With the flavor intensity of sun-dried tomatoes, reinforced with rich sesame oil and the bright pungency of Tamil spices, this is currently my favorite thing on Earth! On roast veggies. Mixed into rice or chick peas. On a hot dog (maybe; I haven’t tried it). With cornbread. Like ketchup on eggs. Mixed into yogurt for a spicy-yet-cooling sauce. Or as the base (i.e. what you spread under the cheese) for an apocalyptically flavorful pizza. (Use cheddar instead of Italian cheeses).
This recipe is adapted from the kitchen of Mrs. Revathy Ramani in Chennai, who made it clear to me that she makes it differently every time. Some versions use tamarind to make the relish tart; also so it keeps longer. I prefer my thokku without. Like basil pesto, thokku is a great way to preserve summer’s bounty; it’s a treat to discover that last, lost jar at the back of your freezer in January.
Yields About 1.5 Pints after Reducing
|6 Tbsp sesame oil (not toasted). May use some or all black sesame oil for earthier flavor||1 tsp turmeric powder|
|4 tsp mustard seeds||Red chili powder to taste (about 2 tsp)*|
|1 fat pinch hing, aka asafoetida||2 tsp fenugreek powder|
|24 fresh curry leaves||2 tsp cumin powder|
|3 lb tomatoes, chopped, peel on||Salt to taste — but a lot
|Optional (to add tartness): tamarind paste or pomegranate molasses
||Optional (but not authentic): berbere spice mix, brewer’s yeast
First, choose the right vessel. Pick the biggest, heaviest bottom pot you have. If your vessel is tall and narrow, it will take a lot longer to reduce. You’re going to want as much surface area as you can get.
Heat half the sesame oil over a medium flame. Add the mustard seeds. When the seeds begin to sputter, add the hing, and the curry leaves. When the curry leaves begin to crisp slightly, dump in the tomatoes. Bring to boil, add the cumin, turmeric, salt and red chili powder. *(You can use cayenne for a real kick, or Kashmiri red chili powder for a gentler warmth). Heat, and simmer, stirring every 15-30 minutes until the liquid evaporates and an oil sheen appears on top. Depending on how ripe and juicy your tomatoes were, and the surface area of your cookpot, this may run 2-4 hours.
Add the fenugreek and the rest of the oil. Stir a few times, and cook a few more minutes. Test for salt. If your tomatoes were super-ripe and sweet, or if you prefer a tangier sauce, add some tamarind paste now.
Now is also when you’d want to add your optional spices. I do really like the idea of adding Brewer’s Yeast. It further deepens the savoriness of the thokku, and adds B-vitamins. Berbere spice powder punches up the heat (and flavor), and adds a North African twist.
Now add salt. And then add some more. This is a condiment, so you can add a lot. Kala namak, or Himalayan black salt, is especially authentic, and adds its own pungent flavor and aroma. Use it sparingly
Store in sterile glass container. Use a clean spoon each time, and it can keep for up to two weeks in the fridge. Or forever in the freezer.