Posted in Food

Chennai Kaapiright

Connect the dots – Coffee, religion, caste system, trade unions ……

South India obsesses about coffee. Ask any one of our coffee drinkers and they would swear that we have been drinking coffee since the times the Gods walked the Earth, and that babies here go from mother’s milk to filter coffee, overnight. Much as we hate bursting this particular bubble, the truth is that coffee came into India fairly recently – in the early 19th century. And when it came, it wasn’t even love at first sight.

Coffee grew in the middle-east, where it was the drink of a small handful of people. But as it gained more converts, religion sat up and took notice. Islam was the first. The Imams decided that any drink that good HAD to be evil, and banned it. However, coffee soon won them over, and a holy Fatwa quickly gave it religious sanction. It became the drink of saints and Sufi mystics. After that, coffee travelled and eventually reached Venice. Now another religion opposed it. This time round, it was Christianity. Should good Catholics drink a ‘Muslim drink’? It seems Pope Clement VIII tried it, loved it and graciously allowed all good Catholics to drink it too.

Coffee Houses soon became the hot and happening places in Europe. This was where all controversial topics were discussed threadbare. Inefficient kings were roundly scolded and corrupt churches were ripped apart. All this made Charles II very nervous and in 1675 he banned coffee houses in England. But by then, even his ministers were so addicted to coffee that the ban had to be hastily withdrawn. Some looked at coffee as a magic potion and believed it could “Expel Fumes out of the Head and cleanse the English-man’s Stomak of Flegm.” Why the average Englishman had all this strange stuff inside him in the first place, no one knows. Women were conveniently kept out of English coffee houses and naturally, they had a very different viewpoint. “This heathenish liquor made our men impotent!” screamed a woman’s petition against coffee. But there was no looking back for coffee.

It is said that coffee came into India through the efforts of Baba Budan. He travelled all the way to Arabia to find salvation – and found coffee. Initially, coffee did not find many takers here. The Brahmins decided to stand their ground against this invidious new drink. So they took to boycotting coffee houses and speaking long and passionately against coffee. But somewhere along the line, they tumbled headlong in love with coffee. Soon coffee became an indispensible part of a Brahmin household and took its place very comfortably among all the other age old rituals. Just look at the way coffee is served in Tamil Nadu; it comes in a steel davara-tumbler with a rim around the edges, unlike coffee mugs. That simple adaptation allowed persnickety drinkers to safely pour hot coffee straight into their mouths, without letting the tumbler touch their lips.

Today coffee purists swear by ’Kumbakonam Degree Coffee.’ What makes Kumbakonam the coffee Mecca? Truth be told, we don’t have an answer. Kumbakonam grows no coffee, is not particularly famous for its milk and the sugar you buy there is just the same as anywhere else. So how did Kumbakonam become the first name in filter coffee? One wonders if it might have anything to do with Kumbakonam being a temple town, which is lined with many Agraharam houses, which are populated by many Brahmins, who perhaps drink way too much coffee?

During the British rule, there was a popular coffee chain called the India Coffee house. It closed down in the 1950’s, leaving its workers jobless. That’s when Comrade Gopalan Nambiar, a well known Trade Union leader took charge and got the coffee shops transferred to workers co-operatives. He gave it a brand new name – Indian Coffee House. It is still going strong with over 400 branches across the country, but none in Tamil Nadu yet.

Starbucks with its 15000 stores worldwide has now opened its first outlet in Chennai. How will it fare here?

There will surely be some indifference, a bit of skepticism, and a lot of comparison. But for all you know, perhaps a day will come when Starbucks too will feature among Chennai’s age old traditions…


Posted in Food

Spicy Tales

GrandspiceCinnamon, cardamom, saffron, coriander, chilli, cloves and pepper –common names in an Indian kitchen today, and internationally known too, as flavouring for food. Every chef, and housewife as well, knows that a pinch of this and a small fistful of that, in the right proportions, can raise food from the mundane to the sublime. Listen to their stories, and you will know that spices can not only tickle your taste buds, but also provoke your grey cells!

