Green Bean Thoran
The slow decline of the summer into fall always seems to trigger an epidemic of people talking about the beauty of roasting vegetables and the inimitable appeal of coaxing sweetness out of unrelenting and unprepossessing-looking root vegetables. For my part I need just one more jolt of summer before I’m ready to join the ranks, and so I’m sharing this recipe for a green bean thoran that has recently become one of my favorite things to make.
A thoran is a dish typical of the cuisine of Kerala, in the south of India. Thorans come in all sorts of shapes and flavors and are made out of the whole gamut of vegetables. They’re typically quick sautés or brief braises that prominently feature vegetables. And, importantly, as with a lot of Kerala food, they usually feature coconut as a key ingredient.
A thoran is usually served with steamed or boiled rice and a dhal or a spiced buttermilk curry. The vegetables are usually chopped quite fine, to make it easier to eat by hand. Though I do love the traditional green bean thoran, I had to fidget with the recipe a little bit to suit a recent mood for something with a hint of Kerala to accompany a platter of roast chicken that had been marinated in warm spices and coconut milk.
So, instead of cutting the beans into tiny little bits, I’ve left them whole. This makes it a little cumbersome to eat with your hands (the norm in most traditional Indian households), but it does make for a very visually striking dish, and makes it a little easier to adapt to a menu that isn’t exclusively Indian. Once you’ve tried it this way, though, I do recommend trying it with finely sliced green beans. See which way you like better. Luckily for me I love them both so I freely switch between them as the mood strikes.
Note: If you do decide to slice the green beans more finely than I have them here, then skip the step in which you parboil and blanch the beans. The thinly sliced beans will be able to cook all the way through in the sauté pan. Also, avoid the temptation to undercook the beans. I’m all for a bright, just-cooked green bean, but I find the crispness of an al dente bean out of place in this dish. You may miss the bright color of the undercooked bean, but these darker-green beans have a supple loveliness that I think more than makes up for their rather forest-green appearance.
Green Bean Thoran
Serves 5–6 as a side dish
1 lb green beans or a mix of green and yellow beans, washed well, tips and strings removed
2 tsp extra-virgin coconut oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 fresh red chilli, thinly sliced (or to taste)
1 small onion, peeled, trimmed, halved, and thinly sliced through the root
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ cup freshly grated coconut (or defrosted frozen grated coconut)
Heat a large pot of well-salted water till it begins to boil.
Add the beans to the water and cover the pot to let it come back to a boil.
Once the water has started to boil again, remove the lid and let the beans boil for 3–4 minutes, until the snap has gone out of them.
Using a large slotted spoon or spider, remove the beans from the boiling water and shock them in an ice bath to cool them down. If you don’t want to fuss with an ice bath, just run them under cold tap water until they’ve cooled down.
Drain the beans well and then pat them dry with a kitchen towel or with paper towels. Set them aside while you continue with the rest of the recipe.
In a large wok or kadhai, heat the coconut oil over high heat just until it begins to shimmer.
Add the black mustard seeds and cumin seeds to the pan and let them cook in the hot oil till the mustard begins to pop and the cumin is aromatic. Take care not to burn them.
Add the chilli to the pan, stir very briefly, just to let the chilli add some of its heat to the oil, then add the sliced onion and a large pinch of salt and continue to cook, stirring constantly, till the onions are soft and are beginning to turn a reddish-brown.
Add the turmeric powder and stir well to combine with the onions and other spices. You should smell the bitter, earthy aroma of the turmeric. Don’t cook it for too long, though—there’s very little else in the pan at this point, and you can easily scorch the spices by leaving them exposed to heat for too long.
Next add the cooked beans to the pan and stir well, still over high heat. The beans should turn glossy and get coated in the spices and hot oil. Cook for 2–3 minutes.
Finally, add the grated coconut and cook for 2–3 more minutes. The coconut should get slightly toasted and give up some of its oil and nutty flavor to the beans.
Check for salt, adding more as needed.
Tip into a platter and serve warm or at room temperature, perhaps with a lovely dish of coconut-milk-marinated roast chicken!