Photography by Chip Chockley
I’ve checked real estate listings for houses on either side of the one owned by Pavithra Elangovan and it’s no use: They’re not for sale. I looked for this information after sharing brunch with Pavithra; her husband, Elangovan Rajamohan; son, Aadavan; and photographer Chip Chockley. Over one of the most sophisticated and beautiful meals I’ve ever eaten, Pavithra explained how her love of cooking and baking led her to create gorgeous social media feeds. My wheels started turning when Pavithra mentioned that she sometimes shares excess food from these projects among friends and neighbors.
Pavithra has been interested in cooking since her childhood in Tamil Nadu, in the south of India.
“I grew up in a foodie family and watched my mom do her magic in the kitchen. I used to help her a lot. When my parents traveled to festivals, I was in charge of feeding my younger brother. Then I would experiment in the kitchen on my own,” she says.
Where my first kitchen forays consisted of Rice Krispies treats and boxed macaroni and cheese, Pavithra’s were fragrant curries and rice. In the decades since, she has honed techniques of deep-frying, fermenting and tempering (finishing dishes with spices cooked briefly in hot oil) to expand her repertoire of dishes. South Indian cuisine builds on the essential foundations of lentils, rice, vegetables, ghee, breads and an entire catalog of spices to create rich and complex flavors.
Today Pavithra is cooking dosa to accompany lentil and vegetable dishes. Dosa is to South Indian cooking what the tortilla is to Mexican food: ubiquitous and paired with almost everything else. One batch of batter stored in the fridge can yield a week’s worth of dosas. Before my visit, Pavithra combined ground idli rice, black gram (a lentil) and water, mixing literally by hand.
“The heat from the body activates the fermentation,” Pavithra explains.
After 12 hours on the countertop, the dosa batter is bubbly and ready to cook. Pavithra oils a shallow cast iron pan and ladles the foamy batter onto the hot surface. She swirls a spiral pattern out from the center, leaving thinner places to develop a crispy texture and the thicker part of the swirl a little bit more chewiness. Then she covers the pancake with a lid for a couple of minutes. Last, Pavithra sprinkles a few drops of homemade ghee onto the dosa.
Pavithra’s movements are fluid, like a dancer’s, her black-sequined dupatta catching circles of light.
When she removes a lid, I lean in expectantly to see what culinary surprise awaits underneath. There is sambar, a vegetable stew; and poori, a fried bread that puffs like a jellyfish in the bubbling oil. And there is vegetable korma and potato masala. Pavithra shows us her lentil drawer (yes, an entire drawer dedicated to legumes) and her spice cupboard, meticulously arranged and scrupulously clean. This is when I make a mental note to check the Collierville housing market.
While Pavithra’s formative cooking years were spent in India, she adores French baking and Italian cooking. She also incorporates ingredients from the American South into her dishes.
“I’m a big fan of fusion cooking. To do this successfully, I believe you have to be very strong in at least one culinary tradition, which for me is Indian cooking. I make a lasagna with paneer butter masala and a vegetable sauce between the layers of noodles. Or I make pakoras (a deep-fried snack) with kale,” says Pavithra.
After we’ve spent an intense hour listening, snapping pictures and note-taking, Pavithra offers Chip and me a bowl of keseri. To make this sunshine-hued dessert, Pavithra cooked semolina with water, milk, sugar, ghee, cardamom and saffron, then topped it with roasted cashews, almonds and pistachios. The mouthfeel is slightly sticky, with individual grains joined together into pea-sized mounds of rich, buttery flavor. Amid the ethereal sweetness, crunchy nuts keep the keseri grounded to earth. Its savory complexity requires small, slow bites and perhaps closed eyes.
The magic continues with the next plate brought to the hungry writer and photographer. A stainless steel bowl of coconut chutney appears unassuming but is surprisingly “meaty” and multi-faceted. When vadas (small, savory donuts made with freshly ground Lentils (urad dhal), green chile, peppercorns, ginger and curry leaves) are dipped into the chutney, the result is a perfect mix of lightness and depth and heat. I can’t untangle all of the flavors that are married into this harmony of ingredients. I only know that I must have another bite, or maybe six.
Watching Pavithra, Elangovan and Aadavan, it’s clear that cooking is a family affair. While Pavithra does most of the cooking for the home and for her social media feeds, Elangovan is consistently involved and supportive. A few words in Hindi send him scurrying to bring Pavithra’s food styling props: a dhoti (long piece of fabric used in Indian clothing) or a board of textured wood. Elangovan also helps with grocery shopping and washing up. Aadavan’s and Elangovan’s most important role, however, is that of tasters. They offer advice and appreciation of each dish Pavithra makes.
“When my family loves my cooking, I want to cook more,” says Pavithra.
