Food | Food

Why learning to cook Pulicat’s food is important to save this ecologically sensitive wetland

The community taught city chefs how to cook Pulicat’s prawns   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Activism and seafood make for an unusual, but unexpectedly persuasive, meal.

As part of the ongoing Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, an all-star cast recently combined forces to bring Pulicat and its fishing community to the city, by serving up a meal that was a crafty combination of prawn biryani, crab curry and hope.

For this intervention, chefs of Sea Salt joined forces with the women of Pulicat to edit generations of their culinary heritage into one, neat seafood thali, with inputs from Divya Karnad and Chaitanya Krishna of InSeason Fish. And Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha’s most engaging volunteers, social activist-writer Nityanand Jayaraman and Carnatic music vocalist-author TM Krishna stepped in, wielding music and information, to explain why Chennai needs to be more invested in Pulicat.

The result: a set of unique community gatherings for lunch and dinner over three days, using Pulicat’s freshly caught, small, sweet crabs to trigger conversations about sustainability.

Discussing how the restaurant was packed with appreciative diners, Chef Harish Rao, who spent time with the women in Pulicat to learn their recipes, says that the food was an eye-opener.

Fresh catch from Pulicat

Fresh catch from Pulicat   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“There are various villages that come together there: they have an organisation where fisherwomen sit together for meetings. We went to their office premises to meet them,” he says, adding that the chefs quickly realised that the recipes were unique for two reasons. “One is the fact that they have the backwaters, and the sea. So they get a variety of seasonal fish... all line-caught, or with a net,” he says.

Network of communities

So the chefs were able to incorporate fresh ladyfish, silver biddy and mackerel into the thali, in addition to the prawns and crabs the area is known for.

The second is a rich culinary heritage born from this network of Hindus, Muslims and Christians living and cooking side by side. “These women knew each other’s recipes, so we learnt from all of them, together,” says Chef Harish.

When asked for the speciality of the area, the women cooked up crunchy prawn karakal, an ingenious dish that involves boiling fresh prawns till the water evaporates, then roasting them till crisp in the same kadai, with sea salt and red chillies. “It just opened my eyes,” says Chef Harish, who has spent years collating recipes from communities across South India. He adds, “I had never seen anything like it.”

Every meal featured a classical vocalist. On Saturday night, TM Krishna performed, opening with a powerful, and disarmingly casual rendition of the now familiar ‘Poramboke’, which was released in 2016 as part of the campaign to save Ennore Creek and the Kosasthalaiyar river.

Special meals

Special meals   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

As he walked between tables singing — after wryly commenting, “I’ve been told I have to sing for my supper,” — the Sea Salt team began serving thalis, featuring mackerel puttu, dainty prawn vadais, crab masala and lady fish fry, in addition to a fragrant prawn biryani, and a cool, creamy rose kheer.

Discussing why this event is a vital part of Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, Nityanand said, “Pulicat is one of the most important wetlands in Chennai. And it is under threat.” He spoke about “the danger of large industrial projects coming up, which threaten to smother the wetlands...”

Head to Pulicat
  • The Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha concludes with a day at Pulicat on February 16, starting with a Nature trail from the sea to the backwaters, traversing over sand dunes. This will be followed by lunch, cooked by the Pulicat community. It culminates in a concert with dance and music, at 4.30 pm.
  • Buses are being organised. Check out the festival’s Facebook page for details on registration.

The Hindu reported in August 2019 how, with the Kattupalli port expansion plan getting the initial nod from the Centre, the locals — fishermen and farmers — fear a loss of livelihood. And how, continued industrialisation of the city’s far North has left a fragile, already polluted ecosystem gasping for breath. It adds that representatives from villages around the project Master Plan publicly opposed it, saying that the expansion will mean the destruction of an ecology that sustains the livelihood of around 50,000 fisherfolk in and around the Ennore-Pulicat region.

“When they fight this battle, it is important that we support them,” added Krishna, “For our own survival, we need places like Pulicat.”

He then launched into a song of the fishermen, pausing only to explain that most fishermen don’t sing any more since mechanised boats lack the rhythm of the row boats. By the second verse, everyone was singing along.

In these times, chaotic with bad news and frenetic social media campaigns, Krishna and Nityanand have realised that the most powerful way to connect with a distracted urban audience is to attach compelling faces to causes.

Even amidst an empathy burnout, it is difficult to turn away after eating a meal cooked by women like the smiling G Rajalakshmi, who entreated diners to enjoy their meal, adding, “We are fighting this battle using food as our weapon.”

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 8:43:39 AM |

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