Nagercoil, where sambar and pulisserry coexist

Adai pradhaman, pulissery olan, ada aviyal and puttu paruppu. They are my favourite dishes my mom makes when I go home. You are mistaken if you think I’m from Kerala. This is a traditional menu in my home town in Tamil Nadu.

I hail from Kanyakumari district, which is situated in the Southernmost part of Tamil Nadu. It is a beautiful town with mountains, abundant coconut trees, ocean and paddy field. Most of all it is filled with people who are hospitable and well-read though a little laid back.

Kanyakumari is the only district in Tamil Nadu with 100 per cent literacy rate. This, I believe is the Kerala influence, which boasts the highest literacy rate of over 80 per cent in India. You will see the Kerala influence in every aspect of Nagercoil, it could temple architecture, rituals clothes and jewellery and importantly food.

Vegetables we use, cooking methods and our food preference have its roots in Kerala. If you take me I would rather choose to eat pulissery every day instead of sambar I get in Chennai. Puttu and Thanni kozhukatti win hands down compared to other healthy South Indian breakfast options. You must have noticed, all of them have coconut as their based. Coconut is an essential ingredient in day to day life. We use shredded coconut in curry, breakfast dishes and what not. Flavour of coconut is all pervading for us.

Let me tell you typical menu in our house. Dosa and idly are sure the most common breakfast as my mom was working and they are easy to make. But when she has time she makes puttu and paruppu curry, thanni kozhukattai, kazhikanji dosai and adai aviyal, all of them my favourites and dishes that are popular in Kerala. These dishes will never taste the same without the dash of coconut.

Puttu is fairly a popular dish and is made by steaming rice flour and coconut and is usually accompanied by curry made from greengram. In addition to green gram curry, I prefer to eat them with milk, sugar and banana (actually it is another popular combination). 

Puttu, kadala curry and banana. Source: Kerala tourism

Thanni kozhukattai had always remained my favourite though the process of making it is very long. Thanni kozhukattai is made of parboiled rice with coconut ball (yes coconut again) cooked in boiling water. You eat the dish along with the water in which coconut balls are cooked. I could just drink it water with sugar, for it is yummy. 

Thanni Kozhukattai. Source: Bawarchi

I do not think a typical Tamil house will know the recipe for kazhikanji dosai. The dosa is made from the batter comprised of again rice flour and coconut. It tastes best with coconut chutney. Adai is not restricted to Kerala, but the combination of adai and avial is. I should state here that though avial is an ubiquitous dish, the way it is made in Kerala is different from that of Tamil Nadu. For one it looks colourful with a lot of coconut unlike its pale counterpart in Tamil Nadu. Back home, we use coconut oil whereas it is either sunflower of gingelly oil in Tamil Nadu. Trust me, changing the oil can alter the taste so much and needless to say avial in Kerala tastes a lot better than the one in Tamil Nadu. 

I have spoken enough about breakfast and you already see the vast difference between Nagercoil cuisine and typical Tamil Nadu food. I’m going to keep the lunch simple by stating just one or two dishes. I will start with my favourite olan and pulissery. 

Olan,made from yellow pumpkin cooked in coconut milk and black-eyed peas. Source: Ladles and Spoons

Olan is prepared by cooking pumpkin with black-eyes peas and coconut milk in coconut oil and seasoned with ginger. It is usually accompanied by pulissery, a curry made from grated coconuts, vegetables like cucumber and curd. Onam sadya is never complete without these two dishes.

But that does not mean sambar and paruppu usili is unheard of. Most of the hotels that have come up in the last one decade do serve good Tamil Nadu dishes that include usual dishes sambar and more kozhumbu in typical Chennai or Pondy style. It is just that we can never completely shed our Kerela skin, which has found its place even in our day to day activities. 

For us Onam sadya means a lot more than Tamil New year and we follow the custom of kani. Many of our  customs like for marriage, navaratri and pooja rituals followed in temples and home too have Kerala touch. While temple rituals are much more stringent than the ones followed by Tamil customs, we are not too fussy about rituals followed at home. Most families from the district do not have the custom of varalakshmi viratham, which is followed generation after generation in many Tamil families. Our marriage ceremonies do not have as much rituals as the Tamils.

I have often wondered about my identity, for technically I’m a Tamil who follows Kerala customs. Whenever people hear about my hometown, I would hear them say: “Then you are almost mallu.” When we travel to Kerala, we are never actually acknowledged as fellow Malayali. But I consider myself fortunate for I know the best of both sides. On the flip side I can never really belong to either side and will forever be ‘erandam kattan’ (It means neither here nor there). 

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