The poet’s soul food

Vairamuthu on the evolution of Tamil food culture, and why he believes that rasam is not food, it is medicine

September 04, 2017 05:26 pm | Updated September 08, 2017 03:26 pm IST

Do you know the diet of a labourer who toils hard in the fields, asks poet Vairamuthu. “At the end of the day, they make a tamarind-based watery gravy using one brinjal and a few dried fish. It is eaten with rice bought from a ration shop. The leftover rice is then soaked in water overnight, and eaten the next morning mixed with salt, chilli and onion.”

He continues, “Is this not ironic? In our society, those who work hard physically eat less food, lacking in nutrition, while those who don’t exert themselves physically, end up eating an overload of nutrient-rich food.”

“We have ceased to assess our lifestyle and plan our caloric intake. Understand your body and plan your diet; focus on a balanced meal and don’t give in to craving. Only such a practice can enable a disease-free life,” he says.

Vairamuthu won the Sahitya Akademi award for his novel, Kallikkattu Ithigasam , a story of displaced villagers and farmers, who had to vacate their lands for the water catchment area of the Vaigai dam, when it was constructed.

Little on the plate

“We were reeling under poverty and displaced from our lands. Cholam or ragi porridge, varagu kanji and samai soru were the staple diet of my childhood. Only for Deepavali, Pongal and during the Aadi festival, was meat cooked at home. Nellu soru dhaan vishesham. Whenever there was a wedding in the village, everyone used to look forward to eating white rice, and ate mounds of it with sambar and rasam ,” he reminisces.

Traditional Tamil food is a subject close to Vairamuthu's heart and he has researched on this, especially on rasam , which be believes is the invention of a Tamil woman, a food scientist, many centuries ago.

“Tamil food culture is rich and ancient. It finds mention in the literature of the Sangam period. There is mention of udumbu kari (meat of monitor lizard), muyal kari (rabbit meat) and maan kari (deer meat) as part of Tamil food culture. Tender pomegranates and butter ( maadhulai pinjum vennaiyum ) are also mentioned as Tamil unavu . It is more sophisticated than pulikulambu and thogayal . Tamils ate food derived from locally available crops in their landscape. Wheat was alien to them.”

“I have eaten food prepared by four generations of women in my family. It is amazing how women learn and absorb cooking traditions. Rasam made by my sister tastes exactly like the rasam my grandmother used to prepare. Rasam is not food, it is medicine, and that is why it is made every day in Tamil households. One must understand the science behind it,” he says.

Black pepper produces hydrochloric acid, which is necessary for the digestion of concentrated proteins; cumin is high on magnesium and protects the digestive system; garlic is packed with essential minerals for blood purification; tomato is rich in vitamins A and D and promotes heart health; red chilli is rich in vitamins A and C, and known to prevent prostate cancer and coriander leaves promote bone health and are a rich source of iron. “Since rasam is prepared with such ingredients, you will understand how our food culture has evolved over many centuries,” the poet says.

In a five-star hotel in Chennai, Vairamuthu says he once ate a dish of Asian Greens, with broccoli, beans, celery and a mix of cruciferous vegetables cooked with garlic. “This dish costs ₹ 2,000, but the local greens such as murungai, agathi, ponnankanni , and manathakkali are more superior.

Hardworking labourers can easily derive a daily dose of fibre and minerals from these. But what stops them from eating it when it is available for only ₹ 20 a bunch? Is it the association of keerai with poverty,” he asks.

Vairamuthu begins his day with a herbal concoction made by combining oregano, Indian basil, coriander and mint leaves with a dash of pepper and a pinch of turmeric powder. He also decides his daily meal menu carefully, and includes a variety of local leafy greens every day.

“I have reduced consumption of non-vegetarian food. But I do eat chicken twice a week; mutton biryani once a month. And on days when dinner is delayed and it is closer to my bed time, I eat one-fourth of my usual meal.”

These days, he gets tips on eating out from sons Madhan Karky and Kabilan. “My sons did their higher studies in Australia, and they share useful insights about how restaurants work as they both worked part-time at restaurants there.”

World platter

Having travelled across the globe, Vairamuthu says he has tasted almost all the cuisines of the world. “I didn’t find Japanese food palatable as it seemed too raw. Neither did I enjoy the live sea food counter in Singapore. In fact, I was put off by the sight of the lobster. It is my rasam soru that I look forward to when I return from my overseas trips,” he chuckles.

“Traditionally, in Tamil Nadu, food is served on a banana leaf, where rice is served closer to you and all vegetables served on the outer side. Now, just turn the leaf around, keep rice at a distance, and have all the vegetables closer to you. Ensure there are colourful vegetables in your everyday diet, as they are rich in antioxidants,” says Vairamuthu when asked for a tip on eating healthy. “Food defines us; you are what you eat.”

A fortnightly column where film personalities talk about their trysts with food

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