Food

What ancient Tamils ate...

Tamarind fruits in Tiruchi. Photo: R.M. Rajarathinam   | Photo Credit: R_M_RAJARATHINAM

Ever wondered what the likes of Ilango Adigal or Tholkappiyar ate? Well, we are talking about a period that's 2000 years ago and it's impossible to peek into the kitchens of those times. But the pages of the vast Sangam literature may take you back in time to understand what ancient Tamil food was like.

The celebrated poet Avvaiyar goes on to describe a hearty lunch on a hot sunny day. In her 'Thani padal thirattu'-- an anthology of poems – the 32nd song goes like this -- 'Varagu arisi chorum, vazhuthunangai vaatum, moramoravena pulitha morum...' (steamed varagu rice, smoked and mashed aubergine and tangy frothy buttermilk). The poet mentions her host's name as Boothan of Pulvelur village and expresses gratitude for the tasty meal.

What ancient Tamils ate...

“The five traditional landscapes of Kurinji (mountains), Mullai (forests), Marutham (agriculture fields), Palai (desert) and Neithal (coastal region) had distinct cooking methods, recipes and varied eating culture. Food in ancient Tamil country was based on the landscape and easily available resources,” points out novelist Nanjil Nadan, who's currently penning a book 'Nanjil Nattu Unavu', on the cuisine of a sub-region in Kanyakumari district. Pointing to a story in the Thiruvilayadal Puranam, woven around the simple recipe of Puttu, Su. Venkatesan, says that Tamil literature projects food as a socio-cultural element.

What ancient Tamils ate...

The book Tamizhar Unavu, written by Bhaktavatsala Bharathi has a separate chapter on ‘food in Sangam age’ and enumerates the literary references. Couplets in the Sirupanatrupadai say that people of the Marudham landscape ate white rice with a thick pasty curry made of crab flesh and ridge gourd. It records varieties of white rice, meat, spinach, vegetables, puffed rice, pulses, cereals, legumes and pickles as staple in the diet. The Porunaratrupadai describes how the Kurinji people of Chola country ate tubers and honey. The literary work of Malaipadukadam records a kozhambu made of jackfruit seeds, raw mangoes and tamarind extract that was eaten with bamboo rice and buttermilk . Perumpanatrupadai records a recipe in which Varagu rice, lentils, tamarind pulp and broad bean seeds were cooked together. A song from Purananuru states that meat was marinated in curd before cooking. The kinds of Paalsoru and Puliyodharai find a mention in Agananuru, which also describes a hunting episode in which watchmen guarding millet fields in the Mullai region hunted wild boars and cooked the meat in direct fire.

What ancient Tamils ate...

“The Sangam literature refers to cooking methods like vakkuthal (direct fire cooking) that differed between regions. Direct fire cooking was prevalent in the Kurinji and Mullai landscapes while, frying and sun-drying were common in the Palai and Neithal pockets. It was in the desert areas that preserving methods like pickling were followed,” says Osai Chezhiyan, who is doing a thesis on ancient Tamil food. “In the agricultural belt of Marutham, people predominantly boiled and steamed which later developed into elaborate cooking methods.”

Chezhiyan says that food of the common man in the Sangam Age ranged from ordinary to bizarre. “While millets like varagu, thinai and samai were staple, there were also delicacies that were made on special occasions. Agananuru denotes a recipe of tender pomegranate seeds sautéed in ghee that was a kind of dietary supplement for vegetarians,” he says.

What may sound weird and outrageous today was once popular food of the masses. First in that line is rat meat.

What ancient Tamils ate...

A poem in Natrinai, vividly describes two lovers meeting under an age-old tree. The Thalaivi (lady love) asks an owl nesting in the tree to keep quiet and not disturb their private moment in return of which she promises the fowl a share of rat meat fried in ghee that she lovingly cooked for her Thalaivan. Similarly, Pattinapalai records meat of tortoise and monitor lizards as food of the Neithal region.

The Purananuru names fish varieties such as Vilangu, Pothi, Theli and Valai that were caught in the slush in agriculture fields of the delta region during the harvest of paddy.

“Going by the literary references, ancient Tamil society was predominantly meat-eating. It was only in Marutham, the vegetables dominated the platter. However, there are few references to food in the royal palaces that were distinct and varied,” says K Vikram, a Hosur-based researcher on Tamil cuisine. He points to a poem in Porunaratrupadai in which a poet named Mudathama Kanniyar describes the royal lunch he was treated to in the palace of the Chola king. “Skewered goat meat, crispy fried vegetables, rice and over 16 varieties of dishes are mentioned as part of the lunch. Likewise, songs in Purananuru discuss feasts served in the palaces as 'Arusuvai Virundhu’.

TV personality Chef Dhamu says the tradition of cooking meat and vegetables together can be seen in the interior parts of southern Tamil Nadu. “Touring around Kanadukathan in Sivaganga district, I was surprised to find brinjal and ladies finger in fish curry. I also discovered that mutton is cooked with arakeerai (spinach) and prawns with avarakkai (broad beans).” He lists some of the traditional countryside recipes that are his favourites -- Murungakkai kadala paruppu kurma (drumstick and channa dal curry), Mullangi murungakkai chicken kurma (Chicken curry cooked with radish and drumstick) and Kootanchoru – rice, dal and vegatables cooked together. “On Mattu Pongal day, women in rural areas would get together, set up a sulli aduppu (earthen chulha) and cook what they call as Kari, kozhi or eral choru. The method of cooking rice and meat together was in practice well before the advent of Biryani.”


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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 1:15:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/sangam-literature-offers-abundant-references-to-food-in-the-tamil-country/article24046748.ece

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