From Thanjavur to Chettinad, Kunal Vijayakar explores the culinary culture of Tamil Nadu
One way to tell stories is to read them from a book, another is to ask someone to tell you their story, but the best way is to be part of the story. Stories where you mentally, emotionally and physically experience the story. And the food stories are the ones you absolutely have to live, breathe and taste for yourself. And there’s no better way to do it than traveling across the country, on the road. Because food, by its very essence, is zoetic, for it is the love of food that animates and gives meaning to so much in life. Alive, always changing and evolving from village to village, from neighborhood to neighborhood and from kilometer to kilometer.
My dear friend Rakesh Raghunathan, who has made it his mission to make South Indian cuisine known and tasted as well as to shed light on the keepers of these traditional knowledge systems, set out to discover the food of his ancestors. in a show I watched called Highway Dreams on Zee Zest.
As he drove through the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, full of heritage, art and culture, on the most scenic highway in the state, between Madurai and Sathyamangalam, and through the Western Ghats, I I had tears in my eyes of emotion and the memory of the spice of Chettinad food. I was in Karaikudi, almost 20 years ago, and watching Rakesh wander the lavish villas and streets famous for their architecture, scale and vibrant colors, it brought back all the complex flavors of Chettinad food . Freshly ground spices, aromas of fenugreek, bay leaf, cumin, tamarind, fennel and turmeric and the secret kalpasi (black stone flower) and dried flower pods cooked with meat and fresh vegetables. Chettinad Mutton Kulambu, Roast Kozhukattai Urlai and Paniyaram cooking in the lavish villas that stood still in time.
Rakesh hits the road again, crossing beaches like Kovalam near Chennai, visiting fishing villages where fishermen not only took to the huge waves to fish but also to surf. Several years ago, while staying at Taj Fisherman’s Cove, I strolled along the seashore to one of those fishing villages along Kovalam beach, looking at the fresh daily catch. Pomfret, prawns, red snappers, crabs and Sting Ray. Also, local favorites like Parai and Vanjiram or King Fish. And if I remember correctly, some casual restaurants around the area even let you choose your own fish and cook it for you, marinated with a special masala and freshly fried. Interestingly, I found that the fishermen were mostly Christians, the fish vendors were Hindus, while the restaurants were owned by Muslims. I love that.
Rakesh then drives from Rameswaram to Dhanushkodi, also known as the last land of India. A beautiful and scenic 19 kilometer route with deep blue seas on either side; on one side the Indian Ocean, on the other the Bay of Bengal. Rameswaram, of course, is a revered religious place, and traditional Tamil cuisine is a must here. But for me the best thing to eat in Rameswaram is Puliyodarai. Tamarind, Bengal Gram and rice with a tempering of curry leaves. It is cooked for the Gods and eaten once offered as Prasadam. Then, of course, there’s Rasam and Rice. Fiery Rasam enriched with black pepper, cumin, tamarind, jaggery and garlic. The meal should end with Paruppu Payasam. Cooked with moong dal, jaggery, coconut milk, ghee and nuts. Rameswaram is also famous for its seafood and you will find many local hotels and restaurants, which serve fresh cuttlefish, crab and baby octopus, all cooked in traditional sauces or simply fried or grilled.
To really experience the cuisine of Tamil Nadu, Rakesh recommends the cuisines of Thanjavur and the food of the interior areas of Dindigul and Nilgiris. Thanjavur food is a mix of traditional Brahmin and Mukkulathor, the undeniable Maratha influence. And Dindigul is quite famous for its biryani. But like I said earlier, some stories can’t just be read, they have to be lived, and you can either experience those stories through Rakesh’s eyes or you just have to get up and go yourself. .
Kunal Vijayakar is a Mumbai-based food writer. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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