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Food that's forgotten

EATING OUT Simple spices cook up varied flavours at the Tamil-Muslim food fest at Dakshin



Surprisingly simple That's Tamil-Muslim cuisine PHOTO: S. Thanthoni

FOR SOME strange reason, nobody brought their moms.

"But there were a lot of aunts," laughs Praveen Anand, Chef at Dakshin, at the Park Sheraton, discussing how they sourced recipes for their latest food festival on the traditional food of the Tamil Muslims. "We traced Tamil-Muslim families, and asked people to come in and give demonstrations. Even from within the hotel, we got all our Tamil Muslim students to bring in family members who could teach us the cuisine," says Praveen, adding that before long, the Dakshin kitchen had a treasury of recipes, mostly from the aunts. (Well, I suppose nobody wants their mother hobnobbing with their boss!)

But it's a good thing the aunts came in.

With their help, Dakshin managed to stumble upon a cuisine so quiet that it has almost been forgotten in the everyday kitchens of India, swamped by the generic roti-paneer butter masala-chicken curry type of food that's taking over the country. Although there are several pockets of India, where people cook the way they did centuries ago, still virtually uncorrupted by the temptations of snip-and-serve microwave cooking, these cuisines still simmer quietly in old homes.

Distinct flavours

Saying that this cooking tends to use just a few basic spices, Chef Praveen adds, "it's incredible the way they use just a few ingredients — like coconut milk, or poppy seeds — in so many different ways, getting such different tastes and flavours."

And the flavours are very different. The thick maanga curry, for instance, is spiked with a fried lemon pickle, a staple spice in the community, and spicy sambol, made of fish pounded together with onions and green chillies. "The sambol's from Sri Lanka," says Chef Praveen, adding that early Tamil Muslim food not only includes various Sri Lanka-inspired dishes, but also spices such as Rampe.

The highlights of the meal, however, aren't its most exotic items. "Most of these people were not really rich, so the cuisine's simple," says the Chef, pointing at a flavoursome prawn curry, made with coconut milk and poppy seeds. There's also a delicious chila dal, done with just butter beans and small potatoes and an aromatic murgai ki phal, chicken cooked with shallots, peppercorns and a small forest of coriander.

The tomato bhurta, however, is evidently destined to be far less popular than its cousin, the north Indian brinjal bhartha. And their idiappam biriyani, with chunks of chicken, is an under-spiced version of Kerala idiappam, usually served with a thick chicken stew.

But perhaps the most surprising part is the meva biriyani, served with a gooey-sweet jam made with tomatoes and pineapples. Try it if you're adventurous, otherwise just dive into dessert. An unpretentious creamy kadal pachee: china grass, coconut milk and khoya, all tinted with green pistachios.

The festival is on till April 24. Call 24994101 for reservations.

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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