100 days of cooking forgotten Tamil-native vegetables

Akash Muralidaran is on a quest to rediscover forgotten, local vegetables with a 100-day cooking project, 70-year-old recipe book and cheery determination to forage through the city

June 10, 2020 05:31 pm | Updated June 13, 2020 11:38 am IST - Chennai


“If you want to find something you lost, start searching from where you lost it,” says Akash Muralidaran. “So where do we start looking for missing vegetables ? Let’s start our journey from the kitchen...”

The Chennai resident is currently cooking his way through his grandmother’s well-used copy of the legendary recipe book, Samaithu Paar by S Meenakshi Ammal in an attempt to rediscover delicious, local vegetables that have disappeared from everyday menus.

To simultaneously draw attention to the value of these vegetables, and underline the importance of biodiversity, he is doing this as a 100-day cooking project, recorded on Instagram (@akash_muralidaran). The experiment, which began on March 1, is now in its last week.

Currently working with The Center for Genomic Gastronomy in Oregon, USA, an independent research group that examines the biotechnology and biodiversity of human food systems, Akash returned to India in January after interning with Katja Gruijters’ food design studio in Amsterdam.

“I found Samaithu Paar in the attic, and it reminded me of the food we ate when my grandmother was alive: vaazhaipoo paruppu usiliyal , paagarkkai , masiyal... ,” he says. “I realised there are a number of vegetables we don’t use any more. I live in an apartment with 150 houses, so I sent out a survey, asking people what they cooked with. They all chose the same 15 vegetables: tomato, potato, brinjal, carrots...”

Determined to prove that it was possible to source and eat a much larger variety, Akash began to cook.

“My mother (Sundari Muralidaran) was very excited. There were a number of recipes in the book that she used to cook. She couldn’t tell me why she doesn’t make them any more. As time passed, they were forgotten...” says Akash. For the first week, they decided to use easily accessible vegetables such as flat beans, pumpkin, ridge gourd, chayote and karipala.

With this project, Akash posts a stylised picture of a different vegetable everyday, explaining what it is, followed by notes on how it can be eaten. “My mom and I would make two dishes with the vegetable, and post one,” he says. However, he refuses to give recipes.

“I want people to be curious about it. Samaithu Paar recipes are available online anyway... I don’t believe in spoon-feeding,” he chuckles.

Sourcing under restrictions

Once lockdown began, the experiment got more challenging. “Vegetables became tough to find. My plan was to cook with what I could find in the local market in March, and in April to travel through the villages where many heritage vegetables are still grown.”

When he reached winged beans for example, the only source was in Puducherry, where he could not go. The hunt for air potatoes ended in a friend’s grandmother’s garden. Purple yam, another friend pointed out, could be found in villages in the interiors of Tamil Nadu.

When sourcing the vegetable became impossible, graphic designers Priyadarshini Narayanan and Srishti Prabakar stepped in, helping with charming, instructive, illustrations.

“When I started out, I did want to find out how many of these vegetables are accessible, and I’ve realised that some are found only in kitchen gardens,” Akash says.

He adds however, that the city does have a lot more than you would expect. “Through this process I have discovered 70 vegetables, all available in the city, that most people don’t use at home. Like the flowers of moringa, pumpkin and banana.”

In Samaithu Paar , the author cooks with about 25 types of vegetables. To expand on this, Akash uses the same recipe in different ways. For example, he made thuvaiyal  with orange peel as well as puliyanga . And swapped banana flower for moringa in kootu .

Akash says the process has been rewarding, as his daily meals at home are now richer and more nutritious. “My Telugu neighbours taught me how to make akakarakaya stir fry with the spine gourd. It’s delicious. I also discovered Kamala orange peel thuvaiyal and pumpkin coconut milk stew.”

As the project winds up, he is determined to prove that anyone can expand their culinary repertoire.

“Even in a city, everyone has at least two or three vegetables growing around them,” says Akash. “This week we are foraging: my friends and I are looking for ingredients in backyards, kitchen gardens and on the streets that we can cook. There’s a lot there: aloe vera, moringa flowers, roselle, betel leaves... You just have to look.”

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.