UNAVU: Tamil cuisine.
“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”
― George Bernard Shaw
It is so true. Food gives us happiness, food never fails to lighten up our moods, food brings people together, food is love, and food is life. The love for food is the same irrespective of the type of cuisine. Food in India, like its people, is diverse in its flavours. A very distinct type of the Indian cuisine is the Tamil cuisine.
When someone says Tamil food, first to pop are idly, dosa and sambar. Yes, they are the most venerated Tamil dishes around the world, but are just a few of hundreds of food preparations of Tamil Nadu. There’s a lot more to Tamil food than what hotels like Saravana Bhavan can offer. So, the main motive of the article is that at the end of it, hopefully, you should crave for a visit to Tamil Nadu just for the wide array of delicacies waiting there.
Though I’m utterly confident that I won’t be able to even mention every single dish of Tamil cuisine, I’m going to try my best.
Breakfast, brunch and supper:
If you go to a common Tamil restaurant and ask the waiter for the available menu…he goes like “ Dosa, Idly, Pongal, Vada, Puri” while these are the basic Tamil morning tiffin dishes, there are so many others like Paniyaram, Aappam, Upma, Idiyappam, Adai, Vendhaya kali, Kozhukattai etc.
The best part of Tamil breakfast dishes is that most of them are steamed and in disparate forms. Starting with Idly and dosa, both are made of the same batter except that dosa batter is more diluted. A side dish is mandatory for both of them and for that matter, almost all the Tamil dishes. When it comes to Idly and dosa, they’re lifeless without sambar and chutney. There are many types of chutney- tomato chutney, onion chutney, that of chilli, eggplant, ginger, and the list goes on. but the best combination for idly or dosa and sambar is the coconut chutney. The best part of the coconut chutney is that it is seasoned with fried mustard, curry leaves and chillies, which gives it an addicting aroma. There are, different types of idly and dosas based on the core ingredient for the batter. Now coming to the most important part, all the Tamil dishes taste the best when eaten with our hand. As we take a small piece of hot idly or dosa, dip it in the sambar and then the chutney, and place it on our tongue an array of flavours burst inside our mouth. It gives us a taste of the paradise. But for non-veg lovers, trust me, nothing can beat that small nap we take on a Sunday morning, after having hot, soft idlis with that runny mutton gravy full of spicy flavours! Another important dish that is to be had with sambar and coconut chutney is the ven Pongal which is made of rice, dal, ghee and pepper and so is a heavy breakfast dish. Though Pongal by itself is heavy, it’s incomplete without vada which is the all-time favorite of Tamilians.
Aappam is like a dosa but made in a slightly different batter and is dome shaped. It tastes the best with sweetened coconut milk. Kuzhi paniyarams are cute little balls which are also based on rice batter, either sweetened or spiced up. The spicy paniyarams taste best with any type of chutney. Adai is a type of dosa which is made of a different batter and it tastes the best with avial (thick curry of mixed vegetables and coconut) which is basically a Kerala based curry. Idiyappam and kozhukattai are also a slightly different rice batter based very traditional dishes. Idiyappam is an extremely delicate noodle-like dish whose common side dish is coconut milk or coconut chutney/vegetable stew. But for non- vegetarians, idiyappam with “attukaal paaya (mutton leg gravy)” is a real treat. Kozhukattai (similar to modhak) is a dumpling-like delicacy with a stuffing made of ghee, jaggery and grated coconut or gram flour which gives it a divine taste. Kaara (spicy) kozhukattai too gives a very tough competition to the sweet one. Vendhaya (fenugreek or mehthi seeds) kali is a very healthy as well as a very delicious breakfast dish known for its role as a natural coolant. Kali is like a fine paste and when it is had with the jaggery syrup, it just slithers down our food pipe in the wink of an eye. When mom is like “oh I’m in no mood to cook”, upma comes to the rescue. It’s a thick porridge-like dish made of roasted sooji or coarse rice flour and tastes good with any chutney while my personal favorite is coconut chutney.
Palaiya soru has won the hearts of the Tamil people knocking out all the other dishes with its incredible simplicity. Palaiya (old) soru (rice) or fermented rice is, the leftover cooked rice of the before day soaked in water and buttermilk. Though its perfect match is raw shallots (small onions) and roasted green chillies, pickles and fried mor milaga (chillies soaked in buttermilk and then dried) also do an equally great job. Parotta is almost the contrary of palaiya soru in the fact that it’s so-not-simple and is unfortunately unhealthy. But the parotta (made of maida, egg and oil) with salna (indigenous word for korma) from a local shop of Madurai or a nearby town is something that tempts even a health freak which makes it a must try during a visit to south India. There are different types of parotta preparations like veechu parotta (which is the flattened and thinner version of parotta), kothu parotta ( where parotta is made into pieces and fried with meat or egg or vegetables and spicy gravy…the aroma of the gravy and flavours just forces you to get inside the shop and the taste is never disappointing) , chilli parotta ( similar to kothu parotta with capsicum and onions which gives it a Chinese touch) and Ceylon parotta ( like veechu parotta, it is flattened, then folded and stuffed with meat or vegetables.).
