Eating through Tamil Nadu

March 19, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:52 am IST

The restaurant owner conveyed his welcome with a hard-boiled egg foreach of us, compliments of the house

I start any trip with expectations. I thought I would spend three weeks driving and eating my way through Tamil Nadu, from Pollachi to Chennai, and enjoy a certain cuisine, with some regional variation. I had a mental image of shining green banana leaves—or steel thalis— serially laden with steaming white rice, several green vegetables, yellow dal, crisp golden papads on the side and maybe brown fried fish for a change. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The variety in dals and vegetables—not just the style of cooking, from poriyal to koottu and masiyal and from kuzhambu to sambar and rasam —but the choice of which vegetable, is as exciting as a trip abroad.

In fact we came to the conclusion, after driving 15,000 kilometres through towns and villages so small and so far off the national and state highways that the signposts were only in Tamil, that we felt at home. However, since the language and even the script were totally foreign, we were, for all purposes, in a foreign land.

We stopped for lunch at small, almost unmarked villages and ate unlimited meals with superb service. In Munnar, we ate at two restaurants, each with cold rice and, among everything else, hot, blackened, twice-fried fish, and the helpings and service were more than attentive. En route Munnar to Madurai, at MASS Biriyani, the owner was so happy to see us eat our “meals” that, despite the difficulty in language, he conveyed his welcome with a hard-boiled egg for each of us, compliments of the house. I remember that the poriyal was of beetroot, not my favourite vegetable, but so crisp-tender and coconutty that I had three helpings. And the rice was hot.

Unlimited meals

Madurai was our next stop and the less said about the city the better. But the hotel we stayed in more than made up for the grime and tackiness of the city. We were in a spacious white cottage with a huge terrace situated on over 60 acres of hills overlooking the city, with a view of the temple towers.

At breakfast we were joined by peacocks so tame that they came up and asked for toast. Amma’s mess was recommended for lunch and that was a perfectly grotty experience—not to be repeated. Back at the hotel while we sat on the cool, breezy lawns and stared at the city twinkling in the middle distance, they plied us with snacks which, despite our best resolve, we tasted. Thence no appetite at all for dinner. The maître d’ insisted on “soup at least” and I can honestly say that I have never eaten one so delicious, richly flavoured and yet so delicate and light. It was Nenjelumbu Charu .

I drank up the scenery and ate up the food everywhere but in my mind there was one destination: The Bangala in Karaikudi in the Chettinad region. Everyone I spoke to, when planning the trip, recommended the place. The Chettinad region, with its tales of merchant travels, ornate carved teak mansions, and rich colour of handlooms and Athangadi tiles had always been on my bucket list, but the food of the region, despite my limited exposure—mostly to Chettinad Chicken—was the biggest draw. And The Bangala… how do I say this? It was the most generous, gracious, richly textured place I could have hoped for. Although I had set myself up for disappointment, it surpassed all expectations. Not only was it elegant and yet homey, it was managed in a way that is particularly impressive for a stand-alone property. But impeccable housekeeping can only be a comfortable backdrop. The pièce de résistance is the food.

We arrived some time before lunch, walking in through quiet verandahs built around a grassy garden shaded by a giant jackfruit tree, laden with golden fruit. I’d been in correspondence with Ms. Meyyappan, whom everyone had talked about reverentially, and she met us with warmth and chilled beer. I asked for tender coconut water and there it was. And after that we were in their hands.

Annapurni, a local lady who does some admin work and shows people around her hometown, was our guide. The intense hues of the tiles, the rich brown of the teak and the rainbow of the saris were splashes of colour in a brown landscape; the Bangala was an oasis, beautiful and alluring in itself. We had so many meals there over three days that they’ve blurred somewhat in my mind, but from what I can remember, the first day’s lunch started with banana leaves placed on the table, kicking off my excitement. On the leaves came white rice with a sprinkling of green peas; a sweet and sour chutney of pineapple one day and mango the next; rasam of tomato one day and crab the next; a hot kuzhambu of ladyfinger; a pale curry of chicken breast; spicy dark brown crab masala in the shell, accompanied with sharp steel extracting forks; and a red and white pachchadi of fresh pomegranate seeds in yoghurt. Everything was delicious.

And everything worked because of the juxtaposition of textures, levels of spiciness, and tastes: salty, sweet and sour. What I loved most was the ‘chowchow’ koottu : mild, creamy, almost sweet in its gentleness. It probably tasted as good as it did because it complemented the other dishes served for lunch that day, most of which were highly flavoured and seasoned. ‘Chowchow’ is a plant in the gourd family, Cucurbitacae, like its cousins melon, cucumber and squash. Cooked with moong dal and a hint of coconut and ghee , its juicy blandness is a calm counterpoint to the pepper and spices of the region.

From Chettinad we drove to Kumbakonam, Puducherry and thence to Chennai.In Thanjavur district, we saw enough lush paddy fields to explain the cuisine, but more goats than menus in TN evidenced. Pongal was on when we visited Kumbakonam, and one day we drove to Darasuram, a restored temple. Thick maroon sugarcane was being sold nearby on account of the festival, and the town was bustling with shoppers (buying woollen monkey caps!) and other holidaymakers.

Arabian lunch

In Kumbakonam, we stayed in a resort, beautiful but vegetarian, and decided to eat something different one day. So we drove into town, visited a temple, and I dredged from memory the term ‘Military Hotel’. We asked passers-by so helpful that many offered to walk or drive us to our destination, Alif.

The place, bang on the street, looked unprepossessing and its menu surprisingly full of Arab-influenced dishes. We had delightfully crisp tandoori roti and some curries but while we were waiting I saw a giant rotisserie—one that handled a few dozen whole chickens at a time. The boy in charge was deftly and ambidextrously cutting up hot chicken and I understood too late that perhaps we should have gone Middle Eastern. But the roti was good and I’ll remember Alif in Kumbakonam.

From the once-forbidden joy of eating eggs to the pleasure of other people’s packed “tiffin” for journeys to the ingratitude of dinner guests, the writer reflects about every association with food.

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.