Why Do Malayalis Love Avial So Much?
Image Credit: Avial | Image Credit: Pixabay.com

The avial is a vegetarian preparation that is indispensable to Malabar cuisine. The aromatic dish is a perennial favorite among the state's residents, typically served alongside boiled rice and appam.

The dish is made using a base of vegetables that is flavored with grated coconut and spices. There are several stories about the preparation's origins; however, Bhima, the legendary Pandava warrior, is most frequently credited with creating the dish during his exile. Bhima, then known as Ballava, worked as a cook in Matsya's royal kitchens. Ballava had absolutely no experience with cooking and thereby resorted to making a boiled vegetable medley for his first day on the job. This tale is seconded by another that is just as popular and is also set in the royal kitchens. This story sees Ballava reporting directly to the king, Virata, on an occasion where he had to entertain a few unexpected guests while the kitchens were busy preparing the day's meals. Ballava was given the task of preparing meals for the guests, which forced him to improvise with whatever ingredients were available at the time.

There are numerous other tales that revolve around Ballava, including one that recounts how he crashed his own funeral party after being presumed dead, following an erroneous account that stated he was poisoned and drowned by the Kauravas. The funeral feast was said to have been put off following the warrior’s return; this, however, did not sit well with the gourmand, who would resort to making himself a meal with whatever was available, thereby inventing the avial.

Despite the popularity of these tales of yore, the state’s many food historians state that these stories are inaccurate, since the erstwhile kingdom of Matsya was located in the state of Rajasthan, where there is no historical record pertaining to the dish or an equivalent preparation.

According to these authorities, the dish was created in the royal kitchens of Travancore to accommodate a large number of unexpected guests at a royal feast. The cooks were said to have made use of every part of the vegetables that went into the preparation, including scraps like the peel, in a manner similar to that of today.

The dish's popularity in the state today can be attributed to the recipe's adaptability, which allows it to be made all year. The dish may feature anywhere from 5 to 13 seasonal vegetables, served in a tangy coconut-based sauce. The traditional method of preparing avial involves cooking it over an open fire in a manchatti (clay pot), a practice that is still prevalent to this day. The recipes for the dish across the state are almost identical, with the only real difference being the relative amounts of the individual ingredients used for the preparation. The mise en place for the dish starts with chopping the vegetables into batons and preparing the various spices and condiments that are to be added throughout the cooking process. The first step in the dish’s preparation is parboiling the vegetables; at least 1 kg of assorted vegetables are added to the manchatti along with the required amount of water, coconut oil, salt, and turmeric powder. The mixture is tossed rather than stirred so as not to break the batons. A paste made with several spices and condiments is prepared while the vegetables cook; this mixture includes an assortment of endemic ingredients, namely: grated coconut, turmeric powder, jeera, garlic, shallots, green chilies, and curry leaves. This paste is called "arappu," characterized by a coarse texture and aromatic smell. The paste may be made in a rice grinder or a blender, with care taken so as to maintain a coarse texture. The arappu is added to the vegetable medley once it has cooked through, after which the mixture is subject to a second cooking in order to get rid of the pungency, or "bite," that is characteristic of the raw paste. The mixture is tossed throughout the cooking process so as to evenly coat the mixture with the paste. A souring agent is added at this stage; most communities use fresh curd for the task, but it is not uncommon to see raw mango or tomato used instead. The mixture is then topped with a splash of coconut oil and curry leaves to garnish, after which it is cooked for a further three minutes with the lid on to finish.

The avial is unique in that it is consumed by every community in the state, regardless of caste or religion. The dish is a staple of state celebrations like Onam and Vishu, where it is served with boiled rice on banana leaves as part of elaborate multi-course menus. The dish is also a popular vegetable preparation that is enjoyed as an accompaniment for lunch. On non-holiday days, there are fewer vegetables and condiments available, which are usually cooked in regular steel or nonstick cooking utensils.