South Indian green beans with coconut

My South Indian friend, Thiru, is renowned for his lavish weekend brunches, when he cooks up a large variety of traditional dishes that he learnt from his mother: spongy white rice cakes known as ‘idli’, accompanied by ‘sambhar’, a spicy lentil and vegetable gravy, along with the popular rice and lentil pancakes called ‘dosa’ and a plethora of green and red chutneys, pickles and dips. He often puts vividly coloured, quickly cooked vegetable dishes on the table, too – this being one of them.

I spent a recent weekend morning watching Thiru speedily whip up all these dishes, and wrote down the recipe for green beans exactly as he dictated it. My friend tells me that it can be made from other vegetables, too, such as green cabbage, carrots, beetroot (beets), green bananas, or other varieties of green beans like runner beans. In fact, I’ve tried a version of this dish in upmarket Indian restaurants in the UK made from asparagus, which I’m going to have a go at cooking next.

If you don’t have a well-stocked Indian larder, a trip to an Indian grocer will be necessary – or at least a visit to the ‘ethnic’ section of a large supermarket. Yes, the mustard seeds need to be black, not the more commonly found yellow, and the mild red chillies could be ones labelled as ‘Kashmiri’. Lentils are often used in South Indian cooking as a spice. If you can’t find urid dal – which is a type of white lentil with a distinctively nutty, ever so slightly smoky taste – then use ordinary red lentils. They’re there to provide crunch and texture, so it doesn’t really matter which type of lentil you use.

If you can’t get hold of fresh curry leaves and fresh coconut – both of which are also available frozen in Asian grocers – it’s not really worth attempting this recipe. Well, you can reconstitute dried desiccated coconut in boiling water before use, but the dish won’t taste as it’s meant to. Asafoetida is a type of powdered resin with a strong, pungent aroma (which mellows after cooking, giving the dish a distinctive taste), so it should be used sparingly.

I was a bit hesitant about posting this recipe, as it requires so many specialist ingredients. But I don’t believe in adapting recipes to suit western kitchens – it’s patronising and, after all, speciality ingredients are widely available in most large cities if you know where to find them. (If you don’t, ask members of the particular community whose recipe you’re cooking, and they will be more than happy to advise you). Besides, I would be assuming that all my readers live in western countries, which is not the case – one of the best things about having a blog, especially a global recipe blog such as this, is that you have readers from around the world!

This dish doesn’t have a sauce or gravy, and it needs to be cooked quickly (especially steps 2 to 5) to prevent burning. Don’t be daunted though – it’s light, refreshing, nutritious, flavour-packed, and easy to cook.

Serve the green beans with plain rice, plain yoghurt, poppadams and an Indian ginger pickle. The dish won’t keep long because of the fresh coconut, so leftovers would be delicious stuffed in warmed pita breads or toasted sandwiches, or turned into half-moon shaped pasties made from ready-rolled puff pastry. Serves 4.

1 lb/ 500g fresh fine green beans
4 tablespoons corn or sunflower oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
Dried large, mild whole red chillies, to taste
1 tablespoon urid dal (or red lentils)
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
8 – 10 fresh curry leaves
¼ teaspoon asafoetida
Salt
2 oz/ 50g finely grated fresh coconut
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
A squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice (optional)

1.    Trim the green beans at both ends. Either leave them whole, cut them in half, or chop them small. If you leave them whole or halve them, steam the beans for 3 to 4 minutes until tender but still crisp. (You won’t need to follow this step if you chop them small, as South Indians do, as they will cook quickly).
2.    Heat the oil in a frying pan. When very hot but not smoking, add the mustard seeds and remove from the heat immediately. Cover the pan with a lid and let the mustard seeds pop. They should become dark grey, but must not burn.
3.    Once the mustard seeds have stopped making the popping noise, place the pan back on the heat, and immediately add the dried chillies and urid dal. Stir once or twice.
4.    When the chillies turn a couple of shades darker and the urid dal starts turning pinkish-brown, add the sesame seeds and curry leaves. Stir again.
5.    Finally, when the curry leaves become crisp and turn a shade or two darker, and the sesame seeds start turning pale brown, remove the pan from the heat, and add the asafoetida. Let everything sizzle for just a few seconds.
6.    Place the pan back on heat, immediately add the green beans and coat them evenly in the spice mixture. Add the salt, and let them cook with the lid on until the beans are tender but have still retained their bright green colour.
7.    Top the cooked beans with coconut and coriander, and stir a couple of times. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice if you wish. Remove the red chillies and curry leaves before serving – or let your guests fish them out from their own plates, as South Indians do – and eat immediately.

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