In western Tamil Nadu, the region known as Kongunadu — it includes Ooty, Coimbatore, Pollachi, Udumalpet, Avinashi, Palladam, Karur, Erode, Athur, Salem, Palani, Metthur and Dharmapuram — stands apart for its tight-knit culinary traditions and cornucopia of fine ingredients.
Confined to home kitchens, real Kongu food is something most restaurant diners rarely experience. I get a chance to sample this underrepresented cuisine at a Kongunadu festival hosted by Park Hyatt Chennai at its restaurant, Beyond Madras.
Its chef Balaji Natarajan is a native of Erode and knows the region intimately. While developing the menu for the festival, he sought inspiration from the time he spent in his village. “The food I ate there is etched in my mind. What’s on your plate is the real thing,” he promises.
A zingy sharbat of nannari, a local herbal root, and narthangai limes, is the first to arrive. Starters include murungai keerai paniyaram, a shallow-fried moringa leaf dumpling, puziyampatti parappu vadai or yellow split pea patties, and Pallipalayam kozhi varuval or slow braised country chicken flavoured with red chilli, garlic, fennel and other spices.
Among the mains, I love the fatty fullness of the home-style country chicken, nattu kozhi kozhambu, made with shallots, tomatoes and coconut paste. It pairs nicely with my kambu (pearl millet) dosa. Kari kozhambu, a slow-cooked lamb curry with coriander seeds, garlic, chilli, ginger, shallots and whole spices, is meltingly tender and a specialty of Natarajan’s native village Sathyamangalam.
The mildly-spiced vegetarian curries hold their own, allowing the ingredients to shine. Keerai vadhkkal, a stew made using a local spinach variety, tomatoes, and hand-pounded garlic, embodies the simple, ingredient-focused cooking of Kongu cooking perfectly. I also get a taste of kootu, a green bean and lentil curry considered de rigueur at Kongu weddings, and poondu kozhambu, a garlic and tamarind staple.
If Kongunadu has a quintessential rice dish, it’s arisi parappu sadam, a pulao-like dish of rice and lentils tempered with mustard, red chilli and garlic. It’s not on Natarajan’s menu. Instead, he serves me vazhaipoo sadam. The plantain flower rice is stunning: short-grain rice called ponni, peanuts, shallots and desiccated coconut set off by the peppery astringency of banana flowers.
Dessert is a star called elaneer payasam, an ambrosial concoction of tender coconut water and milk spiced with crushed cardamom and double boiled to acquire a boozy complexity. The velvety, perfectly grease-free sweet rolls over my tongue like silk. I’m convinced this is the real reason why