One way to tell stories is to read them from a book, another way is to have someone tell you their story, but the best way is to actually be part of the story. Stories in which you experience the story mentally, emotionally and physically. And food stories are stories that you absolutely have to live, breathe and taste yourself. And there’s no better way to do that than traveling across the country, on the road. Because food is essentially sweet, because it is the love of food that moves and gives meaning to so much of life. Living, constantly changing and evolving from village to village, district to district and kilometer to kilometer.
My dear friend Rakesh Raghunathan, who has made it his life’s mission to spread the word and taste South Indian cuisine and shine a light on the trustees of these traditional knowledge systems, has set out to share the food of his ancestors. to discover on a show I’ve seen called Highway Dreams on Zee Zest.
As he drives through the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, full of heritage, art and culture, along the most scenic highway in the state, between Madurai and Sathyamangalam, and through the Western Ghats, I got tears in my eyes with emotion and the reminder of the spice of Chettinad food. I was in Karaikudi nearly 20 years ago and as I watched Rakesh wander the palatial villas and streets famous for their architecture, scale and vibrant colors, it brought back all the complex flavors of Chettinad food. Freshly ground spices, aromas of fenugreek, bay leaf, cumin, tamarind, fennel and turmeric and the secret kalpasi (black stone flower) and dried flower pods cooked with meat and fresh vegetables. Chettinad Mutton Kulambu, Kozhukattai Urlai roast and Paniyaram cook in the palatial villas that stand still in time.
Rakesh is back on the road, driving through beaches such as Kovalam near Chennai, visiting fishing villages where fishermen have not only taken to the huge waves to fish, but also to surf. Several years ago, while staying at the Taj Fisherman’s Cove, I wandered up the coast to one of these fishing villages along Kovalam Beach, watching the fresh daily catch coming in. Pomfret, Prawn, Red Snappers, Crabs and Sting Ray. Also local favorites like Parai and Vanjiram or King Fish. And if I remember correctly, some casual restaurants even let you choose your own fish, and cook it in front of you, marinated with a special masala and freshly fried. Interestingly, I found that the fishermen were mainly Christians, the fishmongers were Hindus, while the restaurants were Muslim-owned. Just love it.
Rakesh then drives from Rameshwaram to Dhanushkodi, also known as the last country of India. A breathtaking and scenic drive of 19 kilometers with a deep blue sea on either side; the Indian Ocean on one side, the Bay of Bengal on the other. Rameshwaram is, of course, a revered religious site, and traditional Tamil food is a must-have. But for me, Puliyodarai is the best to eat at Rameshwaram. Tamarind, Bengal Gram and rice with a tempering of curry leaves. It is cooked for the gods and eaten only once, presented as prasadam. Then of course there is Rasam and Rice. Fiery rasam enriched with black pepper, cumin, tamarind, jaggery and garlic. The meal should end with Paruppu Payasam. Cooked with moong dal, jaggery, coconut milk, ghee and nuts. Rameshwaram is also famous for its seafood and you will find many local hotels and restaurants, serving fresh squid, crab and baby octopus, all cooked in traditional gravy or simply fried or grilled.
To really experience the cuisine of Tamil Nadu, Rakesh recommends cuisines from Thanjavur and also the food from the interior of Dindigul and the Nilgiris. The food of Thanjavur is a mix of traditional Brahmin and Mukkulathor, the undeniable influence of the Marathas. And Dindigul is quite famous for its biryani. But as I said before, some stories you can’t just read, they have to be lived, and you can either live these stories through Rakesh’s eyes, or you just have to get up and go there yourself.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer from Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of this publication.
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