Pitlai is a South Indian recipe using some basic vegetables and cooked in a coconut-based gravy with specific spices that have been fried in ghee. It sits close to Poritha Kuzhambu and Poritha Kootu, but the spice mix varies from these.
South India adores its rice, and so the different cuisines of the South include a huge range of gravy-like dishes that are ladled over warm rice to be mixed and enjoyed. It makes sense, right? Rasam, Sambar, Kuzhambu, Kootu etc are the most common. Pitlai sits in that group too, and some will say it is a type of Sambar and others will say it is a type of Kuzhambu. Meenakshi Ammal sits her Pitlai recipes within her Poritha Kuzhambu and Poritha Kootu section – those with a fried spice mix/ paste. The dish varies slightly from any of the above – in consistency, spices used, and the vegetables that are added – bitter gourd and eggplant are definite favourites. Like the other Poritha dishes, it is the ground paste of spices, the coconut, and the predominance of lentils, that serve to thicken the dish. A tiny amount of rice flour can help if needed.
Pitlai includes coriander and Bengal Gram in its coconut-based spice paste, and this is the difference from the Poritha Kootu and Poritha Kuzhambu pastes. As I say about South Indian dishes – change out one spice and the dish has a different name, a different way of eating, a different time of day to eat it and different vegetables to include in it. 🙂
Pitlai is made all over South India and each region will have its own interpretation of the dish. This is a recipe from the Tamil Brahmin Cuisine.
brinjal (eggplant), chow chow, drumsticks, cluster beans, sabre beans, Chennai yam, potato. Although bitter gourd (pavakkai) has become synonymous with this dish, Ammal does not mention it. If you use bitter gourd, add a tspn of jaggery with the tamarind. (Use 1 – 3 vegetable combinations)
0.75 cup red gram dal (toor dal)
a little new tamarind (or use what is available)
1 tspn salt
pinch asafoetida, mixed with a little water
1.5 tspn coriander seeds
1 tspn bengal Gram (channa dal)
0.75 tspn black gram dal (urad dal)
6 small dried red chillies, or to taste
1 Tblspn grated coconut (frozen is a good alternative to fresh)
2 tspn ghee, or as needed
0.5 tspn brown mustard seeds
0.75 tspn black gram dal (urad dal)
2 small dried red chillies
0.5 Tblspn ghee
Cook the dal until quite mushy/pastey. This will take around 30 mins unless the dal is old and drier – then it will take longer.
Fry the spice paste ingredients in a little ghee until golden, and blend to a coarse paste. Keep aside.
If eggplant, chow chow or drumsticks are being used, cut them into small pieces. If using cluster beans, cut them into pieces and then scald them for a few moments. These vegetables can be cooked in water with salt and tamarind.
If using sabre beans, Chennai yam or potato, cook them in water with salt, and add the tamarind when they are cooked.
When the vegetables are cooked, add the cooked toor dal and the prepared spice paste. Bring back to the boil.
Thicken with a little rice flour mixed with water, if necessary. Gradually add it to the simmering lentils while stirring, and allow to cook, stirring, for 30 – 60 seconds.
Fry the mustard seeds in hot ghee, allowing them to pop. Add the urad dal and fry until golden and then add the chillies until they have darkened (a few moments). Add to the lentils.
Add the asafoetida water and stir.
Garnish with curry leaves and coriander leaves.
recipe notes and alternatives
Although bitter gourd has become synonymous with this dish, Ammal does not mention it. If you use bitter gourd, add a tspn of jaggery with the tamarind.
Cooked broken dried beans can be added (raw or dried ones), or 1 tspn of channa dal can be soaked and then cooked with the vegetables.