Friends we had a family function recently and like typical Indian families we had a huge get together. In the midst of welcoming guests, I managed to peep into the kitchen where the drama unfolded. The lentils were cooked in a cauldron and large portions of spices were integrated into it. The spices and lentils began to cook on a low flame. Gradually an aroma filled the air, as the colour and texture of the mixture changed. The smell of food being freshly cooked was so inviting. Even today, when we have private functions many households in India prefer to have the food cooked on the spot. Most of the work is done by a pair of deft hands. Though such places are least mechanised and are no match to our industrialised kitchens, still the food is cooked to precision.
I couldn't help thinking what a handful of spices do to our food. Folks join me this week as I look at the role of spice in some of our popular cuisines of South India.
"In South India the distinctive flavour and aroma of a curry is achieved by a blend and combination of spices, including tamarind, coriander, chillis, peppers, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fennel or aniseeds, fenugreek seeds, nutmeg, coconut, ginger, garlic curry leaves, turmeric powder and poppy seeds," said Naren Thimmaiah, Executive Chef, The Gateway Hotel Bangalore, the face behind the award-winning iconic restaurant Karavalli, which specialises in south western coastal cuisine.
South Indian cooking requires a thorough knowledge of the properties of each spice and its blend with other spices. "The characteristic of each curry relies entirely on the balance of herbs and spices that go into its creation. Local influence distinguishes curries from one region to another," he added.
Within the four southern states, even though the main spices used in the cooking may not differ much, cuisines from each state have their own distinct identity because of the addition of subtle few spices which are specific to that particular region. This is very clear when we talk about one particular component called souring agent in a dish. "In Coorg we use Kachampuli (Coorg Vinegar). Most of the Kerala curries have Kodampuli (dried skin of a citrus fruit). Most of the Mangalore dishes have tamarind or lime juice in them. Raw Mango pieces are used in certain parts of Kerala. Northern Kerala dishes use acetic Vinegar. Toddy Vinegar is common in Konkani Christian dishes. Kokum is a must for souring Goan curries," felt Thimmaiah.
Coorg is a hilly and cool region in Karnataka and the food habits of its people revolves round it. Like all hill stations, Coorg too relies on food with a high fat content. However what makes Coorg cuisine distinct is the presence of Coorg Vinegar (Kachampuli), aromatic spices like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and dark roasted spices like peppercorn.
Chettinad cuisine of Tamil Nadu is by far the well known and well documented cuisine of the south. "Apart from the common South Indian Spices we see the use of Kalpasi, Marathi Mokku and Star Anise, making the dishes more robust and flavourful. Most of the spices are roasted and made into a paste along with other ingredients, again giving the wholesome taste and flavour," he explained.
Kerala cuisine, be it the traditional Vegetarian Sadhyas or the cuisine of the Travancore Christians or the Malabar Muslims can attract both the uninitiated and the food connoisseur. The proportionate use of the spices does the trick here. They use a fresh green chilli or a dry red chilli or chilli powder or freshly ground chilli paste to ensure that it's nicely marinated with the dish. Pepper corns in a powdered or crushed form enhance the taste.
Andhra cuisine is always dominated by red hot Guntur chilies. Definitely there is much more to the Andhra cuisine than it being very spicy to an outsider. Gongura or sorrel leaves are leafy green and edible. They are used in Andhra cuisine, and its most popular usage is in pachadis and pickles. Another highlight is the spice powders or podis, generally made with spices, lentils and desiccated coconut. Customarily one begins the meal by mixing these podis with steamed rice and ghee. "The use of Gongura leaves and that heady concoction of podi (Kura Podi, Sambhar Podi, Charu Podi, Pacchadi Podi and Pulusu Podi) will surely leave you asking for more," summed up Thimmaiah.
We are so familiar with our spices that we tend to take them for granted. Yet if we were to live in an arid region or a chilly place our food platter is so different. It may be the same spices, but the concoction and the presence of certain local ingredients and the absence of the obvious ones makes each cuisine in the south so different in taste, texture and colour. I leave you with this thought.