Pavithra’s culinary talents extend to food styling and photography as well. Chip listens as Pavithra offers suggestions on optimal lighting and smooths the dhoti.
“The food must be the hero of the photo,” says Pavithra. “All of the props merely bring out its colors and textures.”
Chip points his camera at the stunning array of dishes, artfully placed on a hand-sewn placemat. I pop another spoonful of keseri into my mouth. This is hard work, after all.
When we all sit down to the formal meal, each stainless steel plate is covered with a banana leaf, a touch that is both beautiful and purportedly healthful. Banana leaves are the original Indian plate, and still used at weddings and festivals. Tradition holds that some of its nutrition seeps into hot food that rests on it, similar to the transfer of minerals from a cast iron pan. I feel honored to receive such a plate, lovely and fragrant, full of the wonders of South Indian cooking.
Fortunately for Memphis, Pavithra intends to share her food more broadly this year via a cookbook, hands-on classes and a pop-up restaurant. Her biggest dreams are a coffee shop or her own restaurant. Whenever this happens, I’ll be standing in line for dishes from Pavithra’s kitchen. Judging from the way he mopped up every bit of his third helping of coconut chutney, Chip will be too. See you there.
Pavithra’s Instagram, Facebook and Blog.
Where Pavithra buys harder-to-find ingredients:
Balaji Super Market, 3810 Hacks Cross Road #104, Memphis, TN 38125
Sam’s Indian Grocery, 305 New Byhalia Road #103, Collierville, TN 38017
For the novice Indian cook, Pavithra recommends building a repertoire starting with rice and dal. These simple dishes, when done properly and drizzled with ghee, are standard comfort fare appropriate for any meal. Next, one should experiment with and understand the aromatics prevalent in Indian cuisine: saffron, turmeric, chiles, mustard seed, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, to name a few. From these foundations, more complex dishes can be built. See “Dosa Express” for Pavithra’s favorite local sources for Indian ingredients.
Ingredients for chutney:
– ½ cup grated fresh coconut (if using frozen coconut, thaw completely)
– 2 tablespoons fried gram dal (roasted chickpeas available from Indian grocery stores)
– 2 Thai green chiles
– ⅛ teaspoon asafoetida (dried spice available in Indian grocery stores)
– Salt, as needed
– Water, as needed
Ingredients for tempering:
– 1 teaspoon oil (preferably coconut or peanut)
– ¾ teaspoon mustard seeds
– 1 teaspoon urad dal (husked black lentils)
– 1 sprig curry leaves
Method for chutney:
Place coconut, green chilli, fried gram dal, asafoetida, salt and a little water in a blender. Blend until smooth or to desired consistency. The chutney consistency should be like pesto, so add water accordingly.
Method for tempering:
Heat oil in a small pan or a tadka (a tiny pan used for tempering spices). Add mustard seeds and let them pop. When they have stopped popping (less than 30 seconds) add urad dal and curry leaves. The dal will change to a golden brown color at this time. Remove from heat and add tempered ingredients immediately to chutney.
1. Always use grated fresh coconut. If not available, use frozen coconut and completely thaw before making chutney. Do not use desiccated dry coconut.
2. Tempering is optional, but it gives a smoky, nutty aroma and lovely texture to the chutney.
– 4 cups idli rice (parboiled rice)
– 1 cup urad dal
– ½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
– Water, as needed
– 1 tablespoon sea salt (or as needed)
1. Wash and soak the rice overnight. Soak urad dal and fenugreek together (but separate from the rice) for two to three hours. Drain.
2. Using a Vitamix or other blender, grind urad dal and fenugreek to a smooth paste, adding a little water at regular intervals as needed. The batter will be light and foamy, like a soft meringue. Place urad dal batter in a large container.
3. Drain the rice. Grind the rice until it is fine-coarse consistency. Add water as needed but not so much that the batter thins out.
4. Add rice and salt to the urad dal batter. Mix well with hands. Cover tightly and keep in a warm place for a minimum of 12 hours. After this rest, the batter will be fermented and raised, nearly doubled in quantity.
5. Stir the batter with the ladle. The consistency should be like pancake batter. Add water if needed.
6. Heat a cast iron or any non-stick pan over medium heat. Pour two ladles full of batter onto the hot pan and spread the batter evenly.
7. Lightly drizzle oil over the dosa and cook until golden color. When it is golden brown on one side, flip the dosa and let it cook for about two minutes.
8. Brush with ghee or butter.
1. The pan must be preheated for the dosa to cook properly. Medium heat will yield a lovely brown color and nice, crispy dosas.
2. Serve hot with coconut chutney.
Heidi Rupke spends her days tending chickens and children, and defending her garden against squirrels. Her current food obsession is making the perfect pavlova.
Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais and his wife and kids.