living philosophical tradition of Ramanuja Sampradaya, a bhakti yogi from Tamil Nadu who lived in the 10th century. Ramanuja’s classical interpretations of the dominant Vedanta school philosophy is referred to as Vishishtadvaita because it combines Advaita (oneness of God) with Vishesha (attributes).
Tamarind is sold as a paste and is a souring agent like lime juice. It grows on beautiful trees. After harvest, the brown leather-like skin and the black seeds are removed by hand. The remaining pulp and stringy bits are sealed up in bulk and placed in storage for use throughout the year. There are no artificial ingredients or preservatives added to the tamarind. For tamarind rice, the tamarind is not cooked with other spices. Tamarind pulp is soaked in warm water and the thick juice is extracted. It is then mixed with steamed rice along with fried spices. Serve tamarind rice with yogurt.
1 walnut-sized ball of seeded tamarind pulp
½ cup hot water
3 cups water
1½ cups basmati rice, rinsed
3 small fresh green chiles
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons raw sesame seeds
3 tablespoons dried unsweetened coconut
1 tablespoon grated raw ginger
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons peanut oil or light sesame oil
2 tablespoons raw cashews or peanut halves (or combination of both)
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
8 small curry leaves
Plain yogurt and chopped fresh cilantro, for serving
Combine the ball of seeded tamarind pulp with the ½ cup hot water in a small bowl and set aside to soak for 15 minutes.
Bring to the boil the 3 cups of unsalted water in a small saucepan. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy saucepan and lightly toast the rice.
Add the boiling liquid to the rice. Stir until the water returns to a boil; then reduce the heat to a simmer, put on a tight-fitting lid, and leave undisturbed for 15 or 20 minutes or until the rice is dry and tender. Remove the rice from the heat and set aside, covered. Rice can also be made in a rice cooker.
Squeeze and strain all the thick pulp from the soaking tamarind with the aid of a sieve, discarding any veins. Keep all the liquid puree and discard the dry pulp. Wash, remove stems, and slice the green chiles.
Dry-roast the cumin seeds, black peppercorns, and sesame seeds in a small, heavy frying pan over moderately-low heat. Stir constantly for about 3 minutes until the sesame seeds become aromatic and golden, and the spices darken a few shades.
Remove the seeds and spices from the pan to a small bowl, allow them to cool, and then grind them in a small coffee grinder or blender until they are powdered. Combine them with the coconut, mix well, and place back in the small bowl.
Combine the tamarind puree, ginger, salt, and sugar and simmer the mixture over moderate heat in a small saucepan until slightly thickened (about 3 minutes). Remove from the heat. Add the ground spices, seeds, and coconut mixture into the tamarind syrup and mix well.
Heat the peanut oil in the small pan in which you roasted the spices. Place over moderate heat. When the oil is hot, add the nuts and stir-fry them until they are golden brown (about 2 minutes). Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towels. Add the sliced green chilies to the hot pan and fry for 1 minute; remove from the pan. Continue heating the remaining oil and add the mustard seeds and curry leaves. When the seeds crackle, pour the contents of the pan into the tamarind syrup and mix well.
Place the hot rice in a medium serving bowl. Sprinkle with the nuts and pour the tamarind syrup over the rice. Carefully fold into the hot cooked rice with a wide spatula. Serve immediately or cover and let the tamarind rice rest for a few hours. Serve with half a cup of plain yogurt and some chopped cilantro on top. The rice keeps well and is good to make extra to carry if you are traveling as it can stay at room temperature over 24 hours. Serves 4.