For my most recent food trip, I chose Tamil Nadu, a State that boasts of ancient food traditions and techniques. Driving through Coimbatore, Salem, Dindigul, Madurai, Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, Puducherry, Marakkanam and Chennai, it was clear that even within the State existed diverse food cultures which seemed to transform every few hundred kilometres or so. Here is a distillation of some of my favourite finds.
Sree Annapoorna in Coimbatore is an iconic breakfast establishment, which now has over a dozen outlets. While there’s a lot here that you can keep going back for, including the malli sevai (cilantro rice vermicelli), sambhar vada (fried lentil dumplings soaked in sambhar ) and paniyarams (fluffy spherical snacks made in a specially moulded pan), it’s the ghee masala roast which truly stands out. A super-thin dosa doused in the finest cow ghee and stuffed with a flavourful potato masala , it makes you question every ghee roast dosa you’ve ever had before. Add to this the three unique variations of coconut chutneys — cilantro, tomato and plain coconut — and this will surely make it to anyone’s list of top five breakfasts.
Situated in the arid interiors away from the coast, Salem has its own sub-set of Tamil cooking known as Kongu Nadu cuisine, with certain nuances such as the frequent use of sesame, peanuts, dry coconut and dry ginger, which differentiates it from other parts of the State.
While the thattu vandi kadais (street cart shops) are definitely worth exploring, especially for the kalakki (a super-soft omelet that is still runny in the centre) and the essence dosa (with a spread of mutton curry), the iconic Selvi Mess is the best spot for a proper Kongu Nadu experience. Having been around for nearly 40 years, the menu boasts traditional recipes which have stood the test of time. Their ell soup (bone soup), ghee parotta , payya curry (bone marrow), mutton kulambu , quail 65, prawn roast and pigeon roast all stand out as delicious renditions of this cuisine.
The city which was the capital of the Pandya dynasty has a glorious history that dates over 2,300 years. Not many outside the region know it for its culinary prowess. The vibrant street food scene comes alive at night with a host of different carts and stalls to check out, with options ranging from paruthi paal (cotton seed milk and jaggery drink), keerai vada (a unique, thin fritter made with a medicinal plant called mullu murungai ), thengai pal (a warm sweetened coconut milk drink), sundal carts and jigarthanda (a dessert beverage made with almond gum and the syrup of the sarsaparilla plant).
My favourite is the bun parotta , and no one does it better than Madurai bun parotta kadai at Aavin Junction. The bun parotta is known more for its shape than its composition.
Unlike the classic paratha, which is a combination of flaky and crisp all the way through, the bun parotta has several textures within itself, from fluffy soft to a delicious almost biscuit-like crispy.
It’s perfect with a range of curries and kulambus like naatu kozhi kulambu (country chicken curry), thala curry (made with goat heads) and kaada kulambu (quail curry).
Based on conversations with locals, I came to understand that the Franco-Tamil food of Pondy is not as much influenced by the French who lived here but more by Tamils who migrated to various other colonies like Vietnam and then returned. Although it’s next to impossible to find this food in restaurants in Puducherry, there are a few trying to change that.
Take Pushpa for example, a French Tamilian who cares deeply about the food she grew up eating. Under the moniker Chez Pushpa, she opens up her home to host elaborate meals that may seem familiarly Tamilian, but are in fact unique. With far fewer spices, a greater emphasis on retaining the integrity of the vegetables, techniques and recipes (they have their own spice blend called vadouvan ) borrowed from France, Vietnam and even the Mughals, there is a whole other world of food here. Pushpa’s delicious spread included flat beans, gourd cooked with grated coconut, a tamarind and coconut milk sauce, and mutton sambar .