Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Save What You Savour

BY Avantika Bhuyan

The uniquely spicy flavours of Mudaliar food are in danger of being lost to future generations. Thankfully, some cuisine conservationists are at hand.

Even though food means a lot to Mudaliars, they have not done much to popularise or preserve their cuisine. These chefs are trying to change that (Photo: ASHISH SHARMA)Fragrant and flavoursome, Mudaliar dishes are garnished with legends and folktales. As the tale goes, this rustic peasant cuisine from the northern part of Tamil Nadu first shot to limelight in the 5th century, when a Chola prince put a few dishes onto the royal menu. It took little time for Mudaliars, a community of farmers with a reputation for turning arid land fertile, to swaddle palate after palate with their culinary delights.

Over time, the community broke up into smaller subcastes, and this, together with migration, led to a dilution of the original flavours. Mudaliars who moved to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, for example, saw their kitchens succumb to the spice mixes and cooking techniques of their adoptive lands. Today, there aren’t many left who are familiar with the ancient aromas that had once bewitched a Chola prince.

Thankfully, cuisine conservationists are at work, and if the efforts of a couple of chefs and lone cookbook author succeed, Mudaliar dishes could be taken off the endangered list. “Tuluva Velallers and Vellars, as Mudaliars are known in South India, are divided into 26 subcastes,” says Master Chef Velumurugan P, a Mudaliar from Chennai who is in Delhi to get diners tasting and talking about the cuisine at a food festival at WelcomHotel’s Dakshin restaurant. “Today, half these subcastes, like Saiva Mudaliars, are vegetarian, and others such as Pillais are non-vegetarian,” he adds. Nobody knows whether the original Mudaliars were meat eaters or not.

Also, the cuisine has evolved in varied ways to suit local taste buds in places to which members of the community migrated. For instance, Mudaliars today in Kerala make liberal use of coconut and coconut oil, which gives the original cuisine a new mouthfeel and flavour accent. “The ones staying in Karnataka have made the traditional dish bisibele bhath their own. Hyderabadi Mudaliars make pulaos with a lot more chillies than we do. Their pickles are excellent and are mostly Andhra recipes. Nagpur and Amravati Mudaliars have tastes more like Maharashtrians,” explains Sabita Radhakrishna, a writer, food columnist and broadcaster who has been researching Mudaliar cuisine for the past decade now. Her cookbook, Aharam, which is an invaluable record of about 175 authentic Tamilian dishes, won the prestigious Gourmand World Award for the Best Indian Cookbook in 2002.

Research has shown that Mudaliar food is distinctive. It is not as spicy or oily as Chettiar cuisine, nor is it staunchly vegetarian like Thanjavur preparations. “This is a non-Brahminical cuisine which uses the best of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian ingredients. However, unlike other southern fare, there is no use of pork or beef,” says Executive Chef Raj Kamal Chopra, who has organised Dakshin’s showcase of endangered cuisines.

Though Mudaliar cuisine has now become a medley of different gastronomical genres, there are still some ingredients that have survived in their original form down the ages. Take the vadakam, for instance. It is a spice mix which no true-blue Mudaliar household can do without. A kind of tempering ball, it is made with garlic, onions, mustard seeds and curry leaves in a long-drawn process. Once all the ingredients have been blended to perfection, the mix is dried in the sun everyday until all the moisture is absorbed. “If the weather is extremely hot and sunny, the vadakam would take about two weeks to be completely dry. This mix is then moulded in the form of small lime-shaped balls and stored in glass jars for years,” says Sabita.

Heaped teaspoons of this fragrant spice blend are used to temper fish curries, dal, tamarind curry and some types of mutton dishes as well.

