The Tirunelveli Food Festival at The Residency harks back to yonder times when food was not just honest, wholesome and hearty but also so good to eat

I am afraid, very afraid, that in a few years time vatha kozhambu, kozhakattai, varuval, kali… will all just be strange sounding words. Already, even for those of us in our 50s, many traditional dishes are only faint memories. Till we stumble upon a spread that takes us right back to cavernous, delicious-smelling kitchens where cauldrons and pots bubble over the adupu and we can’t wait to be called in to eat.

The Tirunelveli festival at The Residency works that magic. Even if we are in a posh restaurant, eating off elegant flatware, the food manages to transport us to paddy fields and ponds, temple visits and festivals.

Chef Ashok is smiling even more than usual. After all this is food from his hometown. And he couldn’t be prouder as he explains each dish and its significance. “Wait,” he says, and whispers instructions to the waiter who disappears and comes back bearing a bowl with ulundu vendhaya koozh. I look at it apprehensively. Why couldn’t I have the morkozhambu or the vethalai rasam instead with piping hot rice? Good manners prevent me from protesting, and I take a spoonful of the koozh. I am swept off my feet!

The koozh also has karupatti in it and it is rich and silky with just the odd sliver of coconut providing the surprise factor. It tastes like nothing I have had before, yet, chef Ashok tells me that it was regular fare when he was growing up back home. “It was healthy, filling and tasty. It is good for growing children, girls especially,” he explains and asks, “then, there is the kambu koozh, would you like to taste that?”

I am all for it and this one is fantastic too. Made of millets, it is mixed with curd; the unexpected crunch of finely chopped onions gives the humble farmer-food a buzz. Resisting the urge to have second and third helpings of the koozh as there is so much more, we move to the buffet.

In the coming days, chef Ashok is going to serve up all the recipes he has obtained from his mother and aunts, he says. Each day there will be a different rasam — vaazhaipoo rasam, vaepam poo rasam, vethalai rasam…Of course, there will be morkozhambu, avial (not like the Kerala variety), wonderful poriyals made not from paneer, thank god, but with vazhaikkai, pudalangaai, kathirikkai, poosanikkai…Don’t forget to ask for the manathakkali pachchadi.

If just one district in Tamil Nadu has so much to offer, imagine how many recipes there would be from the rest of the State. We chew on this mindboggling thought along with the kothavaranga and pavakkai varuval and chef Ashok tells us that we should move on to the ulunthu choru. This is rice and ulundhu cooked together, and there will be a different rice preparation every day of the fest.

Crisp coin parathas are served hot with a gravy and there are dosas and idlis with tiffin sambar, which is sambar without tamarind. I focus on eating rice with the good old favourites — poondu kozhambu, vatha kozhambu, morkozhambu, pachchadi….along with the vattals, it is pure joy.

Desserts are a plenty with ravai urundai, suiyam, porulvilangaa urundai, the marvellous inippu sev and, of course, the Tirunelveli halwa. But we ask if we can have the ulunda vendhaya koozh instead to round off the splendid meal; after all, it is sweet. We do and come away happy that traditional cuisine will live on for a while longer at least.

Enjoy the Tirunelveli Food Festival till June 2, at the Pavilion, The Residency. It is available for dinners on weekdays and for both lunch and dinner in the weekends. For reservations and details call: 0422-2241414.

The taste of Tirunelveli

Uppu/ puli/ kaaram is the triumvirate of Tirunelveli cooking. The Thamirabarani river also lends a distinct flavour to the cuisine of that district, says chef Ashok. At the festival, non-vegetarians can enjoy river fish and mutton preparations, as they are popular in Tirunelveli. Many of the dishes are named after the town or village where they have gained fame. Such as Pallimadai moru, Adikesavanallur pudalangaai mas, Palayamkottai mutton curry, Ambasamuthiram kozhi sukka and, of course, the Tirunelveli halwa.