Poondithangal is a very small farm located close to the ancient temple town of Kancheepuram in southeastern India, where everyone knows everyone, families have mostly if not solely lived there for generations, and agriculture is the staple. In contrast, Chennai (formerly, Madras), an old cosmopolitan city, not far from Poondithangal, on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, cannot escape from its density of population and structure. Yet people keep in touch, often over food, and undeterred by the traffic.
In Poondithangal: a person who is content with an almost Spartan diet and who barely talks about gastronomy much less the pleasure associated with it, makes a lonely comment to my wife who is about to eat, to spend a moment to taste the egg, the yolk especially, that she says comes from farm hen that know no boundaries when running; to me, she declares, after seeing me enjoy cut mangoes of three different varieties, to just pick a tree-ripened mango by hand and eat it through; and to the cooks, between complimenting their food and discussing the subtle details of dishes, she gets down to demonstrate how to prepare her version. The cook, with whom I had a casual discussion about nattu kozhi or country rooster, the next day, sourced one, perched atop a tree as she described it, brought it home, and with the able help of others, demonstrated just how to pluck, clean in an open-flame, and then cut, and cook the bird. All this, while I was either thinking about the process that I had only read about, or, while I was listening to each one give the other a hard time about how the cleaning and preparation could be done better.
Nattu Kozhi or country rooster
The same story repeated itself when I discussed duck, small crabs from the local pond, quail, coconut water, milking cows, churning butter from milk or preparing a millet- and drumstick green- based dish that uses the milk solids that sediment after clarifying butter. Lest I think that making stock and sauce is not a part of south Indian country cooking, every ounce of juice from crab shells was squeezed out, and the shells pressed through a fine strainer to extract. The people were eager to demonstrate, worked together, took pride in preparing, and pleasure in serving.
Strained stock of pond crabs; and, a millet and milk solids dish
In Chennai: a person gets up early in the morning to visit a seafood market to get the fresh catch from the bay to serve us for the day’s meal, including at times for breakfast with dosai (south Indian crêpe); one day, this person’s friend goes to the early morning market, chooses to wait for the fisherman to cut (and sell) steaks of seer fish, a Chennai classic, until it reaches the center choice part, and then buys, calculating one steak per person and two for me, I’m told, because I might really like it. I’d never met this person before. I talk about sweet lime (a fruit, less sour, more sweet and bigger than a lime), and the next day a person brings a basket of the fruit, to make juice; a visiting family member from a neighboring state makes from-scratch parathas (an Indian bread) and momos (a dumpling speciality from Nepal); a person hosts dinner despite her house being renovated; one person sends food from her house; another, who just returned from an island under French governance brings back specialty food to sample, and yet another, hosts high tea and wonders if it can be repeated.
Sweet-lime juice; and, momos
The vacation is over for me, everyone in Poondithangal and Chennai returns to their routines, they don’t talk much about their gestures, except for the next time we might meet. Family, friends, cooks and in some cases, unknown people. Is this how it is meant to be? Why?