Pesto by any other name…

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Pesto, from the Italian Pesta meaning to pound, is a sauce made by pounding or crushing pine nuts, basil, garlic, olive oil, pecorino, and some salt.

The Tamil word ‘Tho-hai-yal’, also meaning ‘to crush or macerate’, is also a sauce made by grinding together a vegetable, some roast lentils in oil, salt, and Chile peppers.  So, in other words, a pesto except it is nut and dairy free! And in my opinion, although I love a good Italian pesto over pasta, a well-made Thohaiyal adds a most delicious punch to a steaming bowl of rice like nothing else can!


And just like a pesto, Thohaiyal is quite versatile.  It can be made with any fleshy vegetable, or even peels.  A very popular version uses fresh Cilantro (a take on the basil pesto!).  One can add some grated coconut to the roasting stage and get a rich pesto that is still tree-nut free. (Cross-reactivity with tree nut allergies is quite rare). When using herbs like cilantro and mint, or any vegetable that is also astringent/bitter like eggplant, adding a dash of sour tamarind or lemon juice picks up the flavors!

My favorite Thohaiyal uses Chayote squash.  This vegetable is easily available at many supermarkets now.  I found a ‘black Chayote’ at my local farmer’s market with the skin a rich, bottle-green unlike the more common pale green version.  This one is also a good bit larger, the size of a small melon. When cut, it usually has a soft seed that can be discarded.  This one appears seed-free (a hybrid?).


1 medium size Chayote squash, washed, and coarsely grated

1/2 sweet onion diced (optional)

1 tablespoon each of yellow-split pea lentils and white, Urad lentils (black gram)

1 or more dried red chiles to taste

Pinch of Hing or Asafetida


  1. Start with washing and coarsely grating the vegetable – in this case, the squash. This allows the vegetable to flash-cook; a larger dice would need a longer cooking time and one would lose the crisp, fresh flavor of the vegetable.


2. To a hot skillet, add a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil.  Add the lentils and red chiles and roast for a few minutes until they turn golden brown and smell divine!


3. Remove into a bowl.  To the same skillet, add onions if using and sauté for a few minutes till they turn translucent.  Then add the grated vegetable.  Add salt to taste – this allows the vegetable to release its water and cook in its own juice without diluting the flavor.  Cover and cook for a couple of minutes. Remove from heat – the vegetable just needs to steam quickly.

4. Add Hing to the vegetable mixture and blend all ingredients smoothly in a blender.  Enjoy as a side with any dish.  Thohaiyal is traditionally eaten mixed into a warm bowl of rice with some raw sesame oil drizzled over it.









Author: AyurJaya

Clinical Ayurveda Specialist

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