How a two-thousand year-old recipe taught me about the essence of food
At the point on the map where southern India tapers off in perfect V, Tamil Nadu sits snugly on the eastern coast.
As a destination, it may not have the instagram-ready, ‘bucket list’ pull of Indian states like Kerala or Rajasthan. But if there’s one thing Tamil Nadu does better than anyone, it’s TEMPLES. With over 33,000 ancient monuments – some up to 5,000 years old – Tamil Nadu is India’s official ‘Temple State’.
If you’re awarding that prize to India’s biggest single temple – Tamil Nadu wins again. Every book I’ve read lists Meenakshi Ammam in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, as India’s largest and most important Hindu temple.
Over two days in December 2018, I toured Meenakshi Ammam’s 15 acre site with a professional guide. Add the beauty of the architecture to the giddying height of the 50 metre towers; add the size of the crowds to the visual intensity of rituals – and you have possibly the most engaging spiritual space I’ve ever visited.
I’ll never forget the ritual of the night ceremony in the heart of the temple, in which an image of Lord Shiva (in the form of Sundareswarar) was transported in a silver chariot by temple priests to spend the night in his wife Meenakshi’s shrine. As incense billowed around us, temple priests welcomed Lord Shiva to Meenakshi’s shrine – to a chorus of chanting, drums and horns.
I could write several blogs on the sacred buildings of the ‘Temple State’, and the insights they gave me into Hinduism. Countless words have been written about these world-ranked temples, by people vastly more knowledgeable than me.
I want to dedicate this blog to humbler, non-sacred buildings across Tamil Nadu – and their gentle rituals – which became my personal journey.
I want to celebrate the roadside restaurants of Tamil Nadu.
I want to shout out the virtues of these minimalist foodie palaces… that gave me some of the best food I’ve eaten, and some of the most memorable food rituals I’ve ever shared.
It was the flame that drew me in. Even in the cauldron of an Indian afternoon, the sight of a wood-fired griddle lured me into my first Tamil roadside restaurant – like a moth.
Stepping into the darkened room beyond the griddle, I could see two tired wooden tables, and some plastic stools. It didn’t shout: ‘delicious’.
But sometimes, your gut knows best.
It had taken me years to get to this point.
After countless conversations with other cyclists, and clicks through adventure travel sites – I had finally booked a dream cycle trip: pedalling from West to East across India.
The details of the trip were important. Starting with a swim in the Arabian Sea, at Cochin in Kerala, I wanted to cycle across the country to Pondicherry, and dive into the Bay of Bengal.
I’d be connecting two oceans with a bike – and bringing all my passions together in one hug: India; cycling; sea swimming; and curry. All embraced in an 800km ride.
If this sounds like a lot for a middle-aged cyclist to do solo, then I need to ‘fess up: I had help.
Lots of it.
A Keralan friend – Joss, owner of the beautiful Gramam Homestay in Cochin – had introduced me to Thomas at adventure-holiday company Kalypso Adventures. Thomas and I had exchanged emails and itineraries for months. Suddenly finding myself with a fortnight’s holiday – and not able to join any of Kalypso’s planned tours – I took the plunge and asked Thomas to plan a tour around my dates and my itinerary. I’d be the only client on the trip – with a team around me.
If I’d known my Kalypso team would be Shinas and Danny, I would have chosen the widest part of India I could find – and toured with them for months. They were the ultimate travel companions.
For this very indulgent trip from Cochin to Pondicherry, Shinas would be my one-to-one cycle guide, and Danny my dedicated back-up driver. Two-to-one support… not even Chris Froome gets that.
More about the inspirational Shinas and Danny later.
The site of the griddle was making my mouth water. Standing with Shinas and Danny at the entrance to the restaurant, I watched small, yellow flames play under the griddle. I asked what was cooking.
We ordered three.
The chef fetched dried palm fronds, and pushed them into the hearth. In minutes, flames were spilling out of the front – and the griddle was sizzling.
From the moment the chef spread the batter on the griddle, I knew this was going to be good.
Two thousand years before dosa became the ‘go to’ dish for every fast food restaurant in the Indian sub-continent, cooks in the ancient Tamil Kingdom invented this brilliantly simple, savoury pancake. Indian food historian KT Achaya dates the birth of the dosa to the first century AD, in the Tamil heartland.
Made from a batter of fermented rice and urad dahl (black lentils), dosa is on my list of all-time delicious Indian dishes – as well as being the only one I can’t get close to cooking.
And a dosa was about to be cooked in front of me… in the land where this dish was born… using a wood-fired griddle technique as old as the dosa itself.
For a foodie, eating dosa from a Tamil griddle is like a cosmologist getting a front row seat for the Big Bang.
