Friday, February 25, 2011


The beauty of Tamil Brahmin cooking is in its simplicity-no complicated gravies and time consuming cooking. Usually no garlic and no onion were used. Food was fresh, leftovers were never re-used and ingredients like spices and poddis (masalas) were home-made. Rotis were hardly eaten, and bread was resorted to only when we were sick!
 One of my earliest memories which anchors me revolves around one of my favourite comfort foods- Milagootal or Kootu where coconut is ground into the gravy of vegetables along with jeera, red chillies and pepper. I’m particularly fond of ‘Keerai kootu’- cooked and mashed spinach leaves mixed with boiled tur dal and tempered with urad dal, mustard and red chillies. This is just what the doctor ordered- a perfect mix of proteins and a dose of iron! Another variation is the’ puli vitta kootu’ where tamarind, dal and spices are added together. 

Sambar was a typical dish with rice- often with drumstick or vegetables like carrot and beans. A special treat was the’ aracha vittu sambar’ which had roasted gram dhal, coriander, red chilies roasted and ground with coconut and added to the sambar for a special fragrance and punch! Paati(grandmother) used to make a special ‘Kathrika Rasavangi’ a cross between a sambar and a Rasam with  ground spices, eggplant, tamarind and tur dal which we had with white rice, ghee and ‘sutta appalam’ , the humble roasted papad!
Another on my list of faves was ‘Mor Kozhambu’ a buttermilk based version of the north Indian kadhi which can have ‘Thaan’- sauted okra or cooked white pumpkin or yam. My taste of bliss was my grandmother’s ‘red morkozhambu’ made with fried methi seeds, chana dal and red chillies ground with coconut and mixed with yoghurt and brought to a boil! Perfect with ‘parapu usuli” a typical tambram dish where cooked vegetables like beans are mixed with crumbled steamed Tur dal and tempered with mustard seeds and asafetida!
On rainy days we had ‘Melagu Kozhambu’, roasted and ground pepper in a tamarind base, a variation of the normal ‘vathal kozhambu’ a tangy tamarind paste with vatral- sun-dried vegetables. This was a kind of cleansing as too much Dal could cause indigestion, according to Paati!  These dishes were made in the famous ‘Kal Chatti” a stone dish which imparted a special flavour. All the powders and pastes in my Paati’s home used to be home-made and fresh. Paati used to be famous for her ‘Paavakai pittalai- a bitter gourd sambar with fresh fried and ground masalas and a dash of jaggery which took away the bitter edge!
My grandparents’ home also had a “Thuvaiyal” everyday consisting of a paste of sautéed vegetables and spices. Rice, ghee and thuvaiyal mixed together kick-started many a great meal! On my grandmother’s repertoire were ‘Thuvaiyals’ made from unusual ingredients like orange peel and the scrapings of vegetables like snake gourd and carrot!
Another delicacy that we looked forward to was the ubiquitous ‘pachadi’- the south Indian version of the raita where cool yoghurt was mixed with cut cucumber or grated carrot or fried okra and tempered with mustard seeds and green chillies. Patti’s specialty was the ‘Nelli mulli pachadi’- where dried gooseberry was ground with coconut and green chillies and mixed with yoghurt to give it that special punch!
No meal was complete without a Rasam, a tangy tamarind watery dal which packed a mean protein punch. Rasam used to be made by paati in the traditional ‘Iyam chombu’ or lead vessel until people asked her to give it up as it was harmful! Paati had about ten variations on her list- Pepper rasam on the days we had our weekly ‘oil bath’, Mysore rasam, a spicy concoction with ground spices, a pineapple rasam , the pick-me-up lime rasam, Tomato rasam etc! Paati would mash the rice with a little boiled Tur dal and ghee and pour Rasam into a little valley! Rasam, rice, papadum and a potato curry was the ultimate meal!  Our favourite version of potato was the’ Uralaikazhangu roast’ golden fried potatoes with a tempering of mustard seeds and curry leaves and a fragrance of asafetida. Equally pleasing was the pale yellow ‘ podimas’- boiled and crumbled potato tempered with dals, fresh ginger and green chilli and garnished with freshly grated coconut.
On special days we were treated with a ‘Payasam’ a South Indian kheer. Semiya payasam was usual fare-roasted semolina with milk, nuts and sugar. Other delights were the Parappu Payasam with gram or moong dal, jaggery and powdered cardamom.
Most evening meals were light and typically eaten around 6 Pm and called’palaagharam”. These were not spicy, generally austere meals like dosas with chutneys, puris or Aval upma (a south Indian poha).Every meal used to be topped off with a ‘Mor Saadam’- rice with buttermilk accompanied by ’vada manga’ made from tender, tiny raw baby, mangoes plucked before they grow further, soaked in brine till they shrivelled! Another of Paati’s offerings was home made ‘Vepillai katti”. The name was a misnomer because it indicated that it was made from vepillai or neem leaves but actually its made from tender citron leaves ( narthangai or lime) and curry leaves minced( hand-pounded) together with some tamarind and spices. Another favourite accompainiment to mor saadam was the ‘Mor Milagai’ or the yoghurt chilli! These were green chillies soaked in sour buttermilk for weeks, sun-dried and stored and fried in oil till black! Sometimes we would have creamy Curd rice jazzed up with dals, ginger, green chillies and curry leaves accompanied with Vathal kozhambu. Half a dozen grandchildren would sit around Paati as she dropped these balls of curd rice drizzled with a drop of Vatal kozhambu into our outstretched hands!
I also have memories of festivals and the ‘special’ food that Paati would make on these days of feasting! A great favourite was the ‘Mango pachadi’ made for the Tamil New Year’s Day with raw mango cooked with jaggery and garnished with fresh neem flowers and mustard seeds. Paati’s fruit pachadi was divine- a mix of fruits in sugar syrup. Another favourite was the ‘kozhukatais’, a version of the North Indian ‘modaks’ with a rice flour wrap filled with grated coconut and jaggery flavoured with cardamom! This was made on Ganesh Chathurthi which was a festive day where we bought mud ganeshas with paper umbrellas and stuffed ourselves silly with luscious food! Some days she would make ‘Kalanda saadam’- lemon rice, coconut rice and tamarind rice accompanied by crisp vadams, and crunchy wafers. Long train journeys and family picnics always had these dry rice dishes wrapped up in plantain leaves and newspapers.
Today, I bow to my children’s need for junk food- pizzas, chaat and samosas. But when I am stressed out, I reach for my Kal chatti and start cooking paati’s Vattal kozhambu from scratch. To me it’s the ultimate stress-buster!

A variation of this was published by a food magazine...



Lovely article- so well written.

Yes, what I love about tambrahm food is its simplicity and freshness. Nice article which distills the essence of not just the cuisine but the philosophy underlying it.

I'd forgotten rasavangi completely! This is a great, mouthwatering gastronomic trip!

Thanks Priya! Food is such a great part of who we are..

Thanks Sapere Vivere,for visiting and the comments!

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