If there’s cultural snobbery and heightened aesthetics in Tamil Nadu, it all came from the wealthy Kaveri Delta Area around Thanjavur. Music, art, painting, dance sprung from this beautiful Chola kingdom. However, in the fuss about performing arts, there’s one aspect that has been overlooked but deserves special mention – Thanjavur cuisine.
Maratha influence in Tamil food
According to one theory the ubiquitous South Indian sambhar was first cooked in the Maratha royal kitchens of Thanjavur. Since kokham was not available in Thanjavur the cook used his ingenuity and added tamarind to the dal with sautéed vegetables and lo, sambhar was served. Some culinary historians say coconut that is liberally used as a garnish and dip (thohayal, chutney) in southern food, came from the Maratha influence in Thanjavur and elsewhere in Kerala.
A Tanjorean Feast
The perennial waters of the Kaveri ensured year after year of harvests. Harvests got prosperity and a love for the good life. “Learn how to squander your inheritance by just eating from a Tanjorean”, was what others said but the Thanjavurites never bothered!
Where best to study food if not a Tamil wedding in Thanjavur? Even a century ago food and cuisine formed the backbone of any occasion, especially weddings.
Breakfast for children was the rice gruel from the previous night. For others dosai, thick ones called kal dosai (made on an iron flatpan) with molagai podi (gunpowder) was the standard. Idlis were not so important but sevai (steamed rice string hopper) was. Vadais were favoured but the patted ones that have no holes in them. Vaishnavaite families had pongal for sure. Before coffee, a buttermilk based drink with rice was served called neermore sadam.
The Tanjore Wedding Repast
Lunch was the big meal with more than 20 dishes made of locally sourced ingredients. Country vegetables like pumpkin, brinjal and raw plantain were primary vegetables but garnished differently. Pachadis (vegetable salads in yoghurt) were important as was sambhar and its variant pitlai. Then followed rasam (without tomatoes called poricha rasam) and chips made of raw plantain and a galaxy of different appalams. Many types of payasam, and laddus were standard desserts. Mixed rice like tamarind rice were also popular. Panagam made of jaggery was the favoured cold drink.
A true blue Thanjavur man would round off his mealtime with tambulam – (vethilai) betel leaves with several condiments each carefully prepared and enveloped in the leaf with dexterity and loving care by the mistress of the house.
Pradeep Chakravarthy is the author of Thanjavur – A Cultural History.