There is a return to potions, lotions and powders also known as podis in South India. These are tiny portions of pulverized lentils and spices, mixed with oil and mashed into the food, with a view to balancing the negative and positive forces in the body. In a pre-marketing era, a pinch of podi was all that you got with your idli. Now these have become the weapons of mass consumption. They are labelled with tongue-twisting terminology and displayed with suitable gravity in the health-food shops and restaurants that have sprung up all across the metros of the South. Chennai particularly has become the Herbus Prima of holistic living.
All across the city, eco-warriors are returning to their roots and digging into their ancestral chests to rediscover the culinary truths that their grandmothers and grand-aunts had thrust down their throats, proclaiming the benefits of dry ginger water, arrowroot congee and that panacea for all disorders, external or internal—aloe vera.The promise is whole-body renewal as restaurateurs go green and lecture their clients on the need to detoxify their systems, welcome free radicals and eliminate the forces of excessive consumption through the introduction of fibre-rich products, that are handily on sale, even before you get in through the main door, that has been hung with a garland of—what else—fresh aloe vera.
There appear to be two distinct trends of thought on how to go organic. One is the international way that depends on smart packaging, the creation of different brands and labels that will appeal to the up-market consumer. The second group is more local, but talks in global terms. They consist most often of Indians, who are beginning to see the wisdom of the East being turned into an attractive product before the Chinese or the Japanese decide to get into the act.
“We want to give back something to society that is why we have started the Cholayil Sanjeevanam concept that we hope to expand globally for the benefit of the common man” explains Arayamparambil Vasavan Anoop, director of Cholayil Sanjeevanam. “It’s a holistic approach to health that combines our ancient practice of Ayurveda with health foods that are prepared freshly by us in the most hygienic conditions and served according to certain strict principles that we have adapted to our modern needs.” He explains that not only does the name Cholayil refer to a well- known family of ayurvedic practitioners that goes back 500 years—their company Cholayil Phamaceuticals Pvt. Ltd has been dealing with popular brands of soaps and talcum powders such as Medimix for the last three decades and Cuticura for the last five or six years. Medimix is known in the trade as the largest-selling ayurvedic soap “in the world”, while it’s equally well-known that no self-respecting Keralite, of either sex, would ever step out of the house without a judicious dab of Cuticura powder.
It’s much the same with the manner in which food is served at any one of the three Cholayil Sanjeevanam outlets at Chennai (Mogappair, Adayar, Nungambakkam).
The fame of the Rajakeeyam diet is such that unless you get there early, there’s a danger that you may not get it. It’s something of a privilege. The waiters are also like preceptors, wholly conscious of their duty to guide the first-time visitor into appreciating the finer nuances of what has been planned to represent a Sattvic dietary experience.
Like very strict parents, they have been trained to say “no” to various whining demands that a person might make for pickle or salt, or other add-ons with the meal.
To begin with, it’s served on a banana leaf. This in itself is nothing odd in the South. The first hint of disciplining the grosser instincts starts when you are warned that no water will be served till the end of the meal, that too, only warm water. No rice is allowed either till the last.
What you get instead are a variety of extracts and juices that have been freshly squeezed or strained through a cloth. These can range from the extract of plantain pith, gooseberry, pomegranate, date, the milk of almonds, the water in which the rice has been washed, or all of the above. Your priestly waiter warns you that not only must you drink the juices that are served in mini-glass tumblers, the sort that were used in the old days by the elders in the family for a tot of rum, or the equally potent “arishtams” (fortified herbal health potions), but that each juice awakens some part of the tasting apparatus that lurks in every tongue. They must be sipped in a strict order of precedence.
Thus awakened, you are ready for the next course, which is also served in groups of five, but this time the items are freshly cut, or scraped, or sprouted and combined to create relishes that have both texture and taste. Suddenly, all of one’s taste buds appear to be enjoying the experience. The meal progresses in this manner from raw, to fresh, to semi-cooked, fully cooked, and ends with a helping of rice. At some point, there is also some variation on a rich Kerala-style kheer, which is made with jaggery, coconut milk, with rice dumplings, or banana. Refined foodstuffs, for instance sugar and maida, are left out, no red chillies, vinegar, tur dal, onions or garlic are used, oil is kept to a minimum, while the foods themselves are very lightly cooked, so that they retain their colour and crunch. The final touch is the most surprising. The waiter asks you to stretch out your right palm and before you know it, he’s placed a dollop of thick honey at the centre of it. You automatically lick the honey up with your tongue and discover in the process a whole new sensual experience.
That is actually what eating at Cholayil Sanjeevanam does; it awakens you, very gently, to a different way of enjoying your food. “We are well aware of the need to package our product if we need to attract the global market,” says A.V. Anoop. “But we also know that we have to proceed slowly because of our dependence on certain principles, such as perfect hygiene and freshness. We have to find the right ingredients also. It’s not the commercial aspect alone that matters to us, but the need to create a holistic approach that will be available to all those who are interested in maintaining their health.”
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