Strange things can come of raiding your students’ lunch boxes. You could receive uncomfortable stares and snide remarks. Or you could get intrigued enough by the food to abandon your teaching career and plunge into the investigation of local, often endangered, recipes. Jacob Aruni, once the principal of a catering college in the town of Kangeyam, near Erode in Tamil Nadu, went the way of intrigue.
Travel notes: Aruni’s fish koththu parotta is a dish he learnt on one of his many culinary sojourns. Hemant Mishra / Mint
“That was the inspiration. That was how I began my travels, six years ago,” says Aruni, 34, one of the most exciting restaurant consultants in south India.
Aruni has crafted restaurants in Chennai—the newest, a seafood emporium named Kattumaram—as well as in Bangalore and Pune. Each emerged out of various legs of what Aruni calls “my researches”: extended rambles around Tamil Nadu, invading the kitchens of homes and small restaurants with his curiosity, eating and asking questions and eating some more.
This departure from the beaten path was not the first for Aruni. After three years of studying undergraduate physics, he decided he’d had enough and enrolled in a catering college. After a year as a professional chef, he decided he’d had enough of that too and began teaching. If there is a still less beaten path leading away from his present role as a wandering food researcher, Aruni will probably find it and take it.
“The first area I researched was Kongunad, around Kangeyam (Tirupur district),” Aruni says. “Then I went back to my own region of Nanjil Nadu, the belt from Madurai to Kanyakumari. That was tougher: I didn’t have students to guide me there.” His next three projects involved digging up recipes from the ancient Tamil Sangam era, a couple of millennia old; developing food that uses flowers as its primary ingredients; and mastering the balance and flavours of Ayurvedic cooking.
“The hardest part of all this is simply getting people to demonstrate a dish—it needs so much persuasion,” Aruni says. “The cooks are mostly ladies, who rarely leave their kitchens, and here’s an alien like me coming and asking them questions about their food. I often need to convince them that I don’t intend to exploit the recipe commercially.”
Once in a while, Aruni has even had to settle things with a cook-off. “The best cook in one village was supposed to be a woman in her 70s, named Sigappi, and I was very eager to meet her,” he remembers. “The first time I went, she was ill. So after four or five weeks, I went back. She was better but she was not ready to talk at all.”
So Aruni cut a deal with her: He would cook her a dish, and if she failed to identify what had gone into it, she would share some recipes with him. “I made a halwa with cottonseeds—stuff that is usually fed to cows,” Aruni says. “She couldn’t guess, and I told her what it was. Then she remembered that she’d had similar halwa when she was a girl, when her great-grandmother had made it.” Thrilled, Sigappi unloaded a wealth of recipes on Aruni, including, he says, “ragi (millet) coffee, and rice cooked with betel leaves”. Shortly after that, when Aruni revisited the village, he learnt that she had died.
In a way, that experience encapsulates the value of Aruni’s venture, yanking recipes and their history into the documented realm before they disappear forever. “In India, every 30km the food changes,” he says. “But people only tend to know Punjabi or Chettinad food, even though there are so many other wonderful cuisines.”
In Kattumaram, Aruni cooks for Mint a Chennai favourite with a seafood subtext: Fish koththu parotta. It’s a small kitchen, but Aruni moves with economy and speed. The shredded paratha that emerges is a picture of fried, golden-brown goodness.
Aruni, despite his study of Ayurvedic food, refuses to have his food be a bearer of messages or warnings. “I don’t believe in having food be medicinal or anything like that,” he says. “Food is food. It should be enjoyed and indulged as such.”