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Home > Tamil Culture - the Heart of Tamil National Consciousness > Tamil Cuisine > Rice and ritual: the Tamil art of cooking
Rice and ritual: the Tamil art of cooking
Sangam literature paints a vivd picture of the social life of the ancient Tamils and provides the historical background for their eating habits. In the Sangam poems land is classified into five geographical areas and the food related to each area is described.
Many inscriptions chiselled on the walls of temples reveal how food habits and religious practices became intertwined. These epigraphs give an idea of the role of food in rituals, as sacrificing, cooking, dedicating and feasting all became part of worship. Not eating... fasting, also emerged as a ritual.
By the 11th-12th century AD, caste groups had appeared with distinct lines of demarcation, and the eating habits of each caste began to assume different characteristics. (The culinary profile of the castes can still be noted by the careful observer). Such issues as "who can serve whom?" and "from whom can one accept food?" became significant in the context of caste structure. Depending upon the degree to which a caste was "Sanskritized", it became vegetarian or non-vegetarian. A tradition of vegetarianism, which was largely absent from ancient Tamil Nadu began to emerge, mainly as a result of the popularity of Buddhism and Jainism.
Over the years, certain interesting concepts in food appeared. Taste was classified into six groups, and all food commodities were divided into two broad categories, hot and cold. The whole of Tamil cuisine is still largely based on this classification which also influenced indigenous medicinal practices: illnesses were classified as hot and cold and the diet therapy was based on treating with cold food those caused by heat and with hot food those caused by cold. This belief still persists. Chicken pox, for example, is believed to be a manifestation of body heat and the foods permitted are those that are supposed to counter this heat--fruit, butter milk and tender coconut.
Some of the recipes that were in use in the 1st century AD are still being followed today, pretty much unchanged. Cooking is elaborate and complex, and is considered to be a fine art. Treatises on cookign specify the size of the kitchen, the kind of stove to be used, the direction in which the stove is to face, and even the desirable characteristics of a cook (he should be "a native born and good caste, he should observe the cooking and eating taboos, not harbour any grudge, be absolutely clean in his habits, and always tie his long hair into a bun").
The everyday diet is fairly austere, consisting of boiled rice, sambar (dhal [lentils] vegetable and tamarind), fish or meat curry (for non-vegetarians), a vegetable pugadh, rasam (spicy pepper water) and curds. On special occasions payasam, a milk-based dessert flavoured with cardomom, is served.
Even in affluent families there is not much variety in the daily menu, but when there are guests or a wedding is held it is a totally different story, and a truly ambrosial meal will be producted. the food served on these occasions is an indication of the hosts' status.
Eating habits vary geographically and are shaped largely by what is grown in the different areas. In the riverine and delta regions, paddy, sugar cane, banana and coconut figure largely in the diet. In dry areas millets and grams are the major foodstuffs.
The delicate blending of herbs, condiments and spices is the touchstone of good cookery. The combination and quantity of spices used vary from family to family, providing subtle variations in taste. The contrast between opposing tastes is a recurring theme. Most of the popular dishes like sambar, morekolumbu (curds and spices with cocnut) pulikolumbu (a spciy sour curry with vegetable and tamarind) and the red-hot fish and meat curry are all different combinations of sour and hot tastes.
The staple cereal in most parts of Tamil Nadu is, of course, rice, which is often eaten at all three meals. Breakfast in most middle class families consists of idli (a rice and dhal batter, steamed), dosai (the same batter fried like a pancake), puttu (a steamed rice-flour preparation served with coconut scrapings, bana, and sugar), idiappam (a rice-fluor dough pressed through a mould to resemble vermicelli and steamed) or appam (a rice-flour and coconut delicacy fermented with toddy and cooked like a pancake).
In modern Tamil cuisine coffee has become one of the main drinks. Brewed from freshly roasted and ground beans, and served with plenty of milk and sugar, it is always drunk at breakfast. This method of coffee-making is holding its ground in all Tamil kitchens in the face of instant coffees promoted in the media.
Change in food habits is slow in coming to Tamil Nadu, but some signs of it can be seen. Wheat is being increasingly used in urban areas. Chappathi (wheat flour pancake) may be substituted for rice, especially for dinner, and poori (a deep-fried wheat pancake) and potato be served as breakfast.
Though stainless steel cutlery and crockery are used in urban homes, food is still served on ceremonial occasions in the traditional way--on a banana leaf. The leaf is spread in front of the diner, with the tip ointed left. Serving begins with salt and pickle being placed at the extreme left. The first course is sweet--everything has to begin with a sweet whether it is an infant's first solid meal or the newly-wed's first drink. The series of vegetable dishes, pachadi (a vegetable and curd salad) and the crisp appalam, all of which go with the various rice courses, are placed on the top half of the leaf. With every course the leaf is carefully replenished, the diner's protests being totally ignored. Even among non-vegetarians, ceremonial feasts are always vegetarian.
Every festival and ceremony has a traditional menu. The first rice meal given to a baby in the seventh month is sarkarai pongal, a combination of rice-milk, sugar and ghee. The teething of a child calls for pal koshukattai (tiny rice flakes resembling teeth, cooked in milk with sugar). The coming of age of a daughter is an important family event, as it is in all traditional communities. Milk, banana and sugar are give to the girl and to all well-wishers who visit her. Seemandam, celebrated in the seventh or ninth month of pregnancy, calls for a variety of rice preparations.
Since Tamil Nadu is predominantly agricultural it is not surprising that the most important festival should be pongal, the harvest festival, which is celebrated at the beginning of the Tamil month of Thai. Pongal, which literally means "boiling over", symbolizes the farmer's overflowing prosperity. Newly decorated mud pots are used to cook dishes to fit the occasion, such as sarkarai pongal and ven pongal.
Modernization is slowly bringing changes to the culinary scene. Compromises and adaptations are being made. Traditional receipes that call for elaborate and leisurely cooking are disappearing. Processed foods such as ready-made idli-mix and pre-packed curry powders have invaded urban kitchens. Mechanical aids such as motorized idli-grinders are also being used in traditional cooking. The break-up of the joint family and the increase in the number of career women have inevitably changes some Tamil Eating habits. A movement towards a simpler cuisine can be sensed. All the same, Tamil food practices and their cultural implications still retain their basic character.