The heavenly aroma of freshly made dosas wafting out of the kitchen is familiar in most Malayalee homes. My earliest memories of childhood involves sitting down to eat dosa in the small dining room adjoining a tiny kitchen of our ancestral house in Palakkad. It had a tiled roof and one tile had been replaced with a glass pane through which sunlight filtered in, brightening up a small area on the wooden table.
For someone with a taste for spicy food right from childhood, it was very exciting to see the bowl of fiery red ullisammanthi or ullichammanthi ( Onion chutney) on the table, as an accompaniment to the dosa prepared by my mother. Laced with a bit of coconut oil that heightened the red colour (or sometimes green, if green chillies were used), I never ever imagined that this humble dish would remain a life long favourite. In fact, I had a granduncle whose eyes and nose used to water profusely while eating steaming idlies with this spicy and pungent accompaniment, but he actually couldn’t stop until he was full to the brim. I swear it remains as one of my fascinating childhood memories.
Ofcourse, I am talking of a period where kitchens were yet to be revolutionised by electronic gadgets. The grinding stone or the ammikkallu/aattukallu was an inevitable part of every household. Grinding the soaked rice and urad dal for the idly or dosa batter was a laborious task that the ladies of the house had to do on a daily basis. For me, it was a fascinating sight as a child.
The shallots ( button onions) for the chammanthi used to be peeled and washed. Sometimes it used to be sauteed in a bit of oil along with the whole dry or green chillies. Sometimes the sauteing part was omitted, bringing out a sharp sting to the dish. Either ways, I am sure it was living hell for the person grinding it. But teary eyes and burning hands were a small price to pay for the bowl of pure awesomeness accompanying the dosa or idly.
During my college days, a young lady named Bhama used to help out my mother in the household tasks. She was an expert at preparing ullichammanthi the traditional way by using the small grinding stone in one corner of our kitchen. But I guess as we entered the electronic mixer grinder era, like many other dishes, the ullisammanthi also took on a new avtaar. Moreover, the small button onions too got replaced by it’s bigger counterpart, the big onion, which I would say, brings in a different taste.
I must say, In the course of my travel to various places in kerala, I am yet to find the equivalent to the ullisammanthi that is generally found in Palakkad homes. The addition of tomato and garlic is something I have seen in other places.
Well…to end this lengthy monologue, I made some ullisammanthi today as an accompaniment to dosa. That is what actually brought about this whole train of thoughts. For those of you who would like to try out this ultra simple recipe, here goes.
Take a cup of peeled small onions and a few dry red chillies as per your level of tolerance. Saute them lightly in a tsp of coconut oil. Add in a few sprigs of curry leaves if you like its flavour. Cool and grind in the small mixie jar wothout any water to a smooth paste. Remove into a bowl and add some water and required salt. (Do not add salt or water while grinding as it makes the chammanthi bitter). The ullisammanthi is never ready without mixing in a few teaspoonful of fresh coconut oil. Enjoy it with piping hot dosa or idly!