Thought Leadership

The Dynamic Culinary Cultures of India’s Tamil Nadu

Many culinary masterpieces disappeared over time, as there is no means of creating exposure to the communities except passing the skills from generation to generation. My father grew up in a small village. He used to talk about various foods which he used to be able to eat but not ordinarily available anywhere at present. One of the foods that created awe in me was a sweet prepared from a flower called Sambu poo (a local flower). Its pollen is isolated, rinsed, dried and blended with jaggery (unrefined palm or cane sugar) and cardamom, and shaped into a solid ball. He exclaimed the way it melts like a cloud when placed in your mouth. This food was unknown to me until my father spoke about it. Time does not make the food disappear but the lack of exposure or the lack sharing knowledge does. In this manner, sadly, many foods disappeared from Tamil Nadu’s food culture.

Even those who live nearby lost sight of how far the loss extends. Tamil Nadu, being in the Southernmost part of India, with 38 districts, where almost all of them have something to boast about in their culinary expertise and multitude of diverse taste and techniques. According to the oldest Tamil Literatures Purananooru, the regions in the past were categorized into Kurunji (mountain region), Mullai (forest region), Marutham (Agricultural area), Neithal (Seaside), Palai (Drought region). These segregations are related to the diversified cuisine that survives today. The local foods sourced from these regions have been the staple ingredients for years and years, leading to a diverse culinary culture. A part of its authenticity was neglected and then changed. Due to cultural pluralism, some foods don’t even have a name of their own.

Tamil Nadu’s food culture has been popularly misunderstood for years as tasteless and solely vegetarian. Whenever people came through this way, a large variety of the area’s foods were left unexplored. The taste of Tamil Nadu is kind of hidden in a big box of other nested boxes. When you try to open one box, you realize there are multiple boxes inside, each having their zest and cooking styles which can’t easily be compared. The local community of Tamil Nadu shows its love for food without partiality i.e. it places vegetarians at one side of the coin, and meat lovers on the other side. A coin does not work with just one side. So talking about one side without the other doesn’t portray the real taste of Tamil Nadu.

I thought very deeply in order to project the taste of Tamil Nadu without choosing sides. That’s when the common denominator of vegetarians and meat lovers appeared in front of me while having my lunch. Rice! It is rice which mediates both dimensions of the diverging tastes enjoyed in Tamil Nadu. To be precise, rice is the king of the kitchen. Whereas the unique flavours are provided through the spices, herbs and cooking techniques placing it in the altar. They used to uplift the blandness of the rice and break the limitations of vegetables and meat flavours. The most prominent spices kept in the “Anjarai Petti” (a type of container) and the tamarind that set forward the tanginess and the unique sweetening master such as jaggery is more than just a taste inducer; they are also highly medicinal.

In 2019, The Hindu Group conducted “Our State, Our Taste,” a cookery competition which opened up the plethora of culinary recipes that even the locals never knew. The Hindu’s news article reported on the experience (while judging) of the top culinary expert of Tamil Nadu Chef K Damodaran unveiled the fact on how much the state of Tamil Nadu has to offer when it comes to varieties from Chutneys, Sambars, Rasams to Dosas. Even the most popular vegetarian dessert such as payasam has hundreds of variations from Semiya (Vermicelli) payasam, Paruppu (lentil) payasam to Thengai (tender coconut) payasam. Tamil Nadu cuisines don’t end with just the overt presence of vegetarian meals with dishes such as Kootu, Poriyal and Avial, curd, papads, pickles spread out with rice and stew based on vegetable, lentils and ghee, are spread out on top of a banana leaf. Sweets, snacks and savouries like Muruku, Adhirasam, Thattai, Seedai, Somas and more, also offers so many memories through taste as the entire family sits together for few days before the Diwali celebrationm and prepare to share their happiness with the friends and neighbours through food.

Tamil Nadu’s meat-based food platter is dominated by chicken, goat meat (mutton), fish and prawns. One of the most well-known cuisines is the Chettinadu Cuisine in the Karaikudi, Pudukottai, Kanadukathan and Devakottai Districts. These districts boast various country chicken and mutton-based foods which let out the spicy flavour through black pepper, chillies and other spices which are ground in the mortar and pestle and then cooked and roasted in cold-pressed sesame or coconut oil. This cuisine gives out a lip-smacking and authentic flavour that stays on your tastebuds.

Kongunadu cuisine is not as popular as that of Chettinad, but is prevalent in the Coimbatore and its surrounding districts. It is little contradictory to the former in that it uses fresh flavours and soft textures by blending coconut milk, ground cashew nut and almond nut for a luxurious taste. Then the right amount of ground black pepper is added to make the spice level a little milder and give the perfect, heart-warming taste.

Nanjil Nadu cuisine Kanyakumari and Ramanathapuram and other districts on the sea such as Tuticorin, boast on being experts in seafood. Each has their speciality of fish, prawns and oysters, which are roasted in coconut oil to give a reddish brown colour which indicates its flavour. The dried fish called Karuvad are very popular among these regions and there are plenty of fans who stock up on these in their kitchen.

Districts such as Madurai, Tirunelveli, Dindugal, Theni and Virudhunagar offer immense meat platters to those who constantly wish to encounter dishes featuring flavours they have never tasted before. The Jigardanda, a unique cold dessert and Ayira Meen Kulambu (Spined Loach gravy) for which the loaches are rinsed in milk before cooking, are the real heritage of Madurai. It tastes best only when you have it there. Similarly, the village-style meat feast in Theni and Dindugal where mutton rules everything. It is cooked in a clay pot. Their cuisine is enriched with various additions ranging from millets, vegetables and legumes that offer an authenticity that would be impossible to find outside this region. Poricha Parotta in Virudhunagar, Border Parotta in Thirunelveli and Kothu Parotta with Kaadai Gravy (Quail) in Tuticorin are the comfort food of the people in Tamil Nadu. These parottas own authentic taste because of the flavour of the cooking water.

The taste of Tamil Nadu is so intense and diverse, and trying to explain it in a written article is quite complex. For every culinary enthusiast, the entire state of Tamil Nadu is like a treasure hunt. Those who go beyond the beaten track and traverse through the far stretched lands and villages can attain an experience that lets all the senses go beyond the perceptions of food, and enjoy the friendly and expert storytellers from the local communities.

Get the Tamil language version of this article.

Written by Nivethitha Bharathi. Edited by Erik Wolf.

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Based mainly in Colorado. Loves cheese, rain, and starry nights. Can usually be spotted in the wild wearing a Spirit Jersey and balancing two cameras. Often laughs and cries at the same time. Barely survived one Master's program, but wants to do another.

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