If you ever find yourself in rural Tamil Nadu, you’ll trip over one of these roadside restaurants in almost every village. They are a Tamil institution. Thrown open to traffic at the front, and sometimes to a yard at the back, they feel like a happy extension to the tarmac. There is sometimes no pavement; occasionally no door. The restaurant is linked to the road as happily as a hand joins an arm.
Dodging the cows and puppies that weave through the traffic in rural India, the first thing you’ll see as you approach the restaurant is the metre-square black slab of the wrought-iron griddle… flames and wood smoke below. The sight of a griddle came to make me feel hungrier than any number of Michelin stars.
For a couple of happy minutes, we watched the cook spread the batter into a perfect circle, as steam hissed upwards. Shinas, Danny and I then stepped out of the glare of road into the half-light of the restaurants, and sat at one of the tables.
The ritual that followed in that restaurant is followed changelessly – thousands of times a day – in countless roadside restaurants across Tamil Nadu.
The ‘banana leaf ritual’ went like this….
after a wait of a few minutes, a jug and metal beakers appeared on our table – followed by a pile of fresh, cut banana leaves. Some time later, a hand unfolded a section of leaf in front of each of us –with the spine facing the centre of the table, and the soft palm falling to the edge. If there were any flecks or blemishes on the leaf, it was swapped for another, and another, until there was a shiny green rectangle in front of each of us. Shinas and Danny then filled their right hand from their metal cup, and dotted their banana leaf with a fine drizzle. It’s a knack. Again, with their right hand, they smoothed the droplets of water across the waxy sheen of the leaf – then picked it up, and gently shook the droplets onto the floor.
All in silence.
The banana leaf was our plate for every course we were about to eat; our right hand our only cutlery. Both were clean, and dust free.
We were ready to eat.
Is there a more perfect way to start a meal?
Soon after the ‘leaf ritual’, someone brought us each a hot, rolled dosa. Another family member brought over the trinity of sauces served with this dish: sambar; coconut chutney; pickles. Each sauce was ladled from a jug, using a tiny spoon.
And the taste!
Sambar is the single reason I started to cook Indian food. I first ate it in Glasgow’s Mother India, and it blew my mind. Because I couldn’t find world-class sambar anywhere else after leaving Glasgow, I started to buy Indian recipe books and the ingredients to make it myself. I bought Monir Mohammed’s Mother India recipe book (no sambar recipe, Monir) and have tweeted the chef repeatedly to ask for his help (so far, unanswered). I have pestered celebrity chefs in their posh London restaurant (Vineet Bhatia, I’m thinking of you) and followed their tips. I have got agonisingly close to cooking Mother India’s masterpiece, but never quite arrived.
Eleven years later, sitting in this nameless Tamil roadside restaurant, I am back in the arms of perfect sambar. The zing of homemade tamarind sauce meets the soothing balm of fresh drumsticks. It is genius. The sambar blends perfectly with the coarsely-ground coconut chutney, and firey red pickle.
All three blend in puddles on my banana leaf. I look at my hand – fingers coated in sauce – and I realise I have never seen or tasted a better eating implement in my life. I touch the banana leaf – lending its subtle flavour to the sauces poured onto it – and know that any other plate, bowl or dish is an insipid imitation.
This is food at its simplest, most elemental – and most delicious.
And I’m freed from the nagging voice that talks to me in almost every dish I eat, in any modern restaurant, in India or anywhere else. For all the agonising attention to detail of contemporary eating (rare ingredients, micro-angled lighting, global wine list) I’m nagged by the sense there’s something missing.
This roadside restaurant shouts the answer: MEANING!
For hundreds or thousands of years, Tamil roadside restaurants like this have been serving a dish that’s a local to the place as the earth on which the buildings stands – cooked over wood that grew nearby – and served on leaves which shaded the village that morning.
Everything is connected, and belongs.
And if you cook a dish for millennia, you get very, very good at it! The dosa and sambar of Tamil Nadu are breath-takingly delicious. There is nothing you could change.
Eating this food, I’m reminded of the most-striking visual art I’ve ever seen: painted 14,000 years ago, one kilometre deep in a neolithic cave in the Pyrenees. I’m reminded of the words of Pablo Picasso as he left the world-famous buffalo cave paintings of Lascaux: “Nous n’ avons rien appris.” Tasting this two-thousand year old recipe, cooked with technology that dates back to the iron age, I realise that – for me – Picasso’s verdict applies as much to food as art.
“We have learnt nothing.” In our journey to modernity, we’ve slowly swapped food that was steeped in place, history and ritual… for something shallow.
Like water, oxygen and human skin, food is meant to be elemental, pure, unadorned. Nothing should get in the way: no cutlery or tablecloth or food fads. The more you mess with food, Michelin-ise it, deconstruct it – the worse it gets.
We order two more courses, both served on the same leaf: masala omelette, and Tamil tomato rice. I could write an entire blog about the tomato rice. Fragrant, but complex; fresh, but with a huge aftertaste. Perfect.
