Avial is a gentle dish from Kerala, a thick mixture of vegetables in a slightly sour & creamy yoghurt-coconut-cumin base, seasoned with coconut oil and curry leaves. It is one of Kerala’s signature dishes. In essence, the vegetables are boiled or steamed and then dressed with the coconut-cumin-yoghurt sauce. Each family’s sauce is different from the next family’s. In our recipe today we are using cumin in the sauce. Like many Nambudiri recipes, Avial proves that a divine recipe need not be complicated, nor use a ton of spices. Unlike many Indian curries, Avial needs minimal flavouring. Each family’s sauce is different from the next family’s, and thus variations abound.
Although the sauce is usually thick, just coating the vegetables, Avial can also be made with a liquid sauce of coconut and yoghurt. It is eaten mixed with Rice or served as a side dish with Adai ( thick savoury pancakes).
Avial is considered an essential part of the Sadya, the Keralite vegetarian feast. It is commonly made with elephant yam, plantain, pumpkin, carrots, beans, Malabar cucumber, drumsticks and snake gourd. Carrots and beans are recent but delicious introduction. Bitter gourd can be included in some regions also, although it is not common. Ash gourd, cluster beans, can be used. Later additions include tomatoes, especially green tomatoes, raw cashews, colocasia, jackfruit seeds, sweet potato and potatoes. A mix of 4 – 5 vegetables is mandatory. It is generally accepted that soft vegetables like okra and eggplant, staining vegetables like beetroot and bitter vegetables like bitter gourd should not be used. Also strong flavourings should be avoided – but sometimes bitter gourd and eggplant are used in some regions.
The word “avial” is also used to denote ‘boiled’ or ‘cooked in water’ —this sense being derived from the way the dish is made. There is a lovely legend about the origins of Avial. In the 16th century, a King ordered his kitchen to provide a feast for his subjects that would last for 30 days. All went well for 29 days. On the 30th day they were almost out of oil – only a few drops left – and there was only a few bits and pieces of various vegetables left in the larder. This is the dish that he came up with. The king so loved it that he ordered it to be cooked at every feast.
Coconut defines the Avial, being the base of the sour-ish sauce that holds everything together. The sourness usually comes from yoghurt, but tamarind or green/raw mango can be used instead.
The predominant spice flavouring is cumin, usually blended with the coconut. Curry leaves and a dash of virgin coconut oil at the end provide a burst of fresh flavour. A tadka is not mandatory, unlike most other Indian dishes. Some variations will include turmeric for colour and flavour – it gives an earthy note. As other parts of India adopted Avial into their cuisines, additional flavourings were added – garlic, shallots, ginger, fennel, cinnamon and cloves, even garam masala came to be used, especially in Chettinad. Here cashew powder, roasted gram flour, poppy seed powder can be used. Also in Chettinad the base can be thinned to create Avial Kuzhambu.
Traditionally, the native black pepper was the source of heat in the dish. This was later replaced with chillies.
Some will consider Avial as a “salad” in a Western sense – cooked or raw ingredients dressed in a thick yoghurt-coconut-cumin dressing. In this sense, a range of cooked and raw vegetables can be used to create interesting salads. For example, green papaya, carrot, cucumber, capsicum, all raw, mixed with some quickly blanched green beans, mixed with the dressing.