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Tamil Nadu is famous for its deep belief that serving food to others is a service to humanity, as is common in many regions of India. The region has a rich cuisine involving both traditional non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes. It is characterized by the use of rice, legumes and lentils. Its distinct aroma and flavour is achieved by the blending of flavourings and spices including curry leaves, mustard seeds, coriander, ginger, garlic, chili, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, green cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, coconut and rosewater.
Rice and legumes play an significant role in Tamil cuisine. Lentils are also consumed extensively, either accompanying rice preparations, or in the form of independent dishes. Vegetables and dairy products are essential accompaniments, and tamarind rather than amchoor is the favoured souring agent. Rice is the chief staple as with the rest of South India.
On special occasions, traditional Tamil dishes are prepared in almost the same way as they were centuries ago—preparations that call for elaborate and leisurely cooking, and served in traditional style and ambience. The traditional way of eating a meal involves being seated on the floor, having the food served on a banana leaf, and using clean fingers of the right hand to transfer the food to the mouth. After the meal, the fingers are washed, and the banana leaf becomes food for cows. A typical Tamilian would eat Idly/Dosai/uthappam etc. for breakfast and rice accompanied by lentil preparations Sambar, Rasam and curd for lunch.
Because of modernization, urbanization, cosmopolitan culture and the break-up of the joint family system, compromises and adaptations are being made. A movement towards a simpler cuisine can be sensed. Urbanization has introduced Western-style seating arrangements at traditional events with tables, chairs, plates and cutlery becoming the norm, and food being served buffet-style.
Despite changes in practices and their cultural implications, Tamil food retains its basic character in the use of ingredients, and its aroma and flavour remain unchanged.
Over a period of time, each geographical area where Tamils have lived has developed its own distinct variant of the common dishes in addition to dishes native to itself. The four divisions of ancient Tamilakam are the primary means of dividing Tamil cuisine.
The Chettinad region comprising Karaikudi and adjoining areas is known for both traditional vegetarian dishes like idiyappam, uthappam, paal paniyaram and non-vegetarian dishes made primarily using chicken. Chettinad cuisine has gained popularity in non-Tamil speaking areas as well.
Madurai, Tirunelveli and the other southern districts of Tamil Nadu are known for non-vegetarian food made of mutton, chicken and fish. Parota made with maida or all-purpose flour, and loosely similar to the north Indian wheat flour-based Paratha, is served at food outlets in Tamil Nadu, especially in districts like Madurai, Virudhunagar, Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and the adjoining areas. Parota is not commonly made at home as it is laborious and time consuming. Madurai has its own unique foods such as jigarthanda, muttaiparotta (minced parotta and scrambled egg), paruthipal (made of cottonseeds),Karidosai (dosai with mutton stuffing) & ennaidosai (dosai with lots of oil) which are rarely found in other parts of Tamil Nadu.
Nanjilnadu (Kanyakumari district) region is famous for its fish curry since the region is surrounded by the three great water bodies of Asia: (Indian ocean, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal). Fish forms an integral part of life. Owing to its unique cultural affinity and the availability of coconut, coconut oil forms a base for almost all the preparations of the region.
The western Kongunadu region has specialities like Santhakai/Sandhavai (a noodle like item of rice), Oputtu (a sweet tasting pizza-like dish that is dry outside with a sweet stuffing), and kola urundai (meatballs), Thengai Paal (sweet hot milk made of jaggery, coconut and cotton seeds), Ulundu Kali(Sweet made out of Jaggery, Gingely Oil and Black Gram), Ragi puttumavu, Arisi Puttumavu, Vazhaipoo Poriyal, Kambu Paniyaram, Ragi Pakoda, Thengai Barbi, Kadalai Urundai, Ellu Urundai, Pori Urundai. The natural crops of this region forms the main ingredients in this Kongunadu cuisine
Ceylon Tamil cuisine bears similarities to Tamil Nadu cuisine but also has many unique vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. It features dishes such as (steamed rice cake) and idiyappam or sevai, (known in other parts of the world as string hoppers).
Eating-out in its capital city Chennai, is a great experience and provides a glimpse of the unique lifestyle of the city. Chennai is known for its cuisine, brought to the city by people who have migrated from different parts of Tamil Nadu. Chennai has a large collection of restaurants, some of them are unique 'Speciality Restaurants,' which serve 'South Indian Cuisine' with an ambience to match, while most others cater South Indian tiffin and meals, at very reasonable prices.
Meals - Restaurant
A meal (called Saapadu) in a restaurant consists of rice with other typical Tamilian dishes on a banana leaf. A typical Tamilian would eat in banana leaf as it gives different flavour and taste to the food. But it can also be served on a stainless steel tray - plate with a selection of different dishes in small bowls. Rice is essential to the popular definition of meals. While North Indian thali (meals) consists mainly Indian breads like roti, paratha and naan, Tamil meals (Saapadu) comes mostly with rice.
Paayasam is usually served at the end as a dessert to finish the meal.
Finally a banana, beeda, and a glass of juice or lassi will be offered. One can eat the authentic Tamil dishes in a typical restaurant in Tamil Nadu. A restaurant in other south Indian states like Andhra, Kerala and Karnataka and also those in north India have their own versions of meals native to each state.
Though most restaurants use the south Indian cuisine or the name "madras" in the name, there is a marked difference between the cuisines, preparations and ingredients in different regions. An udipi restaurant, andhra restaurant, a kerala or a chettinad restaurant have different preparations and speciality. For example, sambhar from an Udipi restaurant cannot be equated to that from a Tamil Nadu restaurant, though both call themselves south Indian.
Historically, Tamil cuisine has traveled to many parts of the world. Most notably traces were found by archeologists that Tamil cuisines were supplied to the ancient Rome. It traveled to Philippines, Greece, Middle East, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand via traders (Nagarathar) from Tamil Nadu who are Karaikudi Chettiars. Along with Chinese, it has influenced these international cuisines to what they are today, especially one can see the impact of Tamil cuisine in Malaysian cuisines like parotta kurma (Roti canai/Roti Telur) and curried items. South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Mauritius, and Réunion Indian cooking is also influenced by Tamil cuisine, which was brought by Indians in the late 19th century.
Typical Tamil feast - Virundhu Sappadu
‘Virundhu’ in Tamil means ‘feast’, when guests (friends and relatives) are invited during happy ceremonial occasions to share food. ‘Sappadu’ means a full course meal, which will usually be a lunch or dinner affair. Marriage festivities could also be a 'virundhu' saapaadu at breakfast times if the marriage is solemnized in the morning hours.
In the olden days guests would sit on a coir mat rolled out on the floor and a full course meal was served on a banana leaf. Nowadays, the same exercise is done but guests sit on a dinner table and have the same type of food. Traditionally the banana leaf is laid so that the leaf tip is pointed left.
The host will ensure that the menu includes as many variety of dishes as possible and guests are served as many helpings as requested. The dishes are served in a particular sequence, and each dish is placed on a particular spot of the banana leaf. Guests are expected to begin and end eating the meal together and do not leave in middle of a meal. With a look at the food on the leaf, guests will have a good idea of the community, wealth, and the region from which part of Tamil Nadu the hosts originate.
The top half of the banana leaf is reserved for accessories, the lower half for the rice. In some communities, the rice will be served only after the guest has been seated. The lower right portion of the leaf may have a scoop of warm sweet milky rice Payasam, Kesari, Sweet Pongal or any Dessert items. While the top left includes a pinch of salt, a dash of pickle and a thimbleful of salad, or a smidgen of chutney. In the middle of the leaf there may be an odd number of fried items like small circles of chips either banana, yam or potato, thin crisp papads or frilly wafers Appalams and vadai.
The top right hand corner is reserved for spicy foods including curry, hot, sweet, or sour and the dry items. If it is a vegetarian meal, the vegetables are carefully chosen, between the country ones-gourds, drumsticks, brinjals-and the 'English' ones, which could be carrot, cabbage, and cauliflower. (If it is a non-vegetarian meal, a separate leaf is provided for the fried meats, chicken, fish, crab, and so on.) But again, the variations are presented carefully, one dry one next to a gravied one.
There may be side attractions such as poli, poori, Chappati, some of the famed rice preparations such as Ghee Pongal or Puliyodarai (tamarind rice) particularly if the family comes from Thanjavur, known as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu.
Traditionally, sweets are eaten first. After having worked through the preliminaries, the long haul starts with rice. Sambar is added to rice and eaten with maybe a sprinkling of ghee. This is followed by rice with Kuzhambu and rice with Rasam. A final round of rice with curd or buttermilk signals the end of meals. Though there are varieties of kuzhambu, only one will be on offer in a given day. A banana may be served last.
After the meals, betel leaves and nuts are chewed in a leisurely way. Hearty banter and small talks of the times gone by are discussed with nostalgia. It is a time to reminisce the past. The betel leaf chewing is a traditional habit and was a preserve of the older folks. The betel leaf is packed into a little 'package' with edible calcium paste layered on top and a pinch of coarsely powdered betel nuts.
Rice is the major staple food of most of the Tamil people. Lunch or Dinner is usually a meal of steamed rice(Choru), served with accompanying items, which typically include sambar, dry curry, rasam, kootu and thayir (curd, but as used in India refers to yogurt) or more (buttermilk).
Breakfast usually includes idli, pongal, dosai, aval (flattened rice), puttu, idiyappam, appam with sweetened coconut milk, chapathi, sevai, Vadai which are of 2 kinds - (medhuvadai meaning soft vadai and paruppuvadai meaning lentils vadai) Vadai, along with coconut chutney, sambar and Milagai podi. Tiffin is usually accompanied by hot filter coffee, the signature beverage of the city[specify].
- Arisi Maavu Koozhu (read: koolu), made from fermented rice batter and spiced with asafoetida, cumin seeds and chilli paste. An instant version of the Koozhu is called Mor Kali, which is made with Rice flour & buttermilk, to bring the sourness.
- Parota made with maida or all-purpose flour.
- Upma, made from wheat (rava), onion, green chillies. May also be substituted with broken rice granules, flattenned rice flakes, Or almost any other cereal grain instead of broken wheat.
- Thogaiyal, made from coconut, dal or coriander leaves
- Coffee is the most popular beverage. Coffee is a major social institution in Southern Indian Tamil tradition. Its also called the Madras (a) Chennai Filter Coffee and is unique to this part of the world. They generally use gourmet coffee beans of the premium Peaberry or the less expensive Arabica variety. The making of filter coffee is like a ritual, as the coffee beans are first roasted and then powdered. Sometimes they add chicory to enhance the aroma. They then use a filter set, few scoops of powdered coffee, enough boiling water is added to prepare a very dark liquid called the decoction. A 3/4 mug of hot milk with sugar, a small quantity of decoction is then served in Dabarah/Tumbler set, a unique Coffee cup.
- Another popular beverage is strongly brewed tea, found in the thousands of small tea stalls across the state of Tamil Nadu and adjoining areas.
- Dosai, crepes made from a fermented batter of rice and urad dal (black gram), and is accompanied by Sambar; also see Masala dosai.
- Idli, steamed rice-cakes, prepared from a fermented batter of rice and urad dal (black gram), and side-dishes are usually different kinds of chutney or sambhar.
- Puliyodarai, Puli=Tamarind, thorai/thoran=fry, is a popular Tamil dish and widely specialised among Tamil Iyengars and famous throughout Karnataka as Puliyogare. It is a mixture of fried tamarind paste and cooked rice. The tamarind paste is fried with sesame oil, asofoetida and fenugreek powder, dried chilly, groundnuts, split chickpea, urad dal, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves, turmeric powder and seasoned with light jaggery and salt.
- Sambar, a thick stew of lentils with vegetables and seasoned with exotic spices
- Rasam, lentil soup with pepper, coriander and cumin seeds
- Thayir sadam, steamed rice with curd
- Sevai or Idiyappam, rice noodles made out of steamed rice cakes.
- South Indian Coffee, also known as Filter Coffee, is a sweet milky coffee popular in Tamil Nadu. There is also a version called Kumbakonam Degree coffee. It is quite similar to the cappuccino and latte varieties of coffee. Masala Paal (masala milk), sweetened milk with aromatic spices.
Aviyal - a stew of vegetables with fresh coconut, and coconut oil which makes for a side dish for a meal consisting of rice, sambhar, rasam and equally for dishes like Adai and Thosai. In hotels its an evening speciality food and advertised as Adai Aviayal
Puttu - Steamed layered, cylindrical cakes made with flour; usually rice flour is used but any miller flour can be used. The flour is sparsely mixed with water and packed into puttu cylinder and steamed. The flour is usually layered with grated coconut.
Kozhukkattai - Steamed dumplings made with rice flour. The fillings are varied: from grated coconut and jaggery to various savoury preparations.
Kali and kootu
Culinary influence from other parts of the world
Chennai is a major tourist destination, so it is also popular for cuisines from other parts of the world. While Indian (which includes a diverse range of cuisines from other states of India), Continental (European) cuisine, and Chinese cuisine have been around for a long time, Mexican, Italian, Thai, Korean, Japanese and Mediterranean cuisine, amongst others, have become popular with many restaurants exclusively specialising in these cuisines.
Tamil culinary terminology absorbed in English
- The word curry is an anglicisation of the Tamil word kari.
- The Tamil phrase milagu thanneer meaning pepper soup, literally pepper water, has been adapted in English as mulligatawny.
- The word Mango is derived from the Tamil word Maangaai.
- The English word rice may have been ultimately derived from Tamil Arisi, although it is similar to the Latin oryza and the derivative arroz in Spanish. The Kannada Akki and the Malayalam Ari are a cognate with the same roots.
- The word Congee may have been derived from the Tamil word 'Kanji' (rice porridge) or from Chinese.
- The word "orange" originally comes from Tamil (narantham pazham, or naarthangkaay) via Sanskrit, Arabic, Spanish, and Dutch
- DeWitt, Dave and Nancy Gerlach. 1990. The Whole Chile Pepper Book. Boston : Little Brown and Co.
- Boston.com - A new year's feast from Tamil Nadu
- Ammal, Meenakshi, S., The Best of Samaithu Paar: The Classic Guide to Tamil Cuisine: Penguin Books India
- Thangam E. Phillip