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An ancient Coffeeshop

india Updated: Jul 25, 2008 23:42 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times
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He’s a Madurai man with attitude, now based in Coimbatore and traveling all over the luxe food chain cooking up five-star festivals. Presently at The Park, New Delhi, Jacob Sahaya, 34, has several fish to fry. Besides rabbit, beef, mutton, prawns, fish and every kind of native Indian vegetable: brinjal, arbi, ridgegourd, banana, jackfruit and yam, using ancient seasonings like ginger, turmeric, peppercorn, cashew, cumin and of course, sesame oil and ghee.

A gold medallist in catering technology from Coimbatore who stirred his first professional stew for the Maurya Sheraton, Jacob is now director of the catering and hotel management department at the Sankara College of Science and Management, Coimbatore.

Eight years ago, a one-page article on ancient Tamil cuisine caught his eye in the rocking Tamil literary magazine Kala Chuvadu (published from Nagercoil and a sort of EPW of Tamil writing). Jacob was inspired to hook up with scholars of ancient Tamil literature who were only too glad to find a bright young seeker knocking at their door. He researched ancient Tamil texts from the early years of AD, experimented in his own mad-professor cuisine lab and came up with as many as 250 recipes. He even got a spot of formal appreciation from former President APJ Abdul Kalam in May 2007. For the past two years, he’s hosted the popular Sun TV cookery show, Vanakkam Tamizhagam (Greetings, Tamil Country) and another show for kids.

What made him delve into a past that only seems to embarrass modern Indians, especially ‘cool’ Hindus? “I’m from Madurai,” says Jacob calmly as if to say, “Hello, you know that and you’re still asking?” Well, suppose we don’t know? “Madu-rai,” says Jacob patiently, “was the capital of the great Pandya kingdom. It hosted the great Sangam, an assembly of poets and writers. The literature retrieved from that period is called Sangam Literature.”

Jacob describes 3rd century texts like Madurai-Kanchi by Maankudi Maruthanaar in which the poet describes a big market place “somewhere in Tamizhagam” where merchants were busy selling rice, pepper, coconut, mangoes, urad and arhar dal, ghee, spices, seeds, partridge and quail. The Pandyan soldiers feasted after battle on Oon Soru (Mutton Rice), sent by the palace cooks: spiced mutton that was added to rice-dal-jeera on the boil in a kadhai made of cla, verified in the venerable text called Ettutogai.

“The palace kitchens were like an ancient 24-hour coffee shop,” says Jacob. “There were 44 cooks employed per meal and another team of 44 for the next. Teams were rotated to keep them alert. Their one task was to feed everybody that the king wanted fed in the best manner possible. This meant practically half the city! There was always food around.”

That was some social responsibility. “It’s deeper than that,” says Jacob. “The ancient attitude to food was that it was a great gift from God. So it had to be well-made, savoured fully and was offered first of all to Lord Murugan or whichever deity was important in that part of the Aivagai (the five kinds of terrain, from coast to mountain, in TN). Above all, food had to be shared. It’s a core Indian value, so you could say I’m a modern traditionalist.” The proof of the panagam…