Missing your target can be humiliating – and painful.
In Tamil Nadu, coffee comes milky, sweet and hot – so hot that it’s served with a spare cup, which Tamilians use to cool down the steaming liquid by performing a well-rehearsed ritual of pouring the coffee between the cups at speed. Imitate them with care.
We are in a steamy place even when we’re not negotiating beverages. The climate has three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest. The same goes for the food. This is India’s deep south: a generous land of swaying coconut groves, hillside spice plantations and terraces of wet rice paddy. It’s the heartland of undiluted Dravidian Hindu culture, untouched by the Mogul invasion or northern India’s Aryan Sanskrit culture.
The ancient temple towns dotted around the state date back to the great Chola and Pallava dynasties of the first millennium AD. They are still dominated by divine complexes of sacred halls, chambers and courtyards enclosed by mighty gopuram towers covered with gaudy abandon in a three-dimensional collage of Hindu deities.
And the food. Anywhere near a temple it is pure vegetarian and served thali style: a mound of steamed white rice on a banana leaf surrounded by spiced lentil dal; soupy sambar made with ‘drumsticks’, the pods of the Moringa oleifera tree; fried vegetable poriyal; and kuzhambu, soups made with sun-dried vegetables and tamarind water or curd. Coconut milk curries are flavoured with patta (curry leaves), mustard seeds and cardamom, and there are countless varieties of thuvaiyal (chutneys) and kosumalli (salads). When you finish, the leaf is folded up and recycled as compost or cattle fodder.
South Indian food usually refers to the trinity of dosas, idlis and vadas – vegetarian fast food dishes from Tamil Nadu. They’re now served in restaurants all over India, but nowhere are they more fabulously tasty or served with as much variety and care as on the street corners, railway station platforms, seaside promenades and temples of their homeland.
Start in the state capital Chennai, where neighbourhood cafés are packed with commuters grabbing an inexpensive breakfast. Many city restaurants only serve dosas, idlis and vadas at breakfast time, moving on to thalis for the rest of the day. Chennai is a hard place to understand as it has no real centre, being rather a succession of sprawling suburbs in search of a city. The best way to explore is by walking along the long sandy beach that stretches from the colourful fish market in the south to the elegant colonial-era residential area of leafy streets around Fort St George.
To Mahabalipuram, on the Bay of Bengal just south of Chennai. The town was a thriving seaport as far back as the first century AD. When the Pallava dynasty established its capital in nearby Kanchipuram, the town became one of the richest in India and a centre of divine architecture and sculpture. Spectacular remnants of the period are still scattered around the exceptionally charming and laidback seaside fishing village now called Mamallapuram (in 1996 most places in Tamil Nadu changed their names, losing the Anglicisms of the colonial era. Madras became Chennai, although there is graffiti all around the city proclaiming in big letters ‘English Ever – Hindi Never’. Identity in this huge land is seldom a straightforward matter).
The town is strewn with giant boulders. One of the biggest, behind a stall selling fresh coconuts, is inscribed with carvings of Hindu mythology, featuring celestial beings, a herd of elephants, mythical naga snakes as well as timeless vignettes of local life. Nearby, the remains of the seventh-century Shore Temple pagodas stand on the sands of the bay. (The normally submerged remains of several more were revealed by the retreating ocean during the 2004 tsunami.) But the town’s greatest treasures are the Five Rathas: giant monoliths of Hindu deities each carved from a single boulder. They were buried under sand for hundreds of years until they were excavated 200 years ago.
Continuing south from here everything changes at Pondicherry – recently ‘de-Frenchified’ to Puducherry but still affectionately referred to as Pondy. As a legacy of its French East India Company past, it is now a Union Territory and is exempt from the conservative culture and administration of Tamil Nadu. You certainly won’t find beef, beer and baguettes like this anywhere else in the south.
These days, Puducherry is far more Tamil than Provence, but there are still some charming pockets of tree-lined cobbled streets, mustard-coloured colonial villas, chic boutiques and continental restaurants in the old French Quarter. Having once been a hotspot on the hippie trail and with the remarkable Sri Aurobindo and Auroville ashrams around, there is still a bohemian atmosphere among the many lifestyle shops and new-age cafés here.
The Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur (the temple town previously known as Tanjore) and the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai are the two most important and impressive in Tamil Nadu. Sri Meenakshi is a town within a town, a six-hectare complex of devotional indoor and outdoor spaces enclosed by 12 huge gopuram towers. It’s a place that is easy to wander around and enjoy random encounters with the temple elephants and the thousands of pilgrims that flock here to the abode of the triple-breasted warrior goddess Meenakshi, a manifestation of Shiva’s consort Parvati. It’s worth having some of the mysteries explained by a good guide – especially one that will end a tour with an evening visit to the South Tower to watch the ceremony of Shiva being ‘put to bed’ by the high priests. The food markets and street food stalls surrounding the temple are among the best and most well-stocked in India, while there are plenty of rooftop restaurants offering an al fresco vegetarian thali with a view and a breeze.
The streets around the golden red sandstone Brihadeeswarar Temple, on the bank of an ancient canal in Thanjavur, are lined with artists’ studios teaching a traditional vivid and ornate style of painting inlaid with gold and precious stones, while local workshops make everything from bronze statues to musical instruments. A popular dish here is the appam. It is especially good dipped in rasam: a tamarind and tomato soup flavoured with chilli, pepper and cumin.
Almost exactly halfway between Thanjavur and Madurai lies Karaikudi, a village famous for its 17th century community of wealthy merchants who traded as far afield as Burma and Singapore, developing a taste for exotic Chettinad cuisine and fine houses built of Burmese teak and Italian marble.
Chettinad cooking features complex combinations of aromatic spices like star anise, nutmeg, cloves, fennel and fenugreek and often uses less chilli than other Tamil food. The all-time favourites are Chettinad chicken pepper fry and kola kuzhambu (spicy mutton meatballs in a sour gravy). Locals insist on their spices being freshly ground by stone and cooked on a wood fire, which gives their cooking a nice smoky flavour.
Like all Tamils, they enjoy washing it down with some very hot coffee grown in the plantations of the Nilgiri hills, in the north of the state around the hill station of Udhagamandalam (often shortened to Ooty). Poured from a normal height this time, though.
Tamil Foodie Checklist
Dosas are giant savoury crêpes that come in a variety of styles, shapes, sizes and fillings. They come in different versions:
The masala version is made from fermented rice and lentil flour and stuffed with mashed fried potatoes laced with curry leaves, chilli and mustard seeds.
The mysore version is filled with spiced mixed vegetables.
The crispy rava is hollow and made with semolina flour. The papery version is a two-foot-long, paper-thin extravagance. The butter version is a guilty pleasure fried in disturbing quantities of melted butter.
Idlis are steamed, spongy snow-white cakes of rice flour, and a much healthier alternative to dosas.
Vadas are salty, crispy fried doughnuts of dal pureed with fried onion and chilli that stay soft in the middle.
Appams are spongier than dosas and made with coconut milk.
Dal is a thick stew made from split lentils.
Sambar is similar to dal – but with added vegetables.
Poriyal means ‘stir-fry’, and usually refers to a dish of sautéed vegetables.
Kuzhambu is a spiced dal stew, usually with tamarind and vegetables.
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