It is more than a notable few that have fallen to the lure of the spices from South India. If the ancient Spice Route had Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama seeking the fragrance of the ‘Spice Garden’, today’s food aficionados too cross lands and seas for a taste of the exotic South Indian cuisine.
Over the years, I’ve often accompanied such food explorers on various sojourns of the ‘Deccan Five’, and then there have been my own travels to the south. Needless to say, these journeys have been gourmet discoveries on one hand and fiery adventures on the other, traces of which often take root in ITC Hotels’ kitchens.
On one such journey with visitors from the West, wanting some gastronomic time off their usual Bangalore biz, I experienced a taste of three states in incredible environs: surrounded by the Nilgiris in Ooty, Tamil Nadu; amidst Kerala backwaters in Kozhikode; and inside the mystical land of Coorg, Karnataka.
Natural splendour, pleasing weather and lush green tea plantations that make up the Nilgiri signature greeted us at our first stop, Ooty. Tea may form the heart of Ooty, but my European friends were delighted to discover that the quaint town was a heaven for chocoholics, the tradition of which sprang from the British love for baking. Cakes and buns became our ideal accompaniments to steamy cups of Nilgiri tea. Not surprisingly, spices like Sri Lankan cinnamon have also made their way inland over centuries, the sweetness of which ran through baked treats and perfectly complemented the chilly evenings and our fondness for a dash of black pepper in our tea.
Set amidst brackish, palm-fringed lagoons, Kozhikode was a culinary extravaganza and a whirlwind of flavours for three lip-smacking days that we were there. While the Arab influence echoed in rich meat curries with Malabar parotta and the Thalassery biryani, the ‘Land of Spices’ completely revealed itself in the sadhya banquet. The meal elated my companions, served the traditional way on a banana leaf and boasted of favourites like sambar, rasam, parippu, avial, thoran, buttermilk and papadum, perfectly rounded off with payasam made from coconut milk and jaggery.
Our journey to the last stop extended our spice trail into cardamom and coffee country: Coorg. Unlike the usually mild flavours of South Karnataka, the Kodagu kitchen is home to freshly ground spices that made delicacies like pandi curry extremely hot. Fiery taste notwithstanding, the thick, black sauce made of kokum fruit was fuel to intrigue and discussion of our group that went well into the night. And before we left for Bangalore, the last morning of our journey bought akki roti and the famed coffee for breakfast, Coorg specialities that still make us reminisce the perfect companions.
Business or leisure, my own travels to the southern states momentarily switch off my northern taste buds. My biryani diary keeps growing with each Hyderabad visit as novel recipes unfold from Hyderabadi cuisine, a taste the Nizams so avidly patronised. The change from naan or roomali to jowar and bajra roti in Telangana, to dosa and uttapam in Tamil Nadu is as delectable as the shift from tender butter chicken to bommidala pulusu, a coastal Andhra fish speciality. And when the craving calls for the spiciest and most aromatic of foods, a trip to Chennai and the menu reading Chettinad chicken or spicy Tamil fish fry never fails to enchant my palate.
To celebrate the myriad gastro journeys to the south, ITC Rajputana presents ‘The Southern Sojourns’ at Jaipur Pavilion from 19th to 28th August. The festival brings authentic recipes from the cuisines of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and an unforgettable taste that will encourage you to tell your own tales in years to come.