A vacation in southeastern India

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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.

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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.

IMG_1072a IMG_1105   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.

IMG_1360 IMG_1453Strained 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.

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South Indian spice marinated, pan-fried seer fish

 

IMG_1682a IMG_0131aSweet-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?

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14 thoughts on “A vacation in southeastern India

  1. Sachin

    In India food is love in action.a meditation I am amazed at the consistency of taste that is achieved .Where chefs seem to undergo a lifetime of training spend the whole day focuses on it .with a dolop of love and fraternity.it seems effortless and almost inevitable

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Love, meditation, fraternity, effortless, and inevitable are all words that relate so well to the topic. Thank you for this form of expressing your thoughts.

      Reply
  2. Roxap

    Bala revisits family and friends in southern India and opens a door to us showing hospitality and graciousness from family and friends. In doing so,he takes the most beautiful photos which highlight the traditional process of food preparations and hands, not machines, makiing the food. The pottery is beautiful, too. Of course, people are eager and proud to demonstrate and showcase their traditional way of procuring and making these dishes to someone so keenly interested. This is the way it is meant to be--sharing something you love to do and going out of your way to do so. Seeing someone else's joy from your own creation is an intrinsic gift. Thank you for the reminder of how life can and should be if one is given the opportunity to share and be generous.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Roxanne,
      Thank you very much for answering the central question of the blog post and for your kind words. I agree with your answer, but often wonder what determines this form of human expression, and its frequency.

      Reply
  3. Jyothi Thomas

    Awesome so beautifully described. It is so visual, literally salivating! it Is sad many of our young Chennaities have no clue of what it is all about. they surely would love it . I am sure after reading this many will be curious.no doubt they will love it.. Good luck need to try /taste couple of dishes you have mentioned esply the millet dish. Momos ! an interesting twist..

    Back to Basics

    Cheers

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you very much for your kind words, especially so coming from a Chennaite. I look forward to learning more about Chennai gastronomy.

      Reply
  4. nirmala

    There is nothing more satisfying than having family over. It is a pleasure to cook for them specially when they appreciate good food.Glad you were able to savour the hand picked mangoes.
    This time the little wonder who accompanied her parents was a big bonus to the family. The quality time spent with the family is etched in our hearts and sure brings a smile when we recap the days spent at home.
    The homemade fruit preserves and the granola are precious and to think they travelled overseas to reach family touched my heart.
    There are lots still in the bucket list and I look forward to your next holiday in India.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Much pleasure eating the specialities, especially with family and friends. Thank you and I look forward to the next time.

      Reply
  5. ravi sankar

    Bala - thanks for vividly bringing to light the joy from the various different kinds of food you experienced. One can almost taste the dishes.

    Reply
  6. Bala

    Facebook comment from reader, Sibel Pinto:

    Dear Balakrishnan Selvakumar Bala, it's almost like being there, tasting the dishes and thinking all the love that goes into food sharing. You made me think of my family gatherings,bringing back many vivid memories from the past (unfortunately most of my dear ones are long gone.) Thanks for the great post and lovely photos. I hope you enjoy many many more lovely vacations with family and all.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Dear Sibel, Thank you for your kind words. I wish you many happy memories of your family gatherings and more new ones to come.

      Reply
  7. Bala

    Email comment from reader, Mrs. Reva Pershad:

    Bala ,the post on your vacation in the rural environs of Poondithangal & your experiences of its rustic preparations of delectable dishes were so evocative of the days of yore when only wood & coal ovens were used for cooking food .The earthy aroma of the mud pots in which food was being cooked set the taste buds going .While cooking gas has taken over in the city kitchens & to some extent in the villages , food is still being cooked in mud pots.The closest we get to the 'earthy' taste in the cities is by cooking in the coal barbecues .Your shot of the plucked & cleaned bird ready to get charred in the flaming fire was brilliant.You captured the entire process of procuring & cooking the dishes in graphic shots which gave a real 'feel' of community cooking.The shot with the women wearing bangles & pitching in enthusiastically to turn out a perfect dish, clinched the social aspect of cooking in India.
    You have often queried on the social aspect of cooking .You were pleasantly surprised to see the hosts going out of their way to fetch ingredients & fruits in season & serving them with a sense of triumph & evident joy.This is ingrained in the Indian psyche because they have been enjoined by the ancient Sanskrit verse--'Atithi devo bhava' --Be one for whom the Guest is God --the code of conduct prescribed in the ancient Hindu scripture 'Taittriya Upanishad',which emphasises the value of greeting & treating your Godly guest with reverence, love & respect . This is a cultural more which is spontaneously followed all over India & hopefully will not allow modernisation to affect its practise
    Bala,since you are always looking into the history of cuisine & its social influence ,you can google Wikipedia for a greater in depth explanation of the Sanskrit verse .

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Hello Mrs. Pershad,

      Thank you so much for this detailed comment. I heard that you had sent this comment much earlier, but for some reason, I did not receive it until now.

      I can relate to the effect of the mud pots on the taste buds that you describe. It also seems true that modernization is seen in the Indian villages. I know that Poondithangal these days sees villagers use some electric and gas kitchen appliances. As much as these appliances give the cooks significant respite from the manual labor, the sense of community and social exchange still exists, and I hope will continue to do so regardless of the extent of modernisation.

      Thank you for mentioning 'Atithi devo bhava' from the Taittriya Upanishad. I did come across this reference a few years ago as I was trying to research the origins of Indian hospitality. I do agree that this philosophy is ingrained in the mind of many Indians so much so it has become a spontaneous reaction. I also came across a similar reference from the "thirukural" in the form of the word "virundhombal" which directly references giving food to a guest as being sacred. And, there seem to be examples throughout India where the guest is equated with god, and giving food to a guest is equated with giving food to god.

      Questions: how many people think of the Upanishads or other texts when being hospitable? and how many other factors come into play that determines a person's desire to be hospitable in contemporary society?

      Reply

I look forward to reading your thoughts...