Before we leave, Shinas and Danny showed me the final stage to the ‘leaf ritual’. Rolling it from both sides, you lift the ends so that the leafs sags in the centre and becomes a sealed envelope. You then carry the leaf to the street, and leave it for passing goats or cattle.
The circle is complete. It’s so perfect that I want to cheer.
We ate nine courses between us, and drank six cups of cardamom tea. The bill came to 300 Rupees (about £3.20).
For an entire week, twice a day, Shinas, Danny and I ate in these Tamil roadside restaurants. Cycling from 6:30a.m. to beat the heat, we’d eat breakfast after 9, and then stop again for lunch between 12 or 1.
As soon as we were around those times, I’d smile as the road led to a village, and the smell of wood-smoke promised a griddle not far away. It didn’t matter what we ordered… idlis; biryanis; samosas; vadas; parata. Every mouthful was sublime.
With the help of Shinas and Danny, we even got to the point where we brought our own ingredients to the restaurant. Visiting the vegetable and flower market in Madurai, I found a man selling a fresh Indian ingredient I’d never seen before: Senna Auriculata. Native to Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, Senna Auriculata is a canary yellow flower on tiny acacia-like leaves. It looked too delicious to leave behind, and thanks to the skills of Shinas and Danny, we were soon in a roadside restaurant – watching the yellow flowers being plucked, ground and added to the dosa batter – just as the seller in the market had described. Delicious.
Each day had so many highs, it didn’t seem possible that the next could match it. But it always did.
Just after sunrise, Danny and Shinas would arrive outside the homestay they’d found for me the day before (nothing was booked in advance; the homestays were comfortable, friendly places – costing about £20 a night). Then we’d cycle into the soft dawn light.
In my emails with Thomas, I had asked to be shown: “rural India, on the quietest roads you can find.” Kalypso more than delivered on that request. We cycled through fragrant cardamom hills, tea plantations, rice paddies, jasmine farms and pineapple orchards – sometimes with more bullock-carts for company than internal combustion engines. The route-finding was perfect.
Even when we were hundreds of miles from his home in Kerala, Shinas seemed to know every twist in the road – and spot the tiny left or right turn that would take us to the next empty road, with its villages, shrines and roadside restaurants. Towards the end of the trip, when I asked Shinas, how he knew the back roads so well across two states – he confided Thomas had given him two weeks to cycle India from coast-to-coast (there and back) in order to recce every metre of my trip.
Even better than the route finding, was the warmth that Shinas and Danny showed to every person we met across India. In the cities and villages, fields and shops, temples and shrines – they greeted everyone we met warmly, introduced them to me, and translated. I saw India through Shinas and Danny’s eyes. It was very special.
And to answer two simple questions I often get from friends:
- No, I never once got sick from a meal in any roadside restaurant. Although washing facilities were mostly a bowl of water and cup, hygiene was impeccable.
- No, I never felt in danger cycling on Tamil roads. Shinas steered us to rural B roads, and when we were on highways, the surfaces were good – and traffic manageable.
Among all the insights that Shinas and Danny unpacked for me in Tamil Nadu, maybe the one that ties all the strands of this blog together – ritual, art and food – is kolam.
Unexplained in any guidebook I could find, kolam is the Tamil tradition of hand-drawing a symmetrical pattern in front of your house, every day. Before dawn, a member of the family takes a brush and water – sweeps away yesterday’s kolam from in front of their house – and creates another. Some, drawn in ground, white rice flour, are simple. Others, adding bright colours to the flour, are elaborate.
Cycling through a Tamil village in the early morning, the freshly-drawn kolam spring up from dampened earth like blossoms. For the millions of Hindu women who create them, kolam are an invitation for guests to enter the home, not the least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth. And according to who you read, the rice-based motifs are also designed to feed and welcome ants and birds – linking the sacred ritual to the natural world.
Looking at rows of kolam in the December sunshine, I smiled at the Tamil genius for connecting things: past and present; sacred and domestic; food and everything.
If you’re looking for modern Tamil Nadu, of course, you’ll find that too. From the tech centres of Chennai (former Madras) to the Tamil movie industry of Kollywood (named after the Kodambakkam area of Chennai), Tamil Nadu is at the cutting edge of contemporary India.
But for reasons I’m not sure I understand, it’s the timeless side of the state that talks to me.
In eleven days of travel from west to east across India, I’m sure I missed many things – and misunderstood even more.
But as I hope this blog shows, I’m grateful to Thomas, Shinas, Danny and Tamil Nadu – for an amazing journey, and for the things that they and the roadside restaurants taught me.
With thanks, also, to friend and fellow cycle-nut Hemal – who promised to serve me a masala chai when I got to ‘Pondi’ – and did just that.
And a very big thank you to Susanne, who was hit on her bike in London while I was away in India. She selflessly didn’t tell me about her broken arm, and made me promise to finish the journey.