Brinjal is another ingredient that Mudaliar chefs are fond of. In fact, till some time ago, Mudaliars were known as ‘brinjal people’. To others, the aubergine might be bland, but it assumes a whole other persona as part of this unique cuisine. Known as kathrikai, brinjal is used to flavour spicy tamarind curries, or just sun dried for later use. “Kathrikai chops made with onion, tomato, peppercorns and coconut masala are a speciality in our family,” says Chef Velumurugan. A daily meal at a traditional Mudaliar household tends to include brinjal in one form or another, be it kathrikai with Bengal gram, mashed brinjal with mashed moong dal, or kathrikai with sun dried tomato. “Mudaliars also happen to be very fond of drumsticks. The flowers and leaves of drumsticks are used avidly in dishes as well. Another unique ingredient used in the cuisine is kalpasi or blackstone flower. It is a rare dried flower used often as a spice,” says Chef Velumurugan.

Mudaliar cuisine shares some traditions with other southern culinary genres too. Cooking goat meat with an assortment of vegetables and herbs, for example. One of the most popular vegetables used with mutton is mochakka, shelled beans of a kind abundantly available in south India. In traditional Mudaliar families, like Sabita’s, mochakka is used to make a special dish called peratel, which is a thin soup-like gravy made with mutton, potatoes and these beans. Each household has a secret recipe which is closely guarded by family members. “One such dish is chuppal kari in which meat and garnishes are skewered and then gently cooked with aromatic spices,” says Sabita.

It is not just the flavours that are distinctive, but the cooking apparatus as well. Take vengalam paanai, a metal vessel commonly used for serving food in the olden days. Like copper and stone utensils, they were believed to have medicinal properties.

Fish curry was always made in an earthen pot and it was believed that the taste improved manifold when left in it for a day or two. Rasam was made exclusively in an eeyam, a lead vessel, and a kal chatti was used for mashing dal or spinach. “Kal chattis were used in days when food processors were non-existent. These unique vessels were embedded with small stones so that dal or green leafy vegetables became pasty when ground with a pestle. These were used on wood fire as well, but had to be seasoned first by pouring hot rice conjee and leaving them overnight. This way, it didn’t crack on the fire, and the stone was supposed to imbue the food with certain minerals,” explains Sabita, who still uses these old treasures, much to the chagrin of her house help who finds them too heavy to handle.

Yet, for all the effort, gastronomical wonders like these could soon vanish, with millions of people left without even a chance to savour any of it. Chef Velumurugan and Sabita apportion blame for this to India’s Mudaliars themselves. Even though food means a lot to them, they have not done much to popularise or preserve their cuisine for posterity. The duo hope that just as Chettinad and Kongunadu cuisines have spread their flavours across India and the world, Mudaliar fare too will get a chance to break out of its current cocoon.

Orthodox Brahmins often shun the cuisine because of its use of onion and garlic, but that shouldn’t be a deterrent in this day and age. “It is those Mudaliars who have migrated to the US, UK and Australia who are willing to get back to their traditional way of cooking, despite some of the recipes being so complicated. I wish a similar response would be seen in India as well,” sighs Sabita.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

happy Deepavalli

Pre Deepavalli and I am wondering about gifts, about rituals about people...Sometimes the whole thing seems senseless, the amount of work involved, the trips to shops and the buying of sweets...And the children? In this case my grandchildren..These days they are blessed (?) with everything money can give them so you can only give them your time, your love and small things which only grandparents can give.

I show my love through the food I cook. Special food on special occasions and yes for special people.
In the old days I used to literally moan at the thought of Deepavalli, such a load of things to do, and all by oneself. And the returns were not every encouraging. My husband asked me a simple it really worth it? And once I decided to cut out the drudgery part of it, it is more enjoyable, really!
In the old days, rituals were created so that you could bond as a family, working together, sharing laughs as you bathed the gods, placed kumkum on their foreheads, sang as you worked, strung flowers which you grew in your garden, and so on.
Today we carry the rituals like a big burden. The children have flown the nest. Nuclear families are more the rule than the exception. And we women carry on bravely trying not to whimper.

