It’s the first time I am meeting K.V. Sridhar, and I have been reduced to tears. “See, not spicy at all,” he says, coming out of the kitchen as my eyes and nose water and I gulp down a glass of water. He is referring to the fried red chillies that lose their pungency to a large extent after being alternately soaked in curd and dried several times over.
All rice: (from top) Sridhar says he can make around 300 Andhra-style rice preparations; the coconut and raw mango chutney can be eaten with rice; Mamidikaya Pulihora is the Andhra version of Chennai’s tamarind rice. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
But that surely applies only to Andhra taste buds used to a regular diet of fried chillies as a side dish, red chillies in the main dishes that are garnished with green chillies and eaten with red chilli and mustard pickle.
“Chillies are the beginning and end of everything in Andhra food,” says Sridhar, national creative director, Leo Burnett, as we enter his kitchen to prepare some Andhra delicacies made with kairi, or raw mangoes, now in season. In fact, a mix of chilli pickle with rice is a personal breakfast favourite. Sridhar loves to eat and likes to cook for his family on weekends. His favourite, of course, is Andhra cuisine.
Sridhar is a vegetarian who hates salads—“make me feel like a cow”—and mushrooms and avoids certain other foods because he is diabetic. When he travels to exotic locales around the world for advertising festivals and meetings, he boils ready-to-eat packets of MTR sambhar rice or pongal in the hotel room kettle. “I carry a small pressure cooker and frying pan along with masalas and rice,” he laughs.
The maid has set out the ingredients and left and now Pops, as he’s fondly called, is the king of his kitchen. The first dish he’s making is Mamikkaya Pappu, or raw mango dal. He pours oil in a small saucepan for the seasoning—something he does for all the three dishes he prepares—and soon the kitchen fills with the smells and sounds of chillies frying and mustard seeds popping.
Growing up in Andhra Pradesh, Sridhar recalls, he “hated to eat”. Later, as a chain smoker going through 80 cigarettes a day, his sense of taste and smell went numb. “While travelling abroad, lunch was beer and dinner was rum with coke,” he laughs.
But after he was diagnosed as a diabetic six years ago, cigarettes and alcohol made way for an actual diet and love for good food—“now that I had no other passion or debauchery left,” he says. Having grown up helping his mother in the kitchen, he always knew his way around it (he says she brainwashed him into it, telling him that cooking was an art and science and since he had an aptitude for both, he would make a great cook). “Cooking made me realize the pains my mother used to take to prepare those meals,” he says. Now he cooks on weekends, giving his wife, who is also an expert in Andhra food, a break.
“So how spicy do you want it?” he asks. “As spicy as you usually make it,” I say. “Are you sure?” he looks at me doubtfully. Later, gulping water at the dinner table, I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned.
Mamidikaya Pulihora, or the Andhra version of Chennai’s tamarind rice, uses raw mango pulp instead of tamarind for the sour touch. “People don’t know much about Andhra food. Hyderabadi cuisine is Nizami food, which is very different. I can make about 300 preparations of rice the Andhra way,” he says. He first adds seasoning to the rice, then the mango pulp and then mixes everything with his fingers. The rice is hot out of the pressure cooker but that doesn’t seem to bother him at all.
Sridhar then proceeds to wash his hands. “I cannot touch anything else after I’ve touched rice,” he says, explaining one of his mother’s kitchen superstitions. Nor can he taste the food being served to guests. “It becomes jhootha, my mother would say.”
He needn’t have worried; the salt is just right, as is the chilli. Sridhar suggests adding ghee to the rice and ending the meal with lots of curd to settle the stomach. “What you just ate was grade 5, the highest on the scale of hot food,” he says.
Burning tummy and vapourizing palate notwithstanding, it was the best home-made meal I’d had in a long time.
(Raw Mango Rice)
1/2 grated raw mango
1/2 tsp salt
4 tsp oil
4 dry red chillies
1 tsp chana dal (Bengal gram), mustard seeds and hing (asafoetida) powder
1/2 tsp urad dal (skinned black gram)
6 curry leaves
Cook the rice till it’s al dente. Add the raw mango, the seasoning and salt to it and mix.
Mamikkaya Pappu (Raw Mango Dal)
100g cooked toor dal (split pigeonpea)
1 small raw mango, peeled and cut
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp chilli powder
Same as for Mamidikaya Pulihora, except halve the quantities of both dals.
Cook the raw mango pieces in water to which salt, chilli powder and some curry leaves have been added, till soft. For seasoning, heat the oil, add all the ingredients and fry quickly. Now add water and mango pulp to the dal and cook till it becomes thick. Garnish with green chillies and coriander.
Raw Mango and Coconut Chutney
1/2 coconut, grated
1/2 raw mango, grated
4 tsp oil
4 dry red chillies
2 green chillies
1/2 tsp urad dal
1 tsp chana dal
1/2 tsp hing powder
Fry the ingredients for seasoning in the oil. Grind them along with the coconut and mango. Garnish with fried mustard seeds and two fried chillies.