Back in the day, a Christian wedding in Thirunelveli would last 3 days: the day before the ceremony, the day of the ceremony, and the day after the ceremony. Only vegetarian food was served on the first two days, with meat being reserved for the day after the ceremony. Guests sat on jamakkalams (Tamil Nadu cotton carpets) laid on the floor, and the vegetarian feast was served on a plantain leaf. Generally, the salt is always served first, and a tablespoon of this dhal is served after it. The other vegetables, pickles, appalams, etc., are served only after these two. When sambar is served for the rice, this dhal is again served in large quantities. The first tablespoon of dhal is served as a nod to its significance as an important source of protein in a vegetarian diet, and is therefore served immediately after salt even though its actual role in the meal comes later.
When my daughter’s doctor prescribed very bland food (for an Indian) as part of her treatment for a gastric condition, I looked around for a preparation that would be easy to digest and provide very good quality protein. I found that she was able to tolerate cauliflower, eggs, and cheese. I also love cauliflower and cheese and found recipes for the elaborate cauliflower au gratin, but I wanted something simpler. The Complete Australian Cookbook in my personal library gave me a recipe for cauliflower and cheese. I modified the recipe using some features from the au gratin and made the measurements of the ingredients easier. I also omitted the heating of the cheese with the white sauce because of the stringy texture it gives. Instead I sprinkled the cheese on top, and it not only gave a beautiful colour, but also a delicious aroma while baking.
The tiny freshwater fish Ayirai is made only into a kuzhambu, or curry. It is the most delectable fish curry I have tasted. My grandmother used to prepare it especially for me when I visited Palayamkottai during summer vacations. Though my mother did not record this preparation, I have reconstructed the recipe from my evergreen – and ever hungry 🙂 – memory of this delicious treat. It was always served with Keerai Kadaiyal.
I have a habit of copying interesting recipes which are different from my family’s traditional dishes. This recipe comes from Your Food and You written and published by Mrs. H. K. Philip (maybe in the 1940s), who was a well known social worker. Her recipes used traditional and comparative units of measure and random procedures, which I had to standardise through repeated experiments. I was impressed by the recipe because it was very simple compared to dishes typically made here, combines potatoes with meatballs and does not use coconut.
Pakodas are favourite teatime snacks all over India. There are a variety of pakodas made in different states, but in Thirunelveli, especially in my family, whole wheat flour pakodas were made and served as a breakfast item. It is unique because it combines black gram dhal along with wheat flour to give a softer texture and improve the nutritive value.
In Tamil Nadu, the gourd family is used in several dishes perhaps because of the high water content and easy availability in all seasons. Ridge gourd is used with dhal in vegetarian cooking. I obtained this recipe from a Burmese repatriate friend, who said this dish was prepared by Tamil people who had settled in Burma but is not native to Burmese cooking. I was amazed as I had never come across ridge gourd being used in non-vegetarian cooking. I lost no time in trying it out at home and was very pleased with the result.
I first experienced the mesmerising taste of chicken and pineapple at the Atlantic Hotel’s Shenbagam Restaurant in 1977, but I didn’t have a recipe for it. I later acquired The Cook’s Color Treasury sometime in the 80s in which I discovered this recipe only recently. I immediately tried it out and loved the taste, but I would say it is not as good as the Atlantic version. I have simplified the procedure, used fresh cut pineapple instead of the canned variety, and included ginger-garlic paste and chicken stock. I have mentioned that wine is optional, as many Indians do not like the taste of wine in food because the fermented flavour it imparts is associated with spoilage in the Indian mind.