Think of Tamil Nadu as a country in itself, at the Tamizhaga Ula food festival, with Chef Shri Bala
Executive Chef Ashutosh Nerlekar at The Park, Chennai, and award-winning guest Chef Shri Bala (a chartered accountant and expert home cook), were a little confused when we queried them about a so-called culinary “sweet spot” — that supposed perfect meeting point of sweet and salty, which can almost guarantee a sort of addictive taste, and essentially, leave one hankering for more of the same food. While such a concept might arguably be practiced for mass-produced food, such as fried chicken or packaged snacks, chefs Ashutosh and Shri Bala are very clear about their own culinary intentions.
At the Tamizhaga Ula food festival, curated by Chef Shri Bala, the focus is undividedly on authentic local food. For once, rather than go all out in pursuit of fusion fare, the chefs are committed to go the distance, quite literally, to offer food the way it is prepared across various regions of Tamil Nadu — complete with homemade spices and masalas, true-to-original recipes, and authentic cooking techniques, all the way from homes of isolated tribal communities such as the Todas, in the Nilgiris.
Regions to believe
For Tamilians and others equally, the feast will prove incredibly informative. To begin with, the menu is topographically arranged, true to ancient Sangam-era definitions of Tamizhagam (what Tamil Nadu was once called), divided in four parts, according to varying landscapes of the state.
So you have the sections: Marutham (croplands), Kurunji (mountains), Mullai and Palai (forest and desert), and Neithal (ocean and sea). Each section features starters, biryanis and desserts specific to different towns of each region. To make things easier, each dish is identified by the city or town that it originates from.
So, you can expect traditional snacks like Kumbakonam Morekali (rice flour cakes) served with sundried chillies; and Thanjavur Maratha Lesari Mass, a unique dish of shredded mutton strands. A one-time royal offering, we’re informed, the slender meat strands are cooked in ghee, and tossed with poppy seeds and garam masala — making them crunchy to the bite, almost like dried fish (minus the odour), with a heady aftertaste that begs for a tall glass of chilled bubbly to go along with it.
Try, the beloved country
At a degustation earlier this week, we were served a spread of dishes from the menu, including Thanjavur Ezhu Curry Koottu, a ‘sattvik’ dish, prepared without onion or garlic, of country vegetables in coconut gravy; spicy Pallipayalam Kozhi (country chicken); and tangy Cuddalore Masal Vada Kuzhambu — served with rice or supremely light Rameswaram Kurakkan Appams, of millets.
For desserts, we had the rare treats of Thanjavur Serki Bath (rice cooked in cottonseed milk, jaggery and nuts) and Mukkani Payasam, a kheer of jackfruit, mango and banana. Not before a serving of the delightfully plated Otidoor Volcano Curd Rice, spilling over with a burst of tomato chutney.
In many ways, the menu reveals Tamil Nadu as a country in itself, with indigenous styles of cooking and dishes that vary subtly from one part of the lands to another, while also displaying an abundance of cultures — of herdsmen of the Mullai forest regions, cultivators of the Marutham farmlands, fisher folk of the Neithal coastal regions, tribes of the Kurunchi mountains, and the huntsmen of the Palai dry lands. All said, the overall defining aspect — retaining each individual trait of local cuisine — is of the homemade nature of the feast.
The manner of service apart, none of this ever comes close to the idea of a stuffy, elite dining affair. On the contrary, the festival presents a plethora of reasons to celebrate Tamil Nadu. Given the expert insights of Chef Shri Bala, that’s the closest you’re likely to get to that elusive sweet spot this summer.
Our top picks
Kanyakumari-style Vanjaram (fish) curry
Sivagangai Kari Kuzhambu
Spicy lamb curry
Nilgiri Badaga Enne Hittu
Sweet pancakes, palm sugar drizzle, roasted nuts
Otidoor Volcano Curd Rice
Served with tomato chutney
The Tamizhaga Ula festival starts with dinner on May 4, and is open for lunch and dinner until May 13. At Six ‘O’ One, The Park Chennai. For reservations call 4267-6000. Meal for two `1,500+ taxes approximately.