If you’re intending to visit South India, and you decide to survey the area on a map, it may not seem all that huge, especially when you compare it to the expansive North India region. However, once you get there, and gastronomic indulgences are what’s leading the way, you will be pleasantly surprised by the variety of customs and traditions and influences each region brings to the table!
It is said in south India, that one is lucky to eat like a Chettiar. A small community of traders, food was an essential part of the Chettiar’s life and the kitchen was one of the largest and most important places in a Karaikudi house. The womenfolk or aachis would prepare elaborate meals – hand-pounding fragrant spices in stone grinders, chopping vegetables with the aruamanai (iron blade) and burning different firewood to develop specific flavours. These meals were often accompanied by buttermilk or nannari sherbet to tone down the heat of the cuisine’s fierce curries. Traditional meals served in a Chettinad house followed a specific protocol, with each dish being given a designated space and order in which it had to be served. Dishes would be served beginning at the top left corner of the leaf, progressively moving towards the right. The order of service would be salt, pickle, mor milagai (sundried chillies in curd), varuval (a spicy dry dish), kootu (a lentil curry), urundai (fried lentil balls), poriyal (sautéed vegetable dish) and masiyal (a vegetable mash). Appalams (papadums), fritters and fries would be placed at the bottom left while rice and chapatti, paired with sambar, rasam or kuzhambu, were placed in the centre of the banana leaf. The bottom right of the leaf was reserved for sweet dishes like ukkarai or paal payasam.
Then, there’s the cuisine of Karnataka. Covering approximately 200,000 square kilometres, this state’s regional cuisine is varied – there’s spicy curries, rice-based menus, fruit and vegetable based cuisine from the mountainous regions, coastal Udupi cuisine and the hilly Coorg spread. North Karnataka cuisine is known for its variety of wheat and jowar rotis served with spicy curries and chutneys, while South Karnataka cuisine features dishes from the old Mysore region. A typical Kannadiga Oota or a Kannadiga meal also follows a ritual. Banana leaves are stitched together and the dishes follow a slightly different pattern than a Chettinad meal - uppu(salt), kosambari, pickle, palya, gojju, raita, paaysa, thovve, chitranna, rice and ghee. Tradition demands that every meal should begin with paaysa or dessert. Once the ghee is served to everyone, the meal can commence. The meal ends with a serving of curd rice.
Staying in Karnataka, you may come across the cuisine of the Vijayanagara Empire. Described by 16th-century Portuguese visitors, as "... the best-provided city in the world and is stocked with provisions such as rice, wheat, grains, India corn and a certain amount of barley and beans, moong, pulses and horse-gram which grow in this country," the city’s “... markets are overflowing with abundance of fruits, grapes and oranges, limes, pomegranates, jackfruit and mangoes and all very cheap." There are multiple picturesque descriptions of dining and dinners that took place across the empire. In his travelogue, Ibn Battuta describes a dinner.... ""Four chairs were placed on the ground and while he (the chief) seated in one of them, each one of us sat likewise in a chair. A copper table was brought up, which is known as Khawanja on which is placed a dish of the same material known as talam (thali, gangala). She holds a large copper ladle with which she picks up a ladleful of rice and serves it on to the dish, pours ghee over it and adds pickles....when the food placed by her on the dish is consumed, she takes up a second spoonful of rice and serves a cooked fowl on a plate and the rice is eaten therewith also. When the second course is over she takes another ladleful and serves another variety of chicken which is also eaten with the rice. When the various kinds of chicken are consumed, fish of various kinds is served with which one likewise eats rice. When all these courses are eaten, kushan, or curded milk is served, which finishes the meal. When this is served, one knows that no further dishes are to follow.
At the close, one drinks hot water; for cold water would harm the people in the rainy season".
Then, there’s the Chola dynasty in Tamil Nadu, and the mysticism and enchantment that the empire introduced to the land, through trade across the seas. Sangam literature describes how a poet meets a wandering minstrel and directs him to his patron Chola king Karikalan. Detailing how food and drinks are offered to the bards by the king, the poet writes, “In the halls bejewelled, smiling, comely maids poured out from spotless golden vessels full like cheering rain much stupefying drink repeatedly. Knowing the time to eat, he urged me to eat cooked thick thigh meat of sheep that were fed arukam grass twisted as ropes and fatty, big pieces of meat roasted on iron rods. He gave more and more even when I refused them again and again; he served many tasty pastries in many shapes.”
If you’re in and around ITC Maratha, come and experience the flavour of the spices from Karnataka on your thali at Dakshin Coastal up to May 23. In Bengaluru, you could head to ITC Windsor for a taste of The Chettinad Way till May 31 or indulge in a Kitchens of India: Vijayanagara Feast at ITC Gardenia’s Cubbon Pavilion. And if Chennai is your preferred city of choice, ITC Grand Chola presents the flavours from Indonesia and Malaysia that the Imperial Cholas brought home, at an exclusive dinner buffet.