Early morning conversations with idli

Idli and mutton curry has been had for breakfast on Deepavali in several Tamil households for generations

November 02, 2018 01:21 pm | Updated 01:21 pm IST

Kochi, Kerala, 02/05/2018: Mutton Nihari prepared by Chef Asif Qureshi at Kochi Marriott Hotel. 
Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Kochi, Kerala, 02/05/2018: Mutton Nihari prepared by Chef Asif Qureshi at Kochi Marriott Hotel. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

“I’ll make it again sometime,” my mother would say, of the kari kozhambu (mutton curry) and idli combination she makes for us for breakfast on Deepavali. But she has never got around to doing it till date. Mutton curry goes perfectly well with idli ; but somehow, through the year, it is doomed to be served with rice. While most other parts of the country go strictly vegetarian on Deepavali, in certain areas down South, it tradition to not have non-vegetarian on the festival day.

“The meat shops would be open for business from 5 am,” says Ramadevi Ramdoss, who hails from Palani and is settled in Chennai. “During my school days, we would be up by 4.30 am, have an oil bath, and sit down to eat idli and mutton curry by 7 am,” she says, adding, “Only after this did we run out to burst fire crackers.”

Mutton, adds Rama, is a must on the Deepavali menu in places in and around Palani, Madurai and Coimbatore. “Those who eat two idlis on a regular day will eat four,” she laughs.

Chef K Damodaran says that while the rest of Tamil Nadu revels in idli , in Chennai, dosa and mutton paaya is served as breakfast on the day of the festival. “What’s Deepavali without mutton?” he laughs, “Imagine placing four soft idlis on the plate and pouring watery mutton curry on them… perfect for a festive breakfast.” Damodaran adds that the dish is a Deepavali staple in the Madurai-Tiruchi belt.

These days, poori has joined the list, according to Madurai-based food connoisseur V Arul Murugan.

A native of Thanjavur, the 45-year-old says that his family has been having idli and mutton curry on Deepavali for as long as he can remember. “I’ve heard that this was the case even during my father’s childhood,” he adds. Arul says that with shops selling fresh meat from 4 am, people would line up to buy first thing in the morning.

What’s the origin of this combination? “I don’t know,” says Madurai-based food writer T Saravanaraj. “But I’ve been having it since I was a boy.” He wonders if Deepavali, being a festival in which celebrations start much ahead of dawn, has anything to do with the meat-heavy breakfast. “Meat is generally not had for breakfast in most households in the region,” he says, “They make an exception on Deepavali though.”

The best part of the whole meal, he says, is that the idli and watery curry are served on a plantain leaf. “It’s quite a task to balance the curry on the leaf,” he laughs. “We use the idlis to hold it in.”

Apart from this, the breakfast also consists of a sweet, either kesari or suyyam , and thick coconut chutney.

There are some things that never change, and this combination is one such. “I hope it never does,” says Saravanaraj.

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