Written by: Gayathiri Sivakumar
As I grow older, my memory fades. Things that were once crystal clear have become foggy. But my sense of taste, it has not aged a day, and so, I realize how important it is to try remember my past and connect my future, through the Art of Tamil Cooking.
My grandmother was a great cook, her meals were always elaborate and elegant events. She would spend hours in the kitchen, both preparing the spices, lentils and meats beforehand, and cooking them after. It was always like magic, somehow, she made the spices come alive, and the way they melted in my mouth was just heavenly. My mother is also a great cook, but she has fallen prey to modernization, and has abandoned some of the ancient ways that really added flavor to our Tamil foods. I, am even guiltier of this, and I taste a problem for my future. I mean, how many families actually grind their own spices anymore? We all just use ready packets of grinded curry powder, but forget that the spicing process, freshness and amounts all contribute to the authenticity and taste of Tamil cooking.
Our food is so rich and tasty when prepared right. The aromas, and spices, are just so beautifully intertwined, that the flavours just pop in your mouth. I may be biased here, but I think Tamil Cuisine is the tastiest cuisine in the world.
Tamil cooking has been praised all around the world, and Tamil cooking influences can be seen in other cuisines, and in the English language. For example, the English word Curry, is derived from the Tamil word, Kari. Others include, Maangai has become Mango, Kanji became Conjee, Ingiver (Inchi- ver (root) become Ginger, and Milagu Thaneer (pepper water) became Mulligatawny (a now famous soup).
Now, in an attempt to salvage some of the wisdom from Tamil cooking, and understand the antics involved, I did some scavenging and asking of older relatives. Like, for instance serving food on vaalai ilia (banana leaf) not only enhanced the food flavours, but the leaves were served to cows afterwards so it would not go to waste.
Sangam literature also points out that early eating habits of Tamils, our diets included rice, vegetables and meats. Milk, butter and honey were also common requirements. A lot of dietary habits were based on location; for agrarian societies, small animals and vegetables were common, whereas coastal inhabitants relied heavily on seafood. Fasting was also very common practice as a way of cleansing and paying deity respects. Karuvembu was commonly used in all cooking to add flavor and aroma.
This once common information has been recorded and preserved through epigraphs chiseled in walls of our ancient temples. In these epigraphs, we’ve learned that our ancient cooking specifies the size of kitchen to be used, the size of the stoves to be used, the direction the stove should face, and highly recommends that the cook should not be angry or hold a grudge with someone while cooking. Cleanliness habits have also been talked about (ie. tying up long hair). Our ancestors treated cooking as an art form, one that required much care, love, passion, respect and mastery.
The Art of Tamil Cooking is one that must be passed down, from older generations to younger ones. Modern appliances and packets cannot replace fine Tamil cooking, and we should not do so. We, Tamil youth, should be well versed in our ancient cooking, and learn from our grandmothers and relatives the Art of Tamil Cooking. We should not compromise the richness of our cooking for time, and should instead revel in the beauty and Art of Ancient Tamil Cooking.