No idli, no dosa

A fabulously designed cookbook picks and chooses little-known recipes from seven communities of Tamil Nadu


Sheeps trotters. Photo: A.V. Abhay Kumar
Sheeps trotters. Photo: A.V. Abhay Kumar

Is it just my perception or have publishers and writers suddenly woken up to the culinary wealth of southern India? In the past six months, there has been a (relative) glut of cookbooks and food memoirs rooted firmly in the south, of which two stand out: The austere The Udupi Kitchen by Malati Srinivasan and Geetha Rao (Discovering Udupi cuisine), and the warm Tiffin by Rukmini Srinivas (Alternatives in America). To join their distinguished company, now comes Annapurni: Heritage Cuisine from Tamil Nadu, a more flamboyant production altogether, both in design and concept.

First, the design. Till recently, cookbook layouts in India stuck to the straight and narrow, opting for clarity over colour, substituting illustrations for photographs and addressing only the serious cook. Those with slightly bigger budgets threw in four- or eight-page clusters of photographs bunched together, with page references that then had the cook/browser frantically matching picture to recipe. Of late, with food taking over every visual medium, the art/cookbook genre has exploded, with glossy pages and specially commissioned photographs, even if they run the danger of never making the move from coffee table to kitchen table.

Annapurni, however, doesn’t belong to any of these categories: It has photos but not too many; it is no paperback, but far more handy than a coffee table book. In fact, more than a cookbook, it evokes a precious collection of family recipes. You know the kind: a large folio volume maybe, or a regular lined exercise book, covered in neat handwriting, perhaps more than one, slightly yellowed with age and dog-eared, highlighted by a cook’s notes (“ideal with mutton biryani”) and little doodles, a few stains of turmeric and maybe a couple of watermarks, bolstered with photos and clipped sheets of paper, and redolent of meals past and loves long gone.

But there’s substance to Annapurni as well, not just style. Moving away from easy-access family or community recipes, author and collator Sabita Radhakrishna stretches to embrace multiple peoples across South India: Mudaliars, Vellalar Christians, Anglo-Indians, Tamil Muslims, Nattukattai Chettiars, Naidus and Kongunadus, each of them associated with a particular part of the present-day state, even those who are not Tamil-speakers. It does not claim to be an exhaustive listing by any means but the handpicked assortment of recipes from these seven communities indicates the depth and breadth of the food heritage of a single state of the country. There are introductory notes to each of these communities, potted histories and social rituals and eating habits—not encyclopaedic, but enough to pique the interest.

Possibly because of the choice of communities, there seems to be a preponderance of non-vegetarian recipes—I counted seven mutton recipes in the Mudaliar section alone—but, on the upside, I found a few I’d never heard of before, as well as unfamiliar variations. Like the Fried Mutton with Toasted Bread, which calls for the thick slices of bread to be toasted or deep-fried, added to the mutton (cooked with a bunch of spices, chillies and tamarind), and sautéed till the bread absorbs all the flavours; the dish is then served with chapattis or rice. This is one recipe that’s begging to be tried.

Or consider the Pish Pash listed under Anglo-Indian recipes. This was pretty much a nursery staple wherever the Anglo-Indians lived but the version I know best calls for chicken cooked together with rice, and spiced gently with onion, ginger and peppercorns. Radhakrishna’s 70-year-old recipe (with innovations from her mother) uses minced meat, chilli-coriander powder, tuar dal, ginger-garlic paste, tomato and fresh coriander.

The best surprise of all, though, is tucked away at the back of the book, Radhakrishna devotes two full pages to making the perfect South Indian filter coffee. For those, like me, who have struggled with getting the brew right, this is probably as good a breakdown you’re going to get.

On the downside, the book could have done with better editing. Forget the few literals (“marinate” for “marinade”, “off late”), I’d suggest a thorough read-through of the recipes before one actually starts cooking. For instance, in the Black-eyed Bean Curry with Brinjals, the recipe doesn’t actually incorporate the beans in the dish. Elsewhere, too, I noticed that the steps and procedures take for granted a certain expertise and experience in the cook.

Whether you drool over the design or drool over the recipes, Annapurni needs to be on your kitchen shelf, pronto.

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