Friday, 18 July 2014

Cheap thrills: Oti (or making the place smell like Christmas)

Once I started to get excited about celebrating Jimmy's birthday, I wanted to do it properly. And part of doing it properly is having oti, an Indian ginger and chilli drink that my Dad makes for Christmas and other family celebrations. Oti is served cold but it packs a punch, but what really makes it special is what it does to my parents house on the evening it is brewed...

Ginger, cinnamon, lemon, cloves, and caramel notes fill the house, which already smells wonderfully of fresh pine and baking gingerbread... This is what Christmas smells like.

I think it was the warm night and fireflies that we saw on the 4th of July that made me think of oti.

My family's recipe comes from a cookbook* that was written in the 60s or 70s, by a group of women associated with the Vellore Christian Medical College**, Tamil Nadu, India. Some of the recipes are Anglicized, while others are more traditional, and with a few (basic) Indian spices, most of them can be prepared in any kitchen, anywhere in the world. And as the College had staff (and family) from places as far flung as the UK and Australia, I thought*** the intention of the authors of the book was just that - it would allow people to recreate the tastes of Vellore (and South India) in their kitchens.

My parents came into possession of a copy of this book because my Grandad taught at the Medical College as a professor of medicine from the mid 1950s to sometime in the 1970s, and he and my Granny brought up their 4 children, including my Mum, in Vellore. The children were sent to boarding school in Melbourne, Australia, once they were close to starting high school, but they came away from Vellore with a fondness for the people, the culture, and the food, and they have passed this deep appreciation onto their spouses and children.

I suspect that the book and subsequent editions are no longer in print, and if they are, you'd have to be at the College to know where to go to buy a copy. I also suspect that most families in India have their own recipes for oti. The following is my family's variation on the one that was published all those years ago in Vellore, although I think my Dad adds 4 cardamom pods to the dry frying pan. Play around with the amounts of chilli, ginger, and caramelisation of the sugar, until you get something that suits your tastes.

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 6 cloves
  • 2.5 full length cinnamon sticks
  • 3-6 red chillies, dry or fresh
  • 2.5 litres water
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 9 cm fresh ginger, sliced or grated
  • 1 lemon, finely sliced

Dry fry the cloves, cinnamon sticks, and chillies (I used 3 fresh chillies, which provided a nice level of heat while still being enjoyable), until their scent fills the kitchen. 

In a large pot**** caramelise the 1/2 cup of sugar with a few drops of water. The depth of colour here will determine how dark the oti is, but be careful not to go too dark because the last thing you want is to burn the sugar. Even slightly burnt sugar will affect the final taste of the oti. 

Once the sugar is caramelised and close to the colour you want it, carefully add the water, followed by the rest of the sugar, ginger, and dry fried ingredients. Boil the mix, uncovered, for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the sliced lemon. Leave overnight to cool, covered. Strain, bottle, refrigerate, and enjoy in small glasses! 

This recipe makes about 2 litres of oti, which should last about 2 weeks in the fridge. Unless you drink it all in the first week... just like we did. Before I managed to take a photo of the finished drink. Looks like I'll just have to make some more...

My Dad's oti, in progress, Dec 2012

*The book in the photo is a copy of the original because my parents copy was falling to pieces and we, the children, were moving out of home and needed our own copies.
**Mum, don't go to the website, it'll make you homesick for Vellore (I recognise some of the buildings from photos you've shown me, and that old video of Grandad).
***My Dad has informed me, see the comments, that the book came from a dinner in Melbourne, hosted by the Friends of Vellore Association, for former members of staff at the Medical College, but see the comments for more details.
****If your pot is dark, like mine, do this step in something that allows you to see the colour of the sugar as it caramelises, and then carefully but quickly add it to the 2.5 litres of water before it goes beyond the colour you want.


  1. Actually Kamala, the recipe books were from the menu of the fundraising dinner (in Melbourne) in Australia by the Friends of Vellore Association. These dinners were held each year in cities in each home country by former members of staff from the college who volunteered from many countries around the world. the recipe book we have is from a Melbourne dinner. I'm not sure if the same was done in other cities in other countries, but possibly.
    Sorry to not quite give you the whole story.

    1. Thanks Dad! I probably should have called up just to make sure I had the story behind the book straight... next time :) Now, was I right about the cardamom pods?