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Chennai - Living to Eat

Digs at South Indian eating habits have long since stopped being funny and many a Tamilian is known to have taken umbrage at being referred to as an idle-sambhar specimen, a rice eating sloth whose languour is attributed to his food habits. Why not poke fun (clean wholesome fun) at our channa bhature-dal-roti brothers? I still remember vividly my acute embarrassment at the dining table as a young bride. My in-laws after years of residence in the north, plainly scoffed at the eating habits of the south. Se how she loves her rice was the open remark and imagine enjoying it with dollops of sambhar and ghee to go with it! I remember blushing with shame, and valiantly trying to much chapattis to gain their approval. Fortunately I was as thin as a beanpole and my frame gave scant evidence to my partiality to rice!

Much older and wiser today, I respect and marvel at the infinite variety of food specialities in every region, adopted probably due to climatic variations and the respective availability of grain in each province. In a recent Food and Nutrition Conference in Germany, the typical vegetarian south Indian menu was acclaimed the most nutritive.

Rice, of course is the staple food of the south Indian. Excepting very cosmopolitan families, its presence is felt in some form or the other in every meal. In south India, after the rice is cooked the water or conjee is drained. Packed with nourishment, the working class downs it with a pinch of salt-a real filler to stave off those premature hunger pangs. Warmed and poured over the legs, rice conjee is supposed to alleviate pain in the legs. Lightly soaked and ground to a powder rice flour has infinite uses. Steamed and mixed with sugar and a little ghee, it makes rice puttu for tiffin. A small amount added to gram flour paste, it helps make crisp bajjis or pakoras. Ground rice flour paste can be utilized to create varieties of dosas and of course with the fright proportions of ground lentils, it lends itself to the making of the standard idli and dosas after fermentation. Rice is used also for payasam, a thick sweet soup specially concocted during festivals.

During festivals and marriage feasts, as children we really looked forward to eating on banana leaves. Hot food served on the leaves had a special flavour of its own and what joy it was dispensing with tiresome cutlery and eating with the hands for once, we were allowed to lick our fingers and slurp our way through the meal.

The sweet is served first is served first on the leaf for all festive occasions, as you are expected to sweeten hour tongue before you proceed with the rest of the meal. There is, of course a glob of the ubiquitous pickle. After the preliminaries, the main course of rice either a pre-mixed rice, or rice with gravy, rice with rasam and a large helping of curds. No meal is ever complete in a south India home without curd-rice and pickle which is recommended as an invalid diet, minus the pickle of course.

So much for the vegetarians. The non-vegetarian Tamilian is an finicky about his meals as his Punjabi counterpart and it is a fallacy that most south Indians are born vegetarians. The Chettinad food which is today publicized and increasingly popular bears striking similarity to Mudaliar food which is not so well known but equally tasty. Their non-vegetarian food is non-gresy lightly spiced and a gourmet’s delight. Present day tastes have led to a drastic reduction in the use of chillies. Pepper chops, chicken curry, keema vadas, meat ball curries, etc for some of the exotic fare of the Tamils. In the old days, ragi was popular and cooked ragi balls were prepared to be eaten with the hot curries. Indeed, eating ragi (made into, balls with the fingers) are dipped into the curry and swallowed, without muching!

The non-vegetarian Tamils have their regular vegetarian days- Saturdays, a day for Venkatesh Perumal(Balaji), Thursdays for Baba and so on. Meat is usually not prepared on kirthigai or Amavasai- certain phases of the moon. I know that even today, certain families fact during eclipse and either mop or wash the house after it is over. The pregnant woman lies still during the eclipse with the curtains drawn, for superstition holds that she begets a malformed child if she indulges in activity.

What is most charming in a close knit family is the way the young are fed on family occasions in conventional households. An elderly lady sits with a vessel in which she has mixed rice and curry, mashing the rice with her fingers and tempering it with ghee to subdue the pungency if any. Sitting in a semi-circle around her are the little tots- their eyes wide with wonder with the stories that Periyamma tells them. With unerring accuracy she pops large balls of rice in each mouth, and virtually unable to protest they much away, their cheeks ballooning with the food, their entire concentration on the food their entire concentration on the tales she regales them with. Automatically, their little mouths open when they are empty, like little birds waiting to be fed.

Food is such an integral part of daily life-but with all the major issues surfacing today, one is prompted to ask the question of our family and friends –“Do you eat to live, or live to eat?”