Parotta and salna
Feast for fiesta:
Now, coming to the grand virundhu (feast), a proper Tamil meal is served on a freshly cut banana leaf which gives the meal a new zest. Traditionally, the banana leaf must be laid so that the tip of the leaf is pointed left and then water is sprinkled on the leaf to cleanse it. The dishes are then placed on the leaf in an order starting with a sweet, a pinch of salt and papad. The side dishes are placed on the top half and the lower half is for the steamed rice. For a veg meal, the side dishes include, poriyal (dry and mildly fried vegetables), kootu (dal based thick vegetable or spinach curry), appalam (fried papad), thuvaiyal thick chutney). Now steamed rice is placed and it is had with a variety of curries starting with any type of dal and ghee. Next, sambar is served which is followed by a heavy curry (mostly puli kuzhambu – a thick curry which has intense flavours) and rasam which is like a mild soup of tamarind and tomato that assists in digestion. Rasam is then followed by either mor (buttermilk) or thayir (curd) which goes well with the pickle.
In place of a full regular meal, sometimes a spread of variety rice is had for lunch. Variety rice like lemon rice), tomato rice, tamarind rice, coconut rice, curd rice etc… are the common ones. When it comes to a non-veg lunch, instead of sambar and curries, varieties of chicken and mutton curries or meen kuzhambu (fish curry) are served for white rice. Side dishes are dry preparations of chicken, mutton and egg or fish fry. Other than white rice, chicken or mutton biriyani may be served with raitha, dhalicha (a curry made of brinjal – apt for biriyani). Biriyani is the favorite indulgence of most of the non-veg lovers. The authentic biriyani recipe of Tamil Nadu is different from the rest of India’s. With its multitude flavours that trigger the salivary glands it’s just irresistible for people who love spicy food. The Ambur biriyani and Dindigul “thalapakatti” biriyani are the most famous and must taste ones in Tamil Nadu.
A typical Tamil virundhu is implausible without payasam which is a runny, creamy, sweet desert which is made of milk and either rice or vermicelli. As a finale, banana and vethala paakku (betel leaf and nut) are served. The vethala with paakku has many health benefits most importantly for digestion and gives a red colouration to our mouth.
Sip and slurp:
When guests come in for short visits, they are served with sweet, kaaram (spicy snacks) and any hot beverage. The beverage is mostly, tea, filter coffee (kumbakonam degree coffee is a must try and gives the taste of heaven for coffee lovers), or hot milk. Other than these, the traditional beverages include sukku paal (dry ginger powder milk), baadhaam paal (almond milk), paruthi paal (cotton seed milk) etc.…kambu koozh, paanagam and neer mor are the cold beverages that are extremely good for summer. Kambu (bajra) koozh (porridge) is a thick drink which is stomach filling and tastes good with green chillies, small onion and pickle. Paanagam is a cool drink made of tamarind juice and jaggery and has an amazing health benefits. Neer mor is nothing but extremely diluted curd, garnished with spices and curry and coriander leaves.
Desi bonbons :
The best part of any cuisine according to me is the sweets. Tamil cuisine is endowed with an exquisite number of varieties of sweets. The traditional Tamil sweets are known for their not-very-heavy or low-calorie nature. Many Tamil sweets are traditionally not made with ghee and still are in no way less in taste than the ghee sweets. Sweets like adhirasam and appam are oil fried sweet varieties which have a crispy outer covering and a soft interior. Kesari is the most easily and quickly made sweet that becomes a life saver when guests visit in a short notice. It’s made of sooji, milk, sugar and ghee and garnished with cashews and raisins fried in ghee which makes you drool for it. There’s a huge number of laddu varieties and the most common one is boondhi laddu which is made of yellow sweet boondhi. Mysore pak, though originated from Karnataka, tastes the best in Sri Krishna sweets of Tamil Nadu. It is so damn good that as we place it in our mouth, it just melts in a jiffy and fills our whole mouth with the ghee’s aroma. Sakkarai (sweet) pongal is a Pongal type which is commonly given in temples, is a stomach filling sweet dish. Thengai (coconut) barfi and boli (similar to stuffed sweet rotis) are other very common sweet varieties of Tamil Nadu.
Snack and savour:
Moving on, vada, bajji, bonda, murukku, seedai, mixture and sevu make the major part of Tamil snack varieties. Vada, bajji and bonda are the snacks that have to be eaten hot with a spicy chutney. Bajji is an oil-fried snack in which mostly banana or chilli or onion or potato is dipped in a batter of gram flour and oil fried to give it the crispy covering. Bonda is also an oil fried snack with a stuffing mostly made of potato and with a crispy outer covering. Egg bonda is also a cherished snack. Murukku, seedai and sevu are also oil fried and extremely crispy snack varieties that are often known as the “norukku theeni”.
Believing that I’ve done justice to a small article on Tamil cuisine, I would like to conclude by naming the places of Tamil Nadu famous for certain dishes and that are in the must try list.
Halwa –Thirunelveli, Particularly “Iruttu Kadai” Halwa
Degree Filter Coffee – Kumbakonam.
Idly – Kancheepuram.
Jigarthanda, Parotta, Mutton sukka – Madurai.
Chettinadu cuisine– Karaikudi.
Kadalamittai (peanut candy) – Kovilpatti.
Palkova (milk sweet) – Srivilliputhur.
Varkey – Ooty.
Vada Curry, Mutton Paya – Chennai.
Coconut buns – Coimbatore.
Murukku – Manaparai.
Macaroons – Thoothukudi.
Kara Sevu, Sakkarai mittai (Sweet) – Sattur. (Shanmuga Nadar shop)
Oil Parotta – Virudhunagar.
Boli – Kadambur and Venkateswara Boli stall, West mambalam, Chennai.
So, it’s worth a visit to the wonderful “Nadu” (country), the Tamil Nadu (Tamil country), enjoy the warm hospitality of the Tamil people, have a leisurely meal on the banana leaf rejuvenating your taste buds and if possible, take a heavenly nap on the “kayathu kattil” (a cot made of rope) under the canopy cover by the “maanga thoppu” (mango grove).