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Around Tamil Nadu in six months

After months of intensive travel and research, chefs at the Taj unveil a festival of Kongunadu food, showcasing the best cuisine from the dry interior regions of south-central India

Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

Too many chefs help perfect traditional Kongunadu cuisine!

OVER THE past six months, chefs from the Taj fanned out into south-central India, deep into the interiors of Tamil Nadu, stopping by in over 52 homes to learn about their traditional cooking and food. Accompanying them and assisting their research were students from the Department of Catering Sciences of the Cherraan Arts and Science College in Kangayam, led by Jacob Sahaya Khumar, the department head. The students bridged the gaps in language and communication between the residents and the visiting team and the extensive research resulted in a festival of Kongunadu food, on at the poolside at the Taj West End.

Kongunadu, which probably derives from the word kongu meaning nectar or honey is an interior region of arid, dry land bereft of any significant influence of the coastal areas in its cuisine. The chefs at the festival have stayed with traditional recipes, leaving the simple dishes a little spicy and strong rather than toning them down to suit a modern palate. "This area was previously unexplored territory," explains chef Satyanarayan K., "and we didn't want to do something routine."

Authentic cuisine

So, despite the tang in the food, which will wring a tear out of the most hardened palate, the chefs have retained authentic tastes, using the same natural products — coconut, sesame seed, groundnut, and ginger, as are used traditionally. "In fact some people even ask for more spice," laughs Chef Satyanarayan.

Kongunadu food is light and healthy, using such ingredients as bajra, sesame, and an abundance of pulses and cereals. The chefs have not conjured up their own dishes, except to introduce a dish with prawns — a delicacy obviously not part of the cuisine of the land-bound region. The buffet available at the Taj poolside is both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The non-vegetarian dishes seem to have surpassed the vegetarian dishes on offer. The pallarpatti kathirikkai masala (brinjal in a gravy) was spicy but not overly so, the mixed vegetable dish was a clever mingling of different tastes but the potato dish — urulai kara varuval — was a bit of a disappointment being a bit dry and stretchy.

My companion had the kane fish it was "very lightly fried, very fresh, soft, with not too much masala but very tasty and just melted in your mouth," she said. The prawns were also declared above the ordinary, not as spicy as the rest of the food and with a groundnut, coconut base, leading her to liken it to a Thai concoction. The mutton was pronounced "not bad". It was soft (surely the greatest challenge with a mutton dish!) and spicier than the other non-vegetarian food on offer.

The flavoured chicken biriyani was an expert blend of the traditional spicy food of the region with the subtle aftertastes offered by most upmarket dining experiences. The rice alone had an unusual flavouring, both mild and tasty and the chicken in it, my companion described plainly as, "just awesome".

Desserts

The desserts are apparently eaten as the second last course in the Kongunadu region, (it's the taste of rasam that lingers) and uninhibitedly combine unlikely ingredients in unfamiliar forms. Fresh corn in a pudding consistency for one: a thick broth-like yellow dessert, surprisingly light and mild-tasting for its gooey appearance, and grows on you with each mouthful. Since the menu changes each day, you could also be treated to a dessert intended as prasadam to Lord Muruga at Palani. The panchamritam is made from locally grown plantains, dates, jaggery, and sugar candy.

Although the food is spicy, the arresting flavours and unlikely combinations are likely to make the festival worth a visit. Not much of the cuisine is well-known in urban areas and it is hardly ever showcased in a festival, let alone researched so painstakingly. The festival is on at till October 3.

HEMANGINI GUPTA

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