The nutty tale of nutmeg goes way back in History, when the Europeans were coming in droves, eager to colonize new places and find new things to take back home. One among them, the Dutch, hit upon a bonus in the East Indies. When they were busy, looking for precious stones, land and gold, they found — the nutmeg. It became a popular spice in Europe, and that was it. They turned the whole place into one large nutmeg plantation and set a new rule in place. “No native is allowed to grow nutmeg.” And they gave terrible punishments to those who flouted the rule.

Time went by and the Dutch made their millions, monopolizing nutmeg trade. But, maintaining that monopoly meant that they had to police the little islands of the Indian Ocean, making sure that the natives did not grow the spice and sell it off to other Europeans who also scouted the area regularly. This is the story of one such a group, entrusted with the job of making sure that nutmeg grew only in the White Man’s plantations. One day, when they were sailing by an island, they saw something that made them furious. They saw nutmeg trees! They went to the next island, and saw more nutmeg trees! One island after another, all of them had the banned tree growing on it. Enraged by the disobedience of the natives, the Dutch inflicted cruel punishments on all of them.

At their next stop, they saw more nutmeg trees, and by now, the Dutch men were tired of handing out punishments. So, they asked an old native, “Why did you disobey us and plant these trees here?” And the venerable old man replied, “We did not plant them, sir. Birds eat the nutmeg fruit and fly over these islands. And where their droppings fall, new plants grow.” So much confusion and pain, all because of bird droppings!

This peppery tale has an international take. It was a spice over which countries fought and killed, kingdoms tottered and empires were built. And many made their millions with it too!

In the pre-refrigeration days, the Europeans had to preserve meat and the only way to do so was to dredge it in salt. But when this meat was cooked, it was way too salty to eat. Something had to be added to it to improve its flavour, and pepper was the best thing they could use. Chilli was not really an alternative, for it was too fiery for the European palate. So pepper became a necessity to the Europeans.

It was the Portuguese who first came to India for pepper. And they did take a lot of it! At one point, they became a little greedy and hiked the price of pepper by a very small amount, something like three pence a pound. You see, pepper was so expensive and precious those days that it was sold by the corn. Not everyone could afford it; it was reserved only for those with heavy wallets.

The price rise did nothing to make the British happy. They decided to come to India and take pepper by themselves, and so the East India Company was formed, and the rest is history. Of course, this is only one angle to the colonization story, but doubtless, a spicy angle. After independence, India is the biggest player in the world pepper market. The finest Indian pepper is grown in the monsoon forests of the Malabar Coast in Kerala. Each house in Kerala grows pepper creepers, trailing up their coconut palms and jackfruit trees. All extras are sold to pepper cooperatives which play the world market.

Our tangy tale involves – no, not tomato ketchup, but our very own tamarind, without which no South Indian meal is complete. What is South India without sambar and rasam, both of which are tamarind based? Drive down any highway and you will invariably see that it is bordered by tamarind trees. Stories abound of tamarind trees harbouring ghosts and most villages have one or two of these trees to give it the necessary shade, and the necessary goose bumps!! At the end of all this, one could be forgiven for thinking that the tamarind was a local tree. Far from it actually. The tree itself is of African origin, and the name came from the Arabic “Tamar Hindi”, which means Indian date, from the date-like appearance of the dried pulp. Born in Africa, named in Arabia and eaten in India —- globalization indeed.

Our smelly tale involves — asafetida. An essential ingredient in Indian food, a spice with medicinal properties – asafetida is all this and more. It literally means ‘stinking gum’, but a pinch of it can work wonders for the food. No rasam is a rasam without asafetida. Much as the Indians liked it, the British had the last word. They called it ‘Devils Dung’, perhaps because of its obnoxious smell. One man’s flavouring, another man’s olfactory assault?

Spices, as you can see, have gone places indeed. The poem may say “Sugar and spice, and all things nice……..” but spices do have a long history behind them and not all of it is nice. There is no denying their need in the culinary field, and indeed, food would be so bland and colourless without them. What is gravy without the rich yellow glow of turmeric, or a pullav without the red strands of saffron? Viva spices.

