OLAN is a ridiculously simple and extremely delicious curry from my hometown of Palakkad, and of Kerala and the Konkan regions.
We use ashgourd (Safed bhopla | White pumpkin) a lot in Palakkad, by itself or mixed with other vegetables. Many of the recipes from my region are bland, with the flavour of vegetables dominating over any spices, unlike dishes associated with Asian and Indian curries.
The reason is that some dishes serve as only one of the many elements that complete a meal. When we make a stew of such blandness, it serves as an accompaniment for something much spicier. That is how we set balance on a plate. The general combination for olan is a spicy gravy dish such as sambar, or thogayal (a kind of chutney) if one is too busy to make another gravy. In my meal for the day, I served it with arachhu utta sambar, thandu keerai poriyal and rice.
The components and substitutions for olan:
The main vegetable used is any kind of pumpkin or squash. While we generally use ashgourd, a tender squash or raw papaya is good option too. The slices need to be about a square inch in size, 0.5mm thick. Many people like to use yard long beans (chowlai or payathangai), chopped one inch long, along with ashgourd. The vegetables should be cooked only till done and not mushy. They should not lose shape.
Along with ashgourd we use a little beans, that mostly serve to add flavour and heft. The beans used are cowpeas (chowlai or payaru). You can substitute cowpeas with beans from the same family such as red cowpeas or even aduki beans. These will tinge the stew pink but are equally delicious.
Olan seems to be made only in Kerala and Konkan regions. I was earlier under the impression that it solely is part of Kerala cuisine, but a friend and colleague mentioned who belongs to Konkan coast, told me it is made in a similar manner but is tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves. In our parts, we simply season the stew with a drizzle of coconut oil. I do away with that as well. In Konkani it is known as ‘val-val’.
How I prep beans for any stew:
In India we are use dried beans rather than canned versions. In this recipe I mostly use cowpeas (white or red), which I first roast lightly over low heat in a dry skillet till the beans are lightly speckled with brown. Then I soak it for about 20-30 minutes before I cook it to soft. The roasting adds smokiness to the stew. You could make without roasting but it won’t be as aromatic.
The concept of thick and thin coconut milk:
These days I often use coconut milk readily available off-the-shelf, but till a few years back I always used coconut milk, freshly extracted. The first extract would be thick and dominated with a lot of the milk. This is referred to as thick coconut milk. This tends to split and is therefore added at the finishing stages when the dish is already heated and cooked through. It should not be brought to a boil.
The second time, I would add the same amount of water, grind the gratings again and strain the milk. This would be much thinner and is called the thin or second extract. This can be used for cooking and will not split.
OLAN – ASHGOURD STEW IN COCONUT MILK
A recipe from Kerala, Palakkad and Konkan regions of India
Yield: A little over half litre. Serves 3.
Ashgourd, prepped as mentioned above – 4 cups
Cowpeas, roasted and cooked – 1/2 cup (after cooking)
Coconut milk, thick – 1 cup
Coconut milk, thin – 1 cup
Curry leaves – 1 sprig (5-6)
Green chillies, slit lengthwise – 2
Salt to taste
Coconut oil (optional) – 1/2 tsp to finish the dish
Cook ashgourd in thin coconut milk with salt, curry leaves and green chillies till just done, about 10 minutes on medium heat.
Add cooked beans and thick coconut milk. Cook on very low flame, stirring all the while, till heated through. Do not cook on medium or high heat or leave it unattended as coconut milk tends to split.
Taste and adjust salt.
Drizzle a little coconut oil on top for aroma, if using.
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