This Dish Might be Your Gateway to Cooking Indian Food

August 12, 2016

A lot of people seem to approach Indian cooking with some degree of trepidation: The ingredient lists are often long, the cooking times even longer, and the desired end results opaque, the dense layers of spices making it difficult to determine what’s missing and how to correct for it. Preparing a thoran is a good antidote to those fears. The flavors are bright and transparent, the ingredient list short and, for the most part, readily available, and the process itself couldn’t be simpler, leaving plenty of space for adjustment.

Photo by James Ransom

In all likelihood you’ll make this once and never need the recipe again. Like so much of the best cooking in India, a thoran is endlessly variable, the product of a particular home, a particular kitchen, a particular set of hands.

Sadhya means banquet in Malayalam, the local language in the southwest Indian state of Kerala, but as often as not it’s used to refer to a specific type of meal served on a banana leaf for special occasions. There are variations in what’s served in a sadhya according to the location and religion of the community—in northern Kerala, the sadhya might include non-vegetarian dishes, where others eschew even the use of “passion-inducing” alliums, but one dish you’ll find in every sadhya in every corner of the state is a thoran.

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Essentially a stir-fried vegetable dish simply seasoned with curry leaf, mustard seed, chili, and coconut (some cooks will include cumin seed, turmeric, and garlic or shallots, as well), a thoran can be made with virtually any vegetable you have lying around. In India, you’ll find them prepared with indigenous vegetables like purple amaranth, bitter gourd, or long beans, as well as vegetables like cabbage, kohlrabi, beets, or string beans, introduced to the continent over centuries of trade. For the four-plus years I spent living in Mumbai, I ate a thoran of one kind or another several times each week.

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