Poriyal: South Indian Coconut Stir Fry
Poriyal, also known as thoran, is a South Indian coconut stir fry made with green beans or other veggies. It is one of my favourite food memories from our trips to beautiful Kerala, hubby Adarsh’s motherland. I can remember my first bite – sitting on a house boat on the beautiful backwaters of Alleppey, eating off of a banana leaf – I seriously didn’t know vegetables could taste that good. It suddenly made sense to me why so many Indians are vegetarian.
I’ve since had poriyal made with cabbage (DELICIOUS), carrots, okra, beets, bitter gourd (whose fairly intense bitterness I’m on the fence about), etc. This one is made with green beans, which is one of my favourites.
The flavour is built on mustard seeds, curry leaves, dried chilis and urad dal fried in coconut oil (and lots of it, typically – my recipe is probably less generous). Finely chopped vegetables are given a quick sauté, and then coconut is stirred in (freshly grated, in a perfect world, but unsweetened desiccated coconut does the trick!). The resulting flavour combination is nutty and sweet and spicy and just supremely addictive.
Urad dal are split, husked black lentils – a main ingredient in dosas and idlis, which are South Indian staples (crepes and steamed cakes respectively, both made from a fermented rice and urad dal batter). They are pictured to the right of the coconut in the photo below. In a thoran/poriyal, they are fried, and they add a really nice, earthy nuttiness (think fried chickpeas) and bit of crunch.
They’re in such a small quantity that you can swap in finely chopped peanuts or blanched almonds to serve the same purpose – but don’t just omit them, that nutty flavour is really wonderful. I used to leave them out of South Indian recipes, which often call for just a teaspoon or two, until I noticed them in a very simple restaurant rice dish and realized how much they contribute.
There’s really no substitute for the incredible, fragrant flavour of curry leaves – if you’ve never tried them, oh boy, you should. They’re rich and kind of nutty, not herbal like bay leaves or lime leaves – they’re pretty impossible to describe and there’s really nothing like them. I buy them in bulk and freeze them each time I visit little India in Vancouver, but apparently Amazon ships them fresh – amazing!
In Kerala, poriyal is present in one form or another on any restaurant lunch thali – which is a sampling of different curries and dishes, often served on a banana leaf. It makes a great, fresh and healthy side dish to an Indian meal (which are often long-simmered and rich).
- 4 tbsp peanut or coconut oil
- 2 tsp husked split urad dal (aka husked, split mungo beans/black lentils/black gram), OR substitute finely chopped peanuts
- 2 tsp mustard seeds
- 5 curry leaves
- 1 dried red chili pepper or 1/4 tsp crushed red chili pepper
- 1 lb green beans trimmed and chopped crosswise into 1/2" pieces
- 1 tsp kosher salt or to taste
- 1/4 cup unsweetened desiccated coconut
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When shimmering hot, add urad dal, mustard seeds, curry leaves and chile pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant and dal turns a shade darker, about a minute.
- Add green beans and salt; cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until beans are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in coconut.