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Posted in Festivals, Food, Traditions

Sundal and suchlike

We’ve just seen the end of one festival. Kolu padis are being dismantled, dolls are getting packed away, fancy lights disconnected and friends and relatives will again be relegated to the background of busy daily life. The city is limping back to reality after a surfeit of sundal and holidays. Good food, renewed ties among the family and friends, and a time to thank a higher power – such is the spirit of Navaratri.

But ever asked yourself, why Navaratri and why a kolu?

Some believe that this festival commemorates the battle between Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. Mahishasura had somehow managed to get himself a boon; that he would be killed by no one. Not man, not God, not demon. And with that, he marched straight into heaven and threatened the Gods. The canny Gods did some quick thinking and found a loophole. The boon didn’t say any thing about not being killed by a woman!

So they created Goddess Durga, gave her their most powerful weapons and sent her off to kill the ruthless Demon. A terrible combat broke out and continued for nine long days. Finally, on the tenth day, Durga pinned Mahishasura down with her foot and cut off his head with her sword.

And today, this is celebrated all over the country in one way or another. Here in South India, this battle is recalled every year during the Navaratri. The Goddess comes down to fight and the Gods too come to Earth to cheer her on. And almost every house sets up an elaborate kolu, arranging colourful idols of Gods on each step, making sure they get a nice ringside seat in the battle.

Kolus have come a long way. They still tell stories, but not just of Gods and goddesses. They unabashedly show off the family’s travels, hint at their political affiliations, and end up being a commentary on everything from their financial status to their child’s latest class project. So sitting quietly in the midst of all the Gods, you may very well spot Thomas the train or the Incredible Hulk.

You will invariably spot a pair of crudely finished but beautifully decked up wooden dolls in a corner of the kolu. They are called the Marapachis. These were said to be gifts given by a girl’s father to his daughter, who, at the time of her marriage would typically have been a child herself. Today, many households take pride in the Marapachi as an heirloom.

And what about Sundal? Why should this simple delicacy be so closely associated with Navaratri? Most customs begin with a very simple story. And one such story swears that sundal was offered to appease the Navagrahas or the nine planets, each of whom has a taste for a particular variety of grain. And it is these grains that were used in preparing the offering. One could prepare any dish using the grains -vada, payasam, puttu, chikki, murukku… However, ten days is a long time to sustain elaborate cooking. Perhaps that’s how the humble sundal came to stay? Easy to make, easy on the pocket and easy to pack as a give away?

Come Ayudha Pooja, and it is difficult to miss the sandal paste adorning office equipment and machinery. Cars, autos and trucks are ‘dressed’ in their finest and do the rounds of the city, horns blaring. It’s a moot point if it started this way. One story says that the Pandavas retrieved their weapons, so long hidden on a treetop, and worshipped them before moving on. Another says that Goddess Durga fervently prayed to the weapons which came in so handy in her battle against the demon. In today’s context, weapons have given way to the tools that help people in their daily lives. So everything, from the dosa grinder to the gaming console gets smeared with a dollop of sandal paste.

But like every other Indian festival, this one too means different things to people living in different parts of the country. In the North, Dusshera is a festival celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Ravana is the villain in this story and paid the price for abducting Rama’s wife. Elsewhere, in the Bastar district, it is Ravana who is the hero. He is, they claim, every bit as wise, versatile and capable as Rama. Moreover, he was a great devotee of Shiva and was loved by the people he ruled. So in Bastar, they celebrate Ravana. In Bengal, people celebrate the Goddess’ victory over Mahishasura. Many look upon her as the daughter who has returned to her father’s house for some rest and relaxation. When it is time for her to go back, on the day of the visarjan, everyone turns out to bid farewell to her, and there is a palpable air of sorrow and loss over the place. On the other hand, in Gujarat, they dance their way through the Navratri. It’s the time when you can spot men and women wearing their finest and boogying away to pulsating music.

Different names, different styles, different stories, even different Gods! Only the holidays coincide. Whichever story you subscribe to, and however you celebrate it, this festival marks the victory of good over evil. So …Viva Navaratri!