Posted on: Wednesday December 16, 2009
From everyday meals to celebratory feasts, I am always astonished by how evolved and intricate Indian culinary practices are, but particularly, the luxury of royal culinary traditions is a fascinating subject to me. In this respect, South India is an enchanting region, with kingdoms within kingdoms and cultures of food that vary wonderfully, covering every aroma, texture and flavour the mind can imagine and the tongue experience.
A glance into the Pachakashastram, the ancient compendium of traditional gastronomical wisdom in South India, will reveal that royal cuisine is the very pinnacle of culinary artistry as we consider it today. It is wholesome and nourishing yet delicious and indulgent, rich with flavour and yet gentle on the stomach, crafted with care and imagination from the best available ingredients.
'Rajopacharam' is the word used to describe the service and etiquette reserved only for royalty, and cuisine, of course, is an integral part of it. Wine as accompaniment, however, you may not find in any of the recommendations made in the Pachakashastram. But a few months ago, at a friend's dinner party, I was surprised to find that it is a natural pairing.
The practice of drinking wine with a meal is an Occidental fashion, of course, but there is recognisable merit in it. Wine is no ordinary accompaniment to a meal. Wines temper and catalyse our reactions to food, mitigating pungent flavours and enhancing others, opening a door to the experience of tastes and textures that would otherwise have been unknown. With the mind-boggling variety of wines that are accessible today, however, it has become infinitely easier for us to find the right wine for the right food.
And so, with the help of some excellent sommeliers, we've chanced upon the ideal pairings of fine wine and royal South Indian fare. For example, a delicate and dry rosé does exceptionally well to bring out the flavours of Keerai Vadai, split yellow lentil and spinach patties with fresh ginger, green chillies and curry leaves to open a meal with. A lean and crisp Chardonnay is ideal for spicy delicacies such as Puttu, butter-bean and okra pickled in a masala of garlic and gingelly oil, or succulent seafood like Shunti, char-grilled jumbo prawns.
Similarly, a Shiraz or a Green Point wine conditions the palate perfectly for the traditional Keralan Ishtew, made with extractions from coconuts, shallots, crushed black pepper and cassia bark, and sometimes chicken. It tempers the spicy pepper and brings out the aroma of the cassia bark and the sweetness of the coconut. A fruity Merlot goes ideally with spicy rice dishes like Kalan Sadam, a mushroom and jeera pulao, and the slow-cooked Spiced Lamb and Idiappam biriyani, adding a natural tenor to the food that pleases the palate and neutralises some of the acidity in the food.
And, of course, there is rarely a choice for dessert wine better than a Beerenauslese, rich and sweet, blending superlatively well with a date halwa with almonds, or a Kadal Patchee Pistachio, a rose water flavoured chilled milk pudding.
Taking a few steps further from the Pachakashastram, we have now entered a future filled with possibility. Culinary science has a far more sophisticated understanding of food than ever before, and through blending the right combinations of tastes and textures and temperatures, it is possible today to offer anyone a transcendent dining experience. Indeed, it is possible today to extend to anyone Rajopacharam, the service befitting a king.