Cheera-Chemmeen-Paruppu Thoran | Amaranth-Shrimp-Lentil Thoran
Cooked bitter greens are among my favourite thing in the world to eat. And although almost every culture seems to have their version of this most elemental genre of vegetable dish (whether it be spinach, kale, collards, dandelion greens), and the recipes can sound so similar on the page, the little differences between the recipes—whether in the amount of cooking liquid, the cooking time, a splash of acid added at the end, or a ham hock thrown into the mix at the beginning of cooking—work a special kind of magic in making each of them feel completely unique.
Though amaranth greens are fairly widely used in India, I always particularly associate them with the food of Kerala. Not because they’re necessarily an intrinsic part of the cuisine, but because my mom would always take the giant bundles of homegrown red amaranth we’d invariably get from our neighbor’s overproducing kitchen garden and turn them into this thoran. And though she abhors and studiously avoids dried fish of any kind, I love the addition of little dried shrimp to this dish, which adds a nutty, salty depth to this mad tangle of greens, run through with the bleeding red of the amaranth stems.
This dish doesn’t need to be made with amaranth greens. The word cheera in Malayalam works much like the Kannada work soppu or the Hindi word saag—they can refer to a variety of cooking greens, and this dish works wonderfully with kale, spinach, or even beet greens. I will say that there is something very special about this dish with the slick softness of tender greens like spinach or amaranth, but if collards are all you have, just make sure to cut them quite finely (taking care in particular not to leave any of the thick stems whole) and the results will be different but very special indeed.
Serves 4 as a side dish
2 tbsp coconut oil
½ sliced onion
1 sprig curry leaves
2 tbsp dried shrimp
¼ cup cooked toor dhal
8 cups washed, trimmed, and finely chopped amaranth greens
½ cup fresh coconut
In a wok or kadhai, heat the coconut oil on high until it starts to shimmer. Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring often, till it turns a light golden brown.
Add the curry leaves and stand back: the oil will sputter as the leaves come in contact with it. Stir briefly, then add the dried shrimp and cook just till they turn golden brown and are aromatic.
Add the cooked toor dhal and stir to combine.
Add the amaranth greens and a teaspoon of salt and stir well to make sure that the spices and shrimp are well distributed throughout the greens and not lingering at the bottom of the pan, where they are liable to burn.
Add a scant ¼ cup of water to the pan, reduce the heat to medium and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Allow to cook for 5–7 minutes, or until the greens have collapsed and are tender.
Increase the heat to high and cook for a further five minutes, stirring often, till there is almost no liquid left in the pan.
Add the fresh coconut and cook for a further minute or two, until well incorporated and you can smell the aroma of the coconut toasting in the heat of the pan.
Serve warm with matta rice, kachiya moru, and, for a special treat, erachi ularthiyathu.