Review of Viji Varadarajan's and Padmini Natarajan's Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine
None of that westernized Indian food here! Viji Varadarajan and Padmini Natarajan recently released an updated version of their cookbook Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine: Pure Vegetarian South Indian Samayal.
With over 70 mouthwatering vegetarian dishes, having this book is a good place to start learning more about how Indian food gets its flavor. Of course, this ‘Tamil Brahmin’ cuisine is a specialized, regional cuisine from South India, and may be new to many Indian food lovers who are used to the rich butter, nut, tomato and other gravy-based dishes of North India. This cuisine offers a different approach to Indian food, with unique combinations of spices such as cumin, coriander, mustard seed, chili pepper, red and green chili, black pepper, curry leaves, fenugreek (methi), turmeric, ginger, and a host of lentils. Yes, it is true that lentils, known as dhals in Indian cookery and cuisine, become a spice! Lentils can be dry roasted and ground in with spices to make all-spice powders like sambar powder or pitlai powder, or roasted in hot oil to temper sambars (stews), rasams (soups) and chutneys (relishes, dips).
Viji and her co-author, Padmini, has divided the recipes into sections based on unique vegetables used in the culinary selections of daily housewives. The vegetables highlighted throughout are native to the areas of Tamil Brahmins. Having myself have lived in some Tamil Brahmin homes during my two year stay in India, the selections she has presented take me back to my friends homes and comfort foods made by their mothers, in-laws and grandmothers. It was the food I lived on in India for two years, and the food that inspired me when I returned to America to learn Indian cooking on my own and from Indians in America.
In some sections, the vegetables such as banana flower, banana stem or [fresh] jackfruit or drumstick can be a challenge to find in America, while most others can be found in typical American grocery stores (beans, eggplant, okra, spinach) or a trip to your closest Indian or Asian grocery store (bitter gourd and other gourds, and other types of beans). It is indeed amazing that over 70 dishes can be made from the small variety of vegetables and roughly 30 spice combinations. This may also seem overwhelming to a newcomer of this cuisine and culinary method, but upon closer inspection it is noted that about 7 broad categories – kari (11), kozhumbu (7), kootu (10), pachadi (5), sambar (6), and usili (4) of recipes comprise about 40 individual selections in the book! When looking at the book from this angle, South Indian Tamil Brahmin cookery can become even easier. Many recipes that fall under the same category have roughly the same method, minus the main vegetable highlighted. Once the method of “kari” or “kootu” is studied, for instance, a simple substitution of a vegetable may change the dish, but the method to get to it changes only slightly. In some such cases, with a touch of creativity and adventure, a substitution of other vegetables can be used – such as a squash for kootu, or potatoes for kari, or onions for sambar or kozhumbu (onions are traditionally not used in Tamil Brahmin food).
Many may still feel intimidated by Indian cookery because recipes may feel long or have many steps. When I learn a new recipe I try to have all the ingredients prepared before I start cooking and do each step slowly and complete each step before I go to the next. When I get more experienced at a recipe or method, I then can layer my approach to preparation and cooking- just like Indian food! The layering of flavors, blending of tastes, textures and aromas make Indian food- and particularly Tamil Brahmin food a unique draw. Once you try this cuisine, you will want more. You will crave it for the layers of taste, flavors, aromas and textures- and of course all the better that it’s totally made from scratch – no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or ingredients you ‘can’t pronounce’ (or understand), because you have handled them all!
Like the layering approach to getting the tasty Tamil Brahmin dish, the cookbook also has its intriguing layers that draw me back into its pages again and again. This book comes in handy not only in the kitchen- but in the grocery store. I don’t know about you, but I often get intimidated when I am to go purchase fresh vegetables, regardless of if they are ones I have purchased before (such as bitter gourd or okra), or ones I have yet to buy (such as ash gourd or broad beans). Sometimes my fear for getting the freshest one stops me from buying at all because I fear I will pick up the rotten one. This book helps me to overcome this fear. It has detailed some strategies for choosing the freshest harvested vegetables and storing them. For instance, I never realized an easy way to remove leaves from drumstick branch is to wrap it in newspaper overnight, and let them fall off naturally the next day or that the shelf life of Indian pumpkin was so long! Furthermore, she shares some unique cultural and historical trivia about certain vegetables like snake gourd, and how it was grown to look like a snake! In addition to these tips, at the end of most recipes look for tips on recipe adjustments or where microwave can be used to speed up some processes.
This book is both a treasure and a staple in my cookbook collection. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys cooking ethnic foods or simply learning about culinary traditions and unique cultures. I am sure the folks at Gourmand also agree, having had awarded this one-of-a-kind gem the prestigious jury award in 2009.
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Notes: I have tried a number of recipes in the collection over the years, and of course eaten many of the dishes in India. After trying some of the recipes, I adjusted some spices or ingredients to put my own twist on some of her recipes. A few of the recipes I have made on my own and posted online include: Sambar Powder, Keera Moolagootal (with toor dhal instead of moong), vathal kozhumbu (made with sundrakkai vathal instead of okra), and dry bitter gourd curry.
Other related links:
Link to Viji's Profile on Alaivani, with links to all her cookbooks, fan page and more!
Link to Padmini's Profile on Alaivani with links to insightful and inspirational articles on Indian culture and spirituality.
Jennifer Kumar is a cross-cultural teacher, trainer and lifestyle adjustment mentor helping people adjust to American and global lifestyles through a variety of methods, including Indian cooking classes. She was educated in India as a social worker and in America as a life coach. Feel free to see her website - Authentic Journeys - Lifestyle and Cultural Transition Services.
Thank you for spending time on my site, reading this review. Feel free to connect with Viji or Padmini if you have any doubts or want help! They are eager to help and can clarify any doubt!