Sadhya means banquet in Mallayallam, the local language in the southwest Indian state of Kerala, but 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 to make the meal ‘pure veg’—but one dish you’ll find in every sadhya in every corner of the state is a thoran.
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 laying around. In India, you’ll find thorans 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.
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 (you may have to swing by a specialty grocer for the curry leaves; they don’t give them out for free here as they do in Mumbai, alas), and the process itself couldn’t be simpler, leaving plenty of space for adjustment.
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.
4 to 6
canola, vegetable, or coconut oil
black mustard seeds
Indian green chilies, slit lengthwise
whole curry leaves
chopped green beans (aim for 1/4-inch pieces)
shredded coconut (fresh shredded coconut is ideal, but frozen will work also; desiccated coconut is your last choice—and under no circumstances should the coconut be sweetened)
Heat the oil over medium heat in a wok, allowing it to pool at the bottom. Once the oil is hot but not smoking, add mustard seeds and cumin seeds. As they begin to sizzle, add the chilies, and once the seeds have begun spluttering, add curry leaves. These will spit like crazy, so you may want to take a step back. When the curry leaves are crisp, stir in the turmeric. This process is called 'tempering' the oil.
Add shallots, stirring constantly until they begin to caramelize (you want these to get nice and sweet but not burn). Once they're caramelized, throw in the beans and toss them to coat in the tempered oil. Cook time will depend on how done you want the beans, but continue tossing them as they become glossy and bright green.
As the beans near completion, stir in the coconut to distribute evenly, then sprinkle in salt, pepper, and, if you like, a touch of sugar to bring out the sweetness in the coconut. Finally, stir in the cilantro and remove the thoran from the heat. Serve at whatever temperature you like. It's good hot, but, as part of a mixed thali-type meal, a thoran will often be served at room temperature. It's good that way, too.
You can make a thoran in any number of variations. It's great with shredded cabbage, shredded beets, or chopped purple amaranth leaves. Kohlrabi is delicious, as well, cut into 1/4" cubes (to use Kolhrabi you'll need to splash in 1/4 cup of water in step two and cover to cook until the Kohlrabi is tender, stirring frequently to keep it from burning).
For a completely different flavor profile, try using karela (Indian bitter gourd, which is very bitter, indeed). Halve it, scoop out the seeds and pith, slice it into 1/4-inch thick crescent moon pieces, soak them in salt water for 20 minutes, then rinse and squeeze them out before cooking them in the same way as the green beans. Traditional Indian vegetables like unripe jackfruit and drumstick leaves—recently on the American health scene as 'super foods'—are also common vegetables used to make a thoran.