Unlike North Indian dishes, which frequently contain onion, ginger, garlic, and garam masala, South Indian food frequently utilizes roasted lentils, mustard seeds, and dried red chilis to provide a light yet distinctive flavor. The mustard seeds are popped in hot oil to release their characteristic flavor, and the lentils are then added to impart the oil with a nutty flavor. Red chilis provide a bit of heat, and asafetida provides an earthy flavor that is reminiscent of but not quite as pungent as leeks or shallots.
I am not one for mise en place (I add things directly from their containers; who wants to dirty up a bunch of small bowls and then have to wash them all?), but with this kind of preparation, it’s kind of necessary so as to avoid burning the spices in the hot oil. My mom (and many Indian cooks) have one of these stainless steel spice containers
which allows for the quick addition of the necessary ingredients (I totally want one). But since I don’t have one (and you probably don’t, either), I recommend having the spices ready in small bowls.
South Indian Spiced Purple Cabbage
1 medium head of purple cabbage (about 3 lbs)
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 ½ teaspoons black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons urad dal
½ - ¾ teaspoon red chili flakes
2 pinches of asafetida powder
¾ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
6 curry leaves, torn into small pieces
Cut the cabbage in half and remove the core, then slice into thin strips about 1/8” thick. [This will fill a large bowl, but cabbage cooks down a lot, so you’ll end up with only about 1/3 the original volume.]
Put the oil into a large pot with a lid set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds and cover the pot. The seeds will start to pop; after about 10 seconds of popping, lower the heat to medium, add the urad dal, chili flakes, and 1 pinch of asafetida, and cover the pot. When the urad dal is golden brown – this will take less than 30 seconds – add the cabbage, remaining asafetida, salt, and curry leaves and stir very well. Cover the pot and and reduce the heat to medium-low.
Cook covered, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is tender but not mushy, about 12-14 minutes. Add more salt if necessary.
Serve warm with basmati or jasmine rice and plain yogurt.