Skip to content

Indulgence at a South Indian feast

September 29, 2012

For the past few years that I have been in Southern part of India I have had chance of partaking food at South Indian celebrations many a times. Every time I have enjoyed the food immensely, the simplicity of it and yet the intricately woven regimen that is the serving and eating the meal that is very much a part of the routine.

I have yet to go to a South Indian feast that has non-vegetarian menu. I am told that there are people who do serve non-vegetarian food in weddings and anniversaries and other such occasions, but that I believe is an exception rather than the rule.

There is no cutlery – the food is served on a banana leaf which they throw after the meal, so it is hygienic and clean. There is no wine with the food, only a glass of water by the side and a glass of buttermilk (lightened curd with salt, pepper and some herbs like mint and coriander). The ritual is rather elaborate for someone uninitiated. There is a method of serving which has symbolic significance. The banana leaf first appears and is thrust in front of you. Mostly you are eating squatting on the floor. Modernity has touched even traditionalists like South Indians and nowadays you are seated on a chair and table in long rows. People eat in hundreds and sometimes even in thousands at any feast. So rows and rows of people eat together and then the next set of people takes their place as soon as the banana leafs are cleaned and the place is ready for the next lot.

A typical South Indian meal

A typical South Indian meal

Once the banana leaf is placed out comes a man with a jug of water pouring a small splash on each leaf. You are supposed to swish the water with your right hand – the eating hand, in front of you so as to clean the leaf ready to be served. There is a small army of men serving the food. The first thing to be served invariably is salt – just a pinch of it. This signifies your relations with the host – you have eaten salt of this household and you are in someway indebted. It is a ritual which people in India both North and South still take seriously. Then comes the payasam or what is called kheer in North India. This is a rice based sweet dish made either with sugar or jaggery. Serving a sweet dish first is the hosts way of saying he wishes you well. You are then served lentils soaked overnight with shavings of coconut sprinkled with some spices.  There are two or sometimes three varieties of these mouthwatering spoonfuls. Then you are served some pickles and sabzi or vegetarian dishes. Mind you, you have not touched the food till now. Next comes a diluted curd and greens mixed concoction.  The food is still being served. A popodum or papad appears. Some more salads follow. And finally some sparkling white boiled rice. You may think the routine is complete but it is not. In fact, it has just begun.

It is when the spicy concoction of watery yellow lentil called the sambar, with an aroma that one can smell from a mile, is splashed on to your rice that you begin to eat – with your hands. You are supposed to mash the whole thing with the array of vegetarian dishes and curd and pickles. You end up putting in your mouth a food that has taken at least ten men to work for over six to eight hours to get it ready for you. It all looks so simple and simple it is but the taste is heavenly and you can smell the spices as the food finds its way to the stomach. If it is too spicy the liquidy, curdy salad helps you out. A more liberal splash of it and the heat subsides.

The serving continues. There is pin drop silence. There are no niceties to share, no small talk to make. The focus is the food and each one is diving into it at speeds I have rarely seen. The host then appears out of the thin air and does not ask you as to how was the food. They request you to eat at leisure and eat well – with folded hands. Its a very delicate ritual this. You nod back with a glint in your eye and your mouth full – staring at them stupidly.

The serving goes on relentlessly. Again a man appears with bowls of steaming rice. Then another appears with rasam – another yellow lentil based liquidy dish that goes particularly well with steamed rice. This has more of tamarind and is slightly more sour than sambar.

When you think you can eat no more appears a chickpea flour and lentil based salty cookie called vada. Mash the vada in the rice and rasam and it adds flavor to the mouthful. By now you are swearing under your breath that you can’t have another morsel. But then what do you do if you are served the mouth watering poranpoli or a flour based sweet with khova and rasins. You gobble it while shaking yourself to make space in your stomach for this last bit of delight that you know you should not have had. Invariably the guy who served the payasam or kheer reappears and before you can say ‘no’ splashes a ladle-full onto your leaf. You can’t say no to THAT. No one says no to payasam. So you lick it for all you are worth and gingerly get up. You are satiated silly, you have had your uta (Kannada for meal, food. Pro: oota) you are done.

There is a routine on how you fold your banana leaf too to dispose off. If you do it the wrong way, the host may feel a wee bit offended. But I have never figured out the right way so I leave it just as it is. Now the onerous task of walking back home after completing the last ritual that is to thrust a beetle leaf with a host of ingredients and which helps in digestion, called the paan. Paan at the end of the meal is a pan-India ritual. But before you go you are handed a coconut. Earlier people used to carry the coconut in their hands, nowadays they have these quaint little cotton carry-bags in which is the coconut with some flowers from the puja and a dash of turmeric and vermilion.

We Indians are gluttons. South Indian food is wonderful but then food in every part of India has its own flavor which is so distinct and yet so Indian. Its hideous the way we eat – it is almost as if we live to eat.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: