Reading South Indian Culture through cookbooks


kozhukattai_final_webContributed to “The Hindu MetroPlus” published 6th Jan 2017

2017年1月6日『The Hindu MetroPlus』紙に掲載

I love reading Indian cookbooks rather than using them. Among the recipes, I find stories of individuals, families, communities, regions and religions of this amazing country. There is a story to be told behind not only each dish but also each process of cooking. I don’t feel the same for Japanese cookbooks, and I suspect my husband, a Tamilian, might be part of the reason.

It all started one night with tiny dim-sum-like dumplings I spotted at a vegetarian restaurant in Chennai. “It’s called kozhukattai,” the gentleman with a big pot belly answered, when I asked for the name of the dish.

Having studied gastronomy in Australia, with my thesis focussing on Indian cuisine, I thought of myself as an Indian cuisine specialist when I moved to Chennai in 2008. However, having never seen or heard of such a dish before, I realised I had much to learn.
I started searching and found out that kozhukattai (called modak elsewhere) is usually available only during Vinayaka Chaturthi.

One Sunday, in a bookshop, I picked up a cookbook inadvertently and opened a random page. Photos of kozhukattai caught my eye. The book was Festival Samayal by Viji Varadarajan and it didn’t take me long to contact Viji. I visited her place to learn South Indian vegetarian dishes, and, of course, kozhukattai.

In return, I introduced her to many Japanese people who love South Indian food. One of them was Kaoru Katori, an Indian and spice cuisine specialist who later published a South Indian cooking book with Tamil Brahmin recipes. In her book, Viji says, “Making kozhukattai is an art. It needs practice and deftness.” That’s true, but I’d like to add one more important point: the worship. Even though there are no distinctive seasons like in Japan here, after reading her book, I realised that seasons are marked by festivals, and each features different dishes.

Regional or community cuisine is the main category of Indian cookbooks, and I enjoy the diversity. Notable titles include Aharam by Sabita Radhakrishna, which showcases Mudaliar cuisine with full flavour, and her latest book, Annapurni: Heritage Cuisine from Tamil Nadu, which demonstrates the recipes of seven communities in the State. Merlyn’s Kitchen: A Country and Western Cookery Guide by the late Merlyn Smith-Thomas from the Anglo-Indian community, which contains 200 dishes collected over seven decades, is another example.

ulavacharu_final_webAnother significant thing I’ve observed in Indian cookbooks is the strong family bond. Five Morsels of Love by Archana Pidathala consists of more than 100 family recipes from Andhra Pradesh. The author, with no cooking experience, decided to publish the English version of her late grandmother’s cookbook. She started with ulava charu (horse gram soup) and discovered her grandmother’s love for “all things related to food”. I first tasted ulava charu in Hyderabad, and instantly fell in love with its creamy texture. I’ve never seen the dish in Chennai, so I was delighted to find the recipe.
According to her recipe, four cups of ulava charu requires 1 kg of horse gram, which I thought was too much at first. After being boiled twice, the dal filled the pressure cooker, leaving me quite confused.

Even though I knew the word “charu” means soup, I had assumed from its thick consistency that the whole-cooked dal is used. When I finally realised only the broth should be used, I was left with an enormous amount of dal — and no idea what to do with it. That was when I realised that the thickness of ulava charu comes from slow-cooking it for two hours. Archana recalls her wedding day and the memory of being fed “a bowl of hot rice and ulava charu” by her grandmother.

That made me miss my late grandmother who always prepared my favourite sweet red bean soup.

One last cookbook that doesn’t exist but one I would have loved to read is that of Chef Jacob of Jacob’s Kitchen in Chennai. Sadly, Chef Jacob is no more.

I loved his TV show Aaha Enna Rusi and I often called him the ‘Jamie Oliver of South India’. He was also known for his research on ancient South Indian cuisine and was planning to compile the outcome into a book.
It was while discussing it with him that I realised that my mission is to explore the depth of South Indian cuisine for the rest of my life.


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