The most popular usal (उसळ) dish in Maharashtra, the state in India I hail from, is undoubtedly the classic – matkichi usal. If that name sounds unfamiliar to you, then you just need to know what matki and usal are. Matki means moth beans (pronounced ‘moath’ or ‘mote’) and usal (pronounced ‘oo-sul’ or ‘oo-sal’) is a special type of ‘curry’ in Maharashtrian cuisine that typically entails sprouting a legume and then cooking it with regional spices, coconut, and the obligatory roasted ground peanut. So matkichi usal is simply an usal of moth beans. For the uninitiated, this may look like just another curry but this genre of a dish has its own name – usal. So please let’s not call it a curry in the interest of respect for the culture of its origin!
Moth bean, also known as matki, mat bean, papillons, muths, and dew bean is a creeping annual with yellow flowers that transform into yellow-brown pods. The ‘matki’ or moth bean itself has a sweet, nutty and earthy flavour that is only amplified by sprouting. This legume is native to the arid parts of India and is now cultivated in many parts of the world including Pakistan, the US, Thailand, China, and Australia. It is widely grown in Maharashtra for its drought-tolerant properties. Inevitably, it has been a Maharashtrian farmer’s staple for generations. Not only is the moth bean well adapted to extreme drought conditions but it also helps combat soil erosion. Intercropping it with millets like sorghum can bring out the best of this pulse with minimal fertilisation. That’s probably the reason why the bhakri (millet flatbread) and usal combination appears so regularly at my farming family’s ancestral home. This crop is sown there straight after the monsoon due to its wonderful water-retentive properties.
So this matkichi usal is, in my opinion, a homage to the ancient farming practices that have sustained mankind and livestock for generations. It has served its purpose in providing nutrition to families when times were dire. The nutrients within become more digestible when the moth bean is sprouted. It then brims with protein, calcium, iron, and fibre which play a prominent role in building stronger muscles and protecting gut health.
Matkichi usal was my childhood favourite. Part of the reason I rated it so highly, even as a child growing up in a Maharashtrian household with farming roots, was its sheer simplicity. The deliberate omission of too many spices in my Mum’s usal actually made me appreciate the inherent nutty earthy tones of the legume. I would happily chomp my way through a bowlful of turmeric-infused boiled moth bean, often when I was famished. It would make a rich protein snack for me.
So my matkichi usal is an unashamedly simple rustic dish. It’s made the same way my farming ancestors did, using ingredients they produced themselves, and bringing the best of this nutritious legume and its inherent flavour to the table. Their spice rack did not groan under the weight of several dozen jars of exotic flavourings. So they kept it simple. They knew exactly how to make humble food more delicious and I would not change a thing about it. It’s easy to be seduced by the selection of ingredients available in a modern supermarket into thinking that you can improve a dish like this by adding more. Don’t fall for such temptations!
This moth bean usal aka matkichi usal or मटकीची उसळ:
- is cooked with only the essential spices and condiments that let the inherent flavour of the moth beans shine through.
- requires sprouting the legume. You can use the same sprouting technique as I shared here for horse gram.
- doesn’t involve pressure cooking.
- is vegan and gluten-free.
- is a one-pot dish that cooks in under 30 minutes.
- spicy and runny. For this reason, it goes well with misal pav and sometimes bhel.
Moth bean: As with any usal, the key ingredient is the legume. In this case, it is the moth bean. While I source moth beans from my ancestral farm, they are readily available from Indian grocers across the UK. They’re small, elongated beans with brown skin and brownish-yellow insides with a rich, nutty and earthy flavour. I always sprout them before cooking. It’s easy to do and you can find the recipe here.
Dried coconut: roasted over a flame for a few minutes to impart a smokey flavour.
Shenga danyacha koot: Roasted and ground peanut that adds an authentic touch as well a nutty flavour to the dish. How to make shenga danyacha koot? It’s here.
Kala masala: a Maharashtrian spice mix that’s very commonly seen in our kitchens. I use my Mum’s homemade kala masala. If you can’t find it, use goda masala. You can either buy it or make your own. If neither is available, you can use garam masala at a pinch.
Matkichi Usal / Moth Bean Usal / मटकीची उसळCourse: MainCuisine: Maharashtrian, IndianDifficulty: Easy
330g matki or moth beans (sprouted and rinsed)
1 litre (approx. 4 cups) hot water
50g piece of fresh or dried coconut (unchopped)
3 tbsp roasted ground peanut
7-8 garlic cloves
½ inch piece of ginger
1 tomato (chopped) (optional)
1½ tbsp Kashmiri red chilli powder
½ tsp kala masala
¼ tsp asafoetida
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp mustard seeds
6-7 curry leaves
2 tsp salt or to taste
70ml (approx. ¼ cup) sunflower oil
Fresh coriander (chopped) to garnish
- Roast the coconut, garlic and ginger over a naked flame either using a blow torch or gas hob.
- Then grind them together to a fine paste either in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder.
- Mix in the roasted ground peanut by hand.
- Season the paste with the turmeric, red chilli powder, kala masala and salt. Mix it all well.
- Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium flame and crackle the mustard seeds followed by the curry leaves. Add the asafoetida and tip in the ground masala (step 4). Lightly fry the masala over a low to medium flame for a minute.
- Stir in the rinsed sprouted moth beans followed by the chopped tomatoes.
- Add the hot water and bring to a boil over a medium flame.
- Partly cover and gently simmer for 5 to 7 minutes over a low flame.
- Adjust the seasoning with salt and more water, if needed.
- Garnish with chopped coriander and serve hot with some steamed rice, chapati or bhakri.
- While the recipe includes a special Maharashtrian spice mix called kala masala or goda masala, the dish still tastes delicious without these. You can either skip them altogether or swap with garam masala.
- Optional variations to this dish are A) You can add 1 finely chopped onion as part of the tempering step. B)You can add 1 tsp sugar or jaggery whilst the usal is simmering. C) Both fresh or dried coconut work well in this dish. You can even use desiccated coconut which can be lightly roasted on a tawa for a smokey flavour. D) You can skip the tomatoes in this dish.
- This usal is meant to be cooked with sprouted moth beans. Although it is not recommended, you can also cook it with unsprouted moth beans.
- Adjust the hot water in this usal depending on how runny or thick you like it.
- You don’t need to pressure cook the moth bean sprouts for this usal. The moth beans become so tender after sprouting that they cook easily with a gentle boil and simmer. But if you must use a pressure cooker, simply fry the masala before adding the sprouts. Add twice as much hot water as the quantity of sprouts and pressure cook until one whistle. If you want to cook this in an Instant Pot, fry the masala as usual in Sauté mode on High. Then add the sprouts followed by four times as much hot water as the quantity of the sprouts. Then pressure cook on High for 3 minutes with the vent in the sealed position.
- I always sprout more moth beans than I need for this one dish. The extra sprouted beans are never wasted in my kitchen as I often make a dry moth bean stir fry from the excess. For this recipe, I soaked 320g of dried moth beans in water for sprouting. This yielded more than enough sprouts to make two rounds of this usal.
- You can use desiccated coconut instead of fresh coconut and roast it in a dry pan before grinding.