Taking puliyogare places

Rakesh Raghunathan with his scaled-down model for Kanjivaram idli  

Ever heard of Puliyogare Arancini? It’s nothing but mashed puliyogare mixed with rice flour and raw appalam, deep fried and served on a bed of karamani kuzhambu with a drizzle of moru kuzhambu on the plate. Just hearing Rakesh Raghunathan talk about regular traditional South Indian food makes the mundane seem exciting.

Jazzing up traditional foods

Jazzing up traditional foods  

Rakesh Raghunathan is on a mission to discover and document South Indian food via Puliyogare Travels — a name that conjures up memories of car and train journeys with packets of puliyogare made by grandma. “Well, that’s one thing. The other was that puliyogare was a personal favourite,” says Raghunathan when asked how he hit upon the name for his blog. “My wife Preethi and I were discussing names and I wanted something that would combine elements of food and travel. And puliyogare rekindled memories of both.”

Raghunathan returned from the US to start PetaWrap in 2010. The name was uniquely Chennai and the concept suitably international: veg and non-veg wraps. “But after six months, I realised my focus had shifted from food to management, labour issues, supplies … I was disconnected from what I really wanted to do,” he recalls. His wife Preethi suggested he take off on a trip to think things through and so he went to Madurai. Serendipitously he stopped at a village that was harvesting its crop. “It was like a scene from a movie,” he laughs. “People were working, singing, cooking and eating together. So I joined them for a time and felt this is what I should be doing.”

Around the same time, he got an offer for a TV show. “They wanted a cookery show but I suggested documenting food, especially South Indian food. Everyone knows only idli-dosa-sambar but there’s so much more to it.Even within Tamil Nadu, cuisines vary from region to region.” This led him into homes in small towns and villages, asking for recipes handed down over generations.” He began striking up conversations with people about food and “if someone said paati/mom is a great cook, I would shamelessly invite myself over for a meal and start talking about cooking techniques and ingredients.” This helped when it came to quantifying. “That’s the problem with our recipes,” he mock complains. “You get stuff like one fistful, one grain of salt. How do you figure out how much that is? So I talk to them to understand their perspective.”

He has plenty of stories from his travels. Like this one about Virudhunagar. “If you eat at someone’s house, you will find that they use lots of peanut in the food, as a paste or purée. When I asked around, I found that it started because people from Gujarat sent peanuts to be dried here because it was so hot. Slowly people started trading in it, extracting oil… making kadalamittai, which became a big thing in neighbouring Kovilpatti. It was like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place.”

And then there is the dum adai from Kayalpatnam in Thoothukudi district. “It’s like a baked kesari and very similar to the Moroccan basbousa. Strangely enough the people there also claim to have ancestors from Africa.”

A display of Chettinad food

A display of Chettinad food  

A place like Thanjavur shows how food can be a binder, he says. “The Tamil Marathas integrated their cuisine with that they found here. So you will find some spices or ingredients like khus khus or kokum that have nothing to do with the south.” At the same time, quite a bit of the local food heritage has been lost. “I went to an eatery that had been around for around 75-80 years and run by the same family. I asked for a Thanjavur special. The man offered ‘chilli parotta’. When I mentioned pitlai and rasavangi, he looked blank.”

One of Raghunathan’s sources for recipes has been temples. Food and temples have always had a connect, he points out. Some of the bigger religious centres like Tirupati and Srirangam have a dish being made every hour and each recipe has a story behind it. “In fact,” he says, “most inscriptions in temples are what we would today call Standard Operating Practices. Weights, measures, quantities and entire recipes are carved on the walls. Religious literature like the Thiruppavai also speaks of communal cooking and sharing. I wanted to explore all this.”

His presentation has a story of the temple, why a particular recipe is associated with the temple, a song on the temple and a demonstration of the recipe. So for the Kanjivaram idli, Raghunathan uses the mandarai leaf and bamboo basket that are crucial elements of the original. “In the temple, the bamboo basket is a two-foot one and holds 2.5kg of batter. I have a smaller one for the demo.”

What he finds interesting about temple recipes is the historical context behind them. “Have you noticed,” he asks, “that in most religious offerings, we never use ingredients that came from abroad like red chillies? At the most it’s only pepper.”

Asked about the performative aspect of his presentation, Raghunathan points out that most recipes and demos are now available online. “I want to put things in context. Like why you pair vathakuzhambu with paruppu usili. A lot millenials want to know their cultural roots and it helps to use storytelling and music to get the point across. Food has the capacity to connect all three.”

Jazzing up traditional foods Puliyagore arancini (centre)

Jazzing up traditional foods Puliyagore arancini (centre)  

What he is trying to do, he emphasises, is not to change things. His food fest, Annam to Arancini, highlighted dishes like veppampoo rasam, kottanchoru, kanda thippili rasam and puliyogare arancini. “All I did was to present it in an aesthetic and modern way.”

The Taste of Kanchipuram

Food: Raghunathan’s presentation in Coimbatore will focus on recipes. “Of course there will be Kanjivaram idli,” he says. “But I will also present items from various communities in the city.”

Drapes: Researcher Sreemathy Mohan will talk about the legendary Kanjivaram textiles.

Venue: Kanakavalli, 1, GD Naidu Street, Race Course

Date: July 8; 5.00 to 7.00 pm

Register: Call 9003076665. Limited seats available

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 7:30:52 AM |

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