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Monday, Apr 19, 2004

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History on a platter

Dakshin delves into the past to recreate ethnic flavours for a food festival that's on till April 25

Pic by N.Sridharan

THE DAKSHIN team has been wowing and wooing us with classic South Indian cuisine for a long time. They took us not only into neighbours' kitchens and the rural `samayalkettus,' but also into the royal ones. For the 15th anniversary celebrations, chef Praveen Anand and co. is again on flashback mode. The current do at the South Indian restaurant at the Park Sheraton is based on "Hindu Pakka Sastra," a cookbook dating back to 1890.

One has to appreciate chef Praveen's tenacity in tracing the book and also in cooking up the goodies from its pages. He enthusiastically explains how continuous dribbling of hot water over jasmine flowers infuses its fragrance in the water in which the rice is cooked or the details of the various steps to prepare the gooseberry and onions to make payasams. The exquisite motchai (butter beans) rasam to palaakkai (raw jackfruit) curry, peerkangai puli paruppu (ridged gourd and dal) to pomegranate rice and chameli khuska or jasmine rice, the entrees are enchanting. We are in a familiar territory, yet it is not the same. The beauty of these dishes is its subtlety. They are simpler and hence more distinct with the taste of the vegetables coming through sharply.

The real stars of the fest, on till April 25, were the desserts. For an inveterate sweet addict like me it was `Open Sesame' and the treasure trove opened. A bite of the karupu puttarasimav (black wild rice) and coconut milk halwas I was having a rethink about the evening. Why on earth did I waste time on the main course? Amritha kuzhal, the grandmamma of jalebi, was also delicious.

But, an exceptional desserts section does not make a festival. Nor does historicity of the dishes alone. Why should one pay Rs.250 for vazhakkai podi or raw plantain crumble even if it has been around for 125 years? Vendakkai puli kozhambu and puli itta arai keerai too fell into the same category. Even among the sweets, the payasams are lovely, but they stand out more because of their unlikely ingredients.

No tomato is used at all in any dish on the menu. Garlic and onions are used, but only in one or two dishes. These may be mere details but at the end of it all, one gets a niggling doubt: is the focus on the food or the facts attached to it?

MARIEN MATHEW

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