I suggest we change with the times, and enjoy enjoy! No one is going to question you.Do whatever you can, whatever you enjoy doing. If decorating the puja room, welcoming Lakshmi gives you pleasure go ahead and do it, but dont be allday at it. If making athirasams is a big chore, skip it. cross the line and order from outside, there are enough sweetmeat stores to sell these for you. Even if you are all by yourself, no children around, light those oil lamps. When they flicker and shine you realise that life can have a glow if you wish it.
Go out and meet people and give what you feel like giving for this is the season of love and sharing. Write to people you cannot see, see if you can through SKYPE as I do, and thank God that we live in this day of technology which gives us glimpses of a family who choose to live in alien lands.
dont crib, dont grumble, just smile and your life will be lit up and you will exude warmth and good vibes to everyone around.
We used to have open house and about 50 people having brunch in our home. I used to make dosais and puris hot from 7 in the morning to about 11.30. At the end of it I used to be so pooped. I dont do it anymore, because I am getting older and my body needs rest. But we get invited out. By youngsters who have not forgotten what they ate at our table. so I count my blessings again.
Wish everyone a Happy Deepavalli!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Vital Dip


There are many facets to his healing, his touch, his therapy. I explore the avenues, one at a time…and an extremely successful arm of treatment is aquatherapy which has been the backbone of the Pugazhendi “ stay healthy regime”.
The indoor pool is warm, sparkling and inviting. It is a “women only” morning. Women arrive with walkers, canes and crutches. Some limp along holding a friend, terrified of falling on the water drenched floor outside of the pool. They are helped into the pool and those for whom it is a terrifying experience, are encouraged to hold the supports by the side of the pool and just walk slowly till they gain confidence. Priya the physiotherapist stands at the edge of the pool guiding her patients. She teaches them how to walk, to march, do various kick exercises and squats. I revisit the scene after four weeks. The progress is incredibly encouraging. Most of the women are able to walk on their own and the ones who can’t have made at least 30% progress.

As an eminent sports medicine doctor who treats injuries and restores normalcy of movement in patients as well as establishing maximum mobility, what made him turn to water?

It began with the training of R. Natarajan national sprinter who was diagnosed as having two stress fractures on his shin bone as he was preparing for the selection trials for the Asian Games in 1994. Dr.Kannan Pugazhendi designed the mode of training and the exercises to be done in water to maintain flexibility, muscle tone and explosive strength without causing pain. “High knee action and stretches in water resulted in a speedy recovery without a vestige of pain. I broke my own national record at the Asian Games in the 100 mts and 200 mts ….”. says Natarajan.

Recently diagnosed with a tear in his right Achilles tendon Natarajan sought Pugazhendi's guidance though various specialists had suggested surgery as the only way out.Three weeks of aquatherapy which consisted of walking in water, ankle and toe movements,etc. completed the healing process without the ordeal of undergoing surgery.

Who are the patients ideal for aqua therapy? Almost everyone. Dr Kannan has treated patients with acute knee pain, persons who find surgery inaffordable, those suffering from osteo arthritis, Bharata Natyam dancers, osteoporotic patients, rheumatoid arthritis patients, and post surgical cases. There are patients who are not suitable for this kind of treatment. Those suffering from cardiac problems need to get an all clear from their cardiologists. The coolness of the water (even in a place like Chennai) chills the body and the heart has to pump harder to even out the circulation. The heart should not go into shock at this effort. For any person not used to swimming or water, it is advisable to start aqua therapy for five minutes and increase it slowly to one hour sessions. At least initially all exercises need to be done under medical supervision, or by trained physiotherapists.

Anuska, cine artist swears by aquatherapy which she claims removed her knee pain totally in a few weeks time strengthening her muscles without straining her knee.
Surupa Sen,dancer describes that Dr Kannan motivated her recovery through a positive perspective having suffered from back pain and knee pain which many dancers suffer from. “ the aqua therapy enabled a greater range of exercise and movement which sustained my fitness over a longer period of time. That was by far the most beneficial treatment which helped me keep myself flexible and strong throughout the recovery period” she says.
The body weight is reduced by 90% in water and the buoyancy makes even the more difficult exercises doable. For instance persons with knee problems are generally advised not to do squat exercises. In water, one can do all this and more without discomfort or injury. Even jogging is permissible. The exercises are very specific to each person and and each person needs to work out under an exercise prescription. You don’t need to know swimming to undergo aquatherapy. Watching persons in the thick of it, I am convinced the experience is very enjoyable. “The initial problem which we surmounted was getting the women to shed their inhibitions and get into water…” says Dr Kannan. The reluctance stemmed from having to wear a swimsuit under the public eye. The resourceful doctor got permission from the concerned authorities to allow the women to wear clean salwar kameezes or tights if they so chose, and half the battle was won.

What are the benefits of aquatherapy? Due to the water buoyancy, exercises are easier. It is almost “a return to the womb” feeling, and a snugness and confidence once patients get used to the water. You carry only 10% of the body weight, so doing exercises are much easier. There is uniform omnipotent pressure in the water, and the full weight bearing joints are faced with minimum loading.. The muscle mass is improved and with regular workouts, the gait is improved.

The ideal candidates for aqua therapy are the geriatric population. Those with ataxia, who lose balance and fall easily, find that their limbs are strengthened and they are steadier on their feet during normal walking. Those with respiratory problems are greatly benefitted as compressed water exists exhalation. Muscle tone is improved for those with hypertrophy. It is indeed a mega treatment even for those who have undergone bypass surgery, with the consent of the cardiologist, of course.

The exercises seem gentle and easy, but the after effect is mind boggling. You begin with a warm up as in any exercise regime, then begin exercises. Half an hour of aquatherapy is equal to an hour of walking or workouts in the gym. According to Pugazhendi, after the initial healing takes place in the case of a limb fracture, aqua therapy restores, maintains function, and enhances mobility. “Of course where nothing else works, surgery is the ultimate answer, in certain cases, and I don’t rule this out entirely,” says Dr Kannan.

Any new developments in aqua therapy? “ I am constantly devising new methods which might prove to be beneficial,” says Dr Pugazhendi. I am trying out yoga pilates in water which will improve the entire muscular skeletal system. This will help to strengthen bone mass. Kalari in water is the next experiment, and pranayama in water should be really beneficial in assisting the mental and physical progress of the individual.”

If this as the good doctor says, improves the quality of life, swimming pools should be easily accessible to the populace. And if pools can be reserved for women, the response will be greater, most Indian women cannot come to terms in sharing a pool with men. Though it is wishful thinking, an indoor pool will attract the female patients further, as the fear of getting exposed to sun is dormant in them!

Any non-formal method of healing which eliminates the trauma of surgery will always be welcome to patients and fitness freaks to whom wellness is a big factor in good living.

Sabita Radhakrishna
Chennai based free lance writer and author
She may be contacted at

Monday, August 30, 2010

Mum's 90th birthday

We just celebrated my mother's 90th birthday. I didnt want a surprise party for her, as I felt surprises, however pleasant might not be good for her age. We had about 40 people over and held it at our local club and had a private room to ourselves. Everyone had a ball. The grandkids entertained us with singing, and I did a powerpoint presentation on the life and times of Mrs Leela Chander! It was great, digging out old sepia coloured photographs and projecting them. The whole family was covered in stages. We had a gorgeous spread, and our home was literally bursting with blooms. I was glad my husband and I were able to do this for her.
I think this generation of old mothers are lucky as we still feel we owe a lot to our parents and really care for them.
I keep wondering what the future holds for us....this generation of parents, children abroad, and we the parents very independent and reluctant to trouble our children by landing up on them.
Well, we will get to know sooner or later, but I am not going to feel sorry for ourselves!

Here is the presentation...