Comfort food to me is something that enters my lips, reaches the tongue and tickles the taste buds and at each stage of its travel from the fingers to the mouth to the stomach, brings back wonderful memories of childhood and would make us feel at home.

One such dish which is loved and loved and loved by S is his mother’s Pachai millagai sambar (yellow lentils cooked with Thai green chillies and coconut milk). I have tasted it couple of times during the stay at my in-law’s place and even I am a great fan for its taste and simplicity in the cooking process.

My MIL (she prefers to address her as my friend), so my 50+ young-at-heart friend is a women of substance with bundle of energy and confidence. A lady who can whip a scrumptious meal in no time and an expert non-vegetarian cook, who with her wand creates magic with left overs too.

She lives in a cozy home with a tiny kitchen that holds her traditional cooking utensils and no fancy gadgets. Few times I have stood by her side to watch her play with the spices, talking about the foods we loved and sharing the stories behind each of her creations.

Like an obedient student, I meticulously hear and register the family recipes in my heart as we hear the spices growl, cheer, sing and sizzle in the cooking vessel.

She pointed with her eyes to grab the salt on the shelf and said, “Have you tasted brain fry?”

I turned to her and said “No aunty. Not even once!”

“Don’t worry, we shall make it for lunch tomorrow”. She offered to cook for me and then handed me a bowl of yellow lentils to wash in the running tap water. While we cooked, the men were busy watching cricket in the living room.

As she talked about S’s childhood, his likes, her parents, siblings and her faiths, she rapidly chopped the onions for the sambhar, tomatoes for the rasam and raw banana and beans for the curry in the same size in a rustic chopping board and placed it in each corner of the stainless steel mooram ( a V-shaped kitchen utensil used) for later use.

A small pressure cooker went on the stove with some water in it. She took the washed lentils from my hand and transferred it to a fresh container and added slit Thai green chilli , little salt and some more water to it. Covering the cooker, she pressed a small black whistle on top of it and kept the flame at high. She continued “I know you like soora puttu (scrambled shark), will make that for you and mutton chukka (Lamb chops) for S this Sunday?”

The whistle hissed like a steam engine and the steam splashed on her left hand every time it went up. She quickly sauteed the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, tomatoes, few garlics and homemade rasam podi in hot ghee, a divine smelling rasam was created in no time. The house smelt peppery and garlicky and spicy. By that time lentils were cooked and pressure had settled enough to open the cooker.

“Amma, pass me a glass of rasam” S yelled from the living room, his voice hardly made way to the kitchen amidst the loud advertisements that appeared in the TV. I poured the steamy rasam into small steel tumblers and served them. On a hot shallow pan, she added a generous helping of mustard seeds to the sizzling oil.

Once they sputtered and roared, came the beautiful curry leaves which she tore with her fingers and threw them into the hot mustard-perfumed oil and in succession added the dense asafoetida and little cumin seeds and let it roast. “And now” she pointed at the rice container and asked me the set the rice in the cooker.

She frantically sauteed the onions before the spices could burn and then mixed the thick, creamy yellow lentils into the pan and then added the coconut milk which she eye-balled the measurement. The sambar was ready with a quick stir after a squeeze of lemon juice and salt on top. She went back to her pantry, grabbed few spice packets to refill her jars and clean utensils to transfer her homemade meal.

Two huge pans were placed on each side of her two-burner gas-stove. Very quickly the vazhkai varuval (crispy raw banana fry) and beans poriyal (beans stir-fry) were done.

A simple home-style lunch table was set with shining traditional stainless steel plates, tumblers and water jug. The bare table was soon filled with her dishes and we sat around it. She made sure each of our plates were full with food before even serving a single morsel for herself. Her hospitality and insistence to eat tummy full made me feel at home. Of course that’s my home now.

Source: My Mother-in-law
Serves 4

2 cups – yellow lentils/ toor dhal
5 cups – water
1/2 cup – coconut milk (store bought can)
3 – serrano peppers or 2 Thai green chilli – (de-seeded and slit)
1 small red onions – sliced thin
2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp asafoetida powder
8-10 curry leaves (torn)
Juice of one large lemon
1/2 tbs cooking oil
Salt to taste


Pressure cook the lentil with green chillies/serrano peppers, salt and water for 5 whistles or cook on the stove top for 30-45 minutes, until the lentils are soft and mushy. Mash them well and set aside.

In a hot cooking pan, add oil. Once they sizzle, throw in the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves, cook for a minute. Saute the onions for approximately 2-3 minutes.

Add the yellow lentils over the cooked onions and mix in the coconut milk, cook for further 3 minutes. Switch off the flame and pour the lemon juice on top. Add salt to taste. Stir and serve with steamy rice.


This post was originally submitted to BeBetsy from Vijitha of Spices and Aroma who was previously a contributing writer.

4 Responses to A Tale of Pachai | Spices and Aroma

  1. What a lovely story!  Your writing is so wonderful, I am completely drawn in to your world and it’s a nice place to be.  Thank you! spicesnaroma

  2. Loved your narration here Vijitha. Some how MIL recipes are always scrumptious! I hail from a Gujarati culture, but love each and every aspect of South Indian food. SERIOUSLY! My mom tells me “Baccha, in your previous birth, you sure were born in a South Indian family!” Thanks much for sharing this recipe. I had a chance to check out your blog and have subscribed to in my Google reader 🙂 spicesnaroma

  3.  spicesnaroma Great story and yummy recipe! Thanks Vigitha

  4. Aubrie says:

    Great article!!! Thanks for sharing it.

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