Thereby lies a thaali: Devouring a Kumbakarai special full-meals for artistic expression
There is such a thing as a perfectly laid out South-Indian thaali spread, and in Chennai, the competitors for that honour are uncountable. At the month-old Kumbakarai, a 70-seater eatery in Kodambakkam, the elaborately laid-out meals are right up there with the best — in terms of proportions, variety of side dishes, demarcations for servings, and the overall symmetry of a well-planned feast.
Not surprisingly, the Kumbakkarai SPL Kedai or Rajabhoga Virundhu (literally, a royal repast) which came recommended for me from the kitchen, begged for admiration in considered artistic terms. The meal is served as a combination of multiple meat preparations — two mutton, one chicken, one fish (fried) and one prawn, with assorted veggies, an omelette, pickles, and a generous portion of steaming rice.
And, the sight was almost as gratifying as gazing into a complex pastiche of brilliant elements, all delicately held in balance against the natural mosaic of a banana leaf, which serves as the canvas, in this case. On the other hand, taking my time to savour each bite — all of it statedly prepared ‘home-style’ — did elevate my dining experience to an all-out sensorial symphony.
Spice, the final frontier
But first, I was handed a refreshing (non-alcoholic) aperitif, called ‘panagam’ — of palm sugar, tamarind extract, cardamom pods and dry ginger, with a dash of mint, for a secret ingredient, I was informed by an attendant. As attested, the drink worked its magic on my palate, setting me up for a laidback, long-drawn-out meal.
Kumbakarai, the tourist spot with a waterfall at the foothills of the Kodaikanal Hills, is also known for its special biryani — a credit that many Southern destinations lay claim to; each of them unique and entirely deserved. The Kumbakarai biryani, I find, is made with Seeraga Samba rice and home-made spices, giving it a flavour profile that’s distinct from the many other preparation styles you might find.
The other offerings on the fairly simple menu (expect dosas, parottas, masala curries) are prepared with an even hand, and in keeping with the restaurant’s tag-line, ‘Taste the Tradition’, with just a hint of spice in the dishes, stopping short of being inhibitory.
Kolumbu up the order
For non-natives, the ‘thokku’ (pickle), ‘chukka’ (dry), ‘kulambu’ (curry) lingo might take a while to work the tongue around. Although, once it’s down to the food, the only sounds you’re likely to hear are of contented slurps and suspirations.
To be fair, there’s a definite artistic quality about working one’s hands across the banana leaf in concise circular sweeps and sweeping strokes — especially to lap up liquidy fare, like sambhar or rasam rice. While you could request some cutlery, and maintain an air of restrained dignity about you — the proper way to indulge in a South-Indian meal is with your fingers. The absracted aftermath of that exercise on the banana leaf is, no doubt, worthy of appreciation of an entirely different sort.
Meal for two, INR 800 approx.
— Jaideep Sen