Whether you like my saying this or not, we’re all racist. If not rabidly racist, at the least, we are predictably prejudiced.
Let me explain. I am talking about our attitude towards and knowledge of south Indian food. Let’s concede: we all have a parochial outlook towards most people, cultures, and things we are unfamiliar with. This is one more of those.
First, we should not be using the term ‘South Indian food’, because there is no place called South India. There are four states. They have different names, cultures, languages, people and distinctive cuisines. For most of us living north of the imaginary line below Maharashtra and Odisha, everyone below is loosely termed ‘south-Indian-idli-dosa’ eaters. It’s a statement born out of ignorance. And in the words of Thomas Gray, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”.
Kootu is a mild coconut-based gravy. (Shutterstock)
I am about to embark on this folly, to bust a few myths and, if you allow me, to spread a little wisdom. I can’t deal with the food from all our four south states in a single column, so let me pick Tamil Nadu — the southernmost state, which has a cuisine that is astounding in flavour and variety.
While the classic food of Tamil Nadu is dominated by rice and lentils, contrary to common knowledge, Tamil cuisine is all meat in the interior regions, and all fish along the coast.
Let’s start with Chettinadu food from Karaikudi region. The century-old palaces that line the old quarters of Karaikudi have been turned into homestays by its royal residents. Here, the early evening air fills with the aromas of the cuisine. Their spicy, robust food (with generous portions of aniseed, fennel, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, and cloves) predominantly consists of chicken, lamb, and prawn. For instance, you’ll find dishes such as the aatu kari kozhambu, a mutton curry with whole spices, potatoes, and shallots, and eral thokku — prawns fried in ginger, garlic, tomatoes, with an infusion of curry leaves. There’s also the game-y, dry, fried, salted country chicken called naatu kozhi varuval. This recipe uses no masala other than dry red chillies, turmeric, fennel, curry leaves and fresh coriander.
Now let’s move up the hilly region of Coimbatore, towards the denser parts of the Nilgiris, where the air is cooler and the cuisine is milder. This is the Kongu region, known for the Konganadu cuisine. Since the region lies miles away from the coast, people here prefer meat over fish; the cuisine also has a distinct Muslim influence. The food is less aggressive, and is bursting with hints of sesame seed, peanuts, roasted turmeric, and the inevitable coconut. The one dish that is signature to the area is the Kongu eratchi biryani. It is different from the Mughlai biryanis we are used to. The flavours of curry leaves and poppy seeds, apart from coconut oil and coconut milk, make this dish unusual. This biryani is made from local Seeraga samba rice, a stickier, smaller grain.
With the Kongunadu and Chettinadu cuisines, I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the variety that Tamil Nadu offers. The region is vast. But I must mention the staple. The vazhai illai sappadu (banana leaf thali) is a typical, simple meal. Each dish has a pre-determined spot on the leaf. I am going to try and list out the order and menu, but please forgive me if I miss a couple of things or get the sequence wrong.
In the middle, or slightly to the right, is steaming hot rice. Over this, the getti paruppu (thick, plain dal) is served, topped with melted ghee. On top of the leaf, you’ll find thayir pachadi (curd with vegetables), varuval (deep-fried vegetables), kootu (mild coconut-based gravy), rasam and poriyal (dry vegetables cooked with coconut), vadai, pickle and salt. On the side are banana and a dessert. This meal is wholesome, perfectly balanced, and has a sense of goodness and purity. I find it incredible how the average Tamilian is able to digest so much rice and sambar or rasam in one single meal.
Still think south Indian food is just idli and dosa? Think again.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar