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Tamil Nadu is famous for its deep belief that serving food to others is a service to humanity, as it 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 a 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. Tamil cuisine is famous for many of the tiffin and main course delicacies that have originated and evolved from ancient traditions and is still being consumed on a daily basis. Idly, vadai, dosai, pongal, aappam, paniyaram etc. are some of the food items that have originated in the Tamil Nadu and have gained wide spread popularity for their taste and nutrition. The name idly was derived from "ittu alli". The idly steam plate has number of partitions in which the batter is poured - "ittu"; and after it is cooked, it is served - "alli". The word dosai got its derivation from the process of making thin crepes, "thoivaga iduvathal thosai". The word "thointhu" / "thoivaga" means reduced or thinned down. Thoivaga iduthal means thinning by spreading, by a rubbing action. Generally the wet batter is spread thin on a hot tawa (kal). Vada- vadai - varai means deep frying in oil. There are numerous variations in these three tiffin items. Traditionally idly and dosai have been made not only with rice but with other millets like kambu, cholam, ragi etc. However of late the rice idlis and dosas have become a common cuisine. Based on the different traditional preparations followed in the recipe, by different local regions, there are varieties of idlis such as kanchipuram idly, madurai malli poo idli and kongu idly. With dosai there are options like sada dosai, masala dosai, kal dosai, oothappam, kari dosai, muttai dosai etc. Nowadays dosai has adapted in to numerous varieties which are being prepared all over the world. Similarly the vadai has also many varieties such as paruppu vadai, ulunthu vadai, masal vadai, aamai vadai, vengaya vadai etc. Depending upon the accompaniment it is also served as sambar vadai, rasa vadai and thayir vadai.
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 Tamilan would eat Idli/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 and mutton. 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, Beef,chicken, biryani 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 places like Madurai, Nagercoil, Tirunelveli, Tuticorin, Virudhunagar 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), Kachayam (sweet made out of jaggery and rice), Arisimparupu sadam, 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.
Meal - Restaurant
A meal (called Saapadu) in a restaurant consists of rice with other typical Tamilan dishes on a banana leaf. A typical Tamilan 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 the rest of 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, sambar from an Udipi restaurant cannot be equivalent to that from a Tamil Nadu restaurant, though both call themselves South Indian..
- Ambur biryani
- Ambur/Vaniyambadi biryani is a type of biryani cooked in neighboring towns of Ambur & Vaniyambadi in the Vellore district in the north-eastern part of Tamil Nadu, which has a high Muslim population. It was introduced by the Nawabs of Arcot who once ruled the place.
- The Ambur/Vaniyambadi biryani is accompanied with 'dhalcha', a sour brinjal curry and 'pachadi' or raitha, which is sliced onions mixed with plain curd, tomato, chillies and salt. It has a distinctive aroma and is considered light on stomach and the usage of spice is moderate and curd is used as a gravy base. It also has a higher ratio of meat to rice.
- Dindigul biryani
- The Dindigul town of Tamil Nadu is noted for its biryani, which uses a little curd and lemon juice to get a tangy taste.
Historically, Tamil cuisine has traveled to many parts of the world. Most notably traces were found by archaeologists that Tamil cuisines were supplied to the ancient Rome. It travelled 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. The grand feast is usually prepared during the festive seasons like Thai pongal, Aadi Velli, Ganesh Chathurthi, Krishna jayanthi, Navarathiri, Deepavali etc., or in special ceremonies like marriage functions. These feast has a more elaborate menu for the lunch viz. plain choru (steamed rice), one more variety rice (for eg. puliyodharai), paruppu podi (dal powder to be mixed with the rice along with ghee), sambar (lentil stew) for the choru, kara kuzhambu (spicy stew with a coconut base or dal base) to be mixed with choru, rasam (tamarind stew with other herbs and spices) for the choru, thayir (curd) to be mixed with choru, along with a spectrum of side dishes like two types of poriyal (dry fry of vegetables), varuval (oil fry of the vegetable), kootu (vegetables mixture with green dal or coconut), keerai masiyal (ground greens), aviyal (a mixture of cooked vegetables, finally added with buttermilk or curd in the preparation), sundal (boiled and fried pulses), pachadi (salad of cucumber, or onion in curd, or sweet mango jam), appalam (fried papads), thogaiyal (wet ground paste of some item), oorukai (pickles), payasam (sweet liquid of many varieties with milk base or coconut milk base or dal liquid base), sweet snacks, banana fruit etc., After the completion of feast a betel leaf with suparis or fragrant herbs are finally chewed and eaten for good digestion.
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. Before the feast begins the leaf is sprinkled with water and cleaned by the diner himself even though the leaves are already clean. This exercise is seen mandatory in most of the occasions and even in a few restaurants, which may deny its service to the diner, if he/she has not cleaned the leaf plate.
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 aruna 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. Normally lunch or dinner is a meal of steamed rice (choru) served with accompanying items, which typically include sambar, poriyal - dry curry, rasam, kootu and thayir (curd, but as used in India refers to yogurt) or more (buttermilk).
Breakfast. It usually includes one or many of the following: idli, vadai, pongal, dosai, paniyaram, aval (flattened rice), uppuma, puttu, idiyappam, appam, uthappam, kichadi, adai, chappathi, poori masala, parotta, sevai, porridge or koozh, kali, etc. Tiffin items are accompanied with one or many of the appropriate side dishes like sambar, coconut chutney, vengaya chutney, tomato chutney, kothamalli chutney, puthina chutney, Milagai podi, sweetened coconut milk, vadacurry, potato masala, vegetable kuruma, vegetable kothsu, vegetable masala, channa masala, aviyal, cucumber or onion salad, chicken kuruma, mutton gravy, aatukkal paya, meen kulambu, muttai masala, thogiyal or thuvaiyal, fried dry chilli, pickles etc. Finally it is finished off with a flavourful hot filter coffee, the signature beverage of the city[specify]. These tiffin items are also consumed for the dinner too.
- 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, sambhar or vadacurry.
- Dosai, crepes made from a fermented batter of rice and urad dal (black gram), and is accompanied by Sambar or chutney. Several varieties like, saada dosai, kal dosai, set dosai, neer dosai, rava dosai, paasi paruppu dosai, etc. are available.
- Vadai which are commonly of 2 kinds – (medhuvadai meaning soft vadai i.e ulundu vadai and paruppuvadai meaning lentils vadai) Vadai. In addition to this, vengaya vadai, aamai vadai, kara vadai, mysore bonda, keera vadai are the different types that are made.
- Pongal. Again a traditional cuisine from ancient days. As the name suggests, in tradition, the rice is cooked very soft in a mud pot along with water and milk until the boiling liquid forms viscous frothy bubbles that raises above the pot. The top creamy layer tries to overflow and get out of the pot which is called as pongal and so do the dish. The Thai thirunaal festival, in the month of January, has been other wise named as Pongal for the reason of this dish being offered to the Sun god for a good harvest and prosperous living of all the people and cattle. Nowadays the rice or the cereals are usually cooked inside the cooker but the taste and texture are maintained as per the tradition. Lot of varieties are available namely the venpongal, sakkarai pongal, rava pongal, karkandu pongal etc.
- Appam, is made from a fermented batter of rice and black gram mixture, which is made into a thin consistency. It is poured over a hot pan and spread evenly by rotating the pan. The appam generally has its sides thin and the centre is fluffy and soft.
- Uthappam. It is a dosa variety, which is slightly thick fluffy and soft. It can be made from the regular idly / dosai batter. Plain uthappam is available, also a version of uthappam with vegetables or onions sprinkled over it.
- Kal dosai. Another dosa variety which is soft and fluffy. The batter preparation is slightly different from the regular dosai batter to enable thick soft and fluffy dosai.
- 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.
- Upma, made from wheat or rava, added with 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 or Thuvaiyal, which is a wet ground paste of many ingredients but primarily with the punch of the main ingredient. Most common thogaiyals by their chief ingredient are like coconut, paruppu (dal), coriander, puthina, karuveppilai, ellu, kollu, inji, poondu etc.
- Coffee is the most popular beverage. Coffee is a major social institution in Southern Indian Tamil tradition. It is 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.
- Puliyodarai, Puli=Tamarind, thorai/thoran=fry, is a popular Tamil dish and widely specialised among Tamil Iyengars and famous throughout Andhra Pradesh as Pulihora and 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.
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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 it is an evening specialty 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
Paal Kozhukkattai - Small dumplings are made with rice floor, then they are added in Boiling milk. Sugar or Jaggery is added for sweetness. It is mostly consumed in rainy season.
Culinary influence from other parts of the world
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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 "orange" originally comes from Tamil (நரந்தம் பழம்) via Sanskrit, Arabic, Spanish, and Dutch.
- The Moringa tree is derived from the Tamil name Murungai maram. Benefits of Murungai has been recognized from the early civilization.
- 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