Life & Style

Kanjivaram pattus with a side order of idlis

Rakesh Raghunathan shows how to make the Kanjivaram idli  

The takeaways from a very pleasant evening at Kanakavalli were: Ghee is good for you; try not to mix cardamom and saffron flavours in the same dessert, it is not a good marriage; there is a historical and a cultural context for every iconic thing that exists — in this case the idlis and the pattu saris from Kanchipuram. And oh yes, if you can, add to your Kanjivaram collection.

We are gathered at the beautiful venue for an event called The Taste of Kanchipuram. Rakesh Raghunathan of Puliyogre Travels expounds on the Kanchipuram idlis, and brings home how rich the sacred city of Kanchipuram is culturally and historically. He opens the event with a beautifully sung ‘Pallandu Pallandu’, explains the etymology of Kanchipuram (Ka stands for Brahma and aanchi for Vishnu) and, from there, proceeds to the business of discussing the nitty-gritty of preparing the idli, also called kudalai idli as it is steamed in a woven basket with a lining of mandarai leaves. The idlis find mention in manuscripts that go back to the 7th and 9th centuries.

Raghunathan shows us the texture of the batter — coarse and far-from-white. “That is because one uses urad dal along with the skin,” he explains. That is also the reason that the finished idli is a rather unattractive grey but the heady heat of the ginger and the pepper proves that looks are not everything. Raghunathan continues his demo of other Kanchipuram goodies such as the Vella Puri and the Bun Halwa. He ladles ghee into the sweet with abandon. “Ghee is good for you,” he declares, responding to the rolling eyes and gasps from the audience.

Raghunathan reiterates how important it is to document our culinary history. He describes it is a melting pot of different cultures, peoples and traditions that have seamlessly integrated into the cuisine. Recipes, methods of cooking, ingredients... He exhorts the audience to gather precious information from old living relatives and put them out. He speaks of the importance to get the measures right and move beyond the usual kai alavu maxims we have learnt from our elders.

S Ahalya of Kanakavalli, who organised the event, says, “The idea was to showcase the Kanjivaram within its context of the place, its culture and the richness. And to emphasise the inspiration that’s drawn from the colours we see around us commonly, especially from our food.”

Then, we move indoors for a talk on the gorgeous silks by textile researcher Sreemathy Mohan. She speaks of the weaving and dyeing processes and shares the turbulent journey of the ancient craft that has stood the test of time. Mohan conducts a short quiz where she holds up stunning saris and asks the audience to guess their food-related colours. In the context of what Raghunathan has just told us, every sari hanging tantalisingly in the room reminds one of things edible. There is a thakkali-coloured sari, a mint-green one, of course the mampazham beauty and the royal purple of jamuns. There are orange, chilli-oil red, saffron, cardamom and betel nut coloured saris... The fragrant, tasty and multi-hued edible ingredients unsurprisingly become a source of inspiration for the weavers, the dyers, and the designers.

The grand temples, fragrant flowers, and smells of food being cooked in and around the old city have a vital role to play in the stunning range and spectrum of Kanjivarams that continue to seduce us, just as they did our grandmothers and their grandmothers before them.

And, like Raghunathan says, the motifs, the colour combinations and the textures are a reflection of myriad traditions, muses and cultures of people who have travelled to and from Kanjivaram and have mingled with its inhabitants there and given the six yards its distinctive and timeless identity.

Spot the real one

At one time, a true-blue Kanjivaram could be identified by merely looking for the interlacing of the border and pallu with the body, typical of the labour-intensive Korvai technique. Not any more. Now one goes solely by trust and reputation and by the quality of the silk and zari.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 6:07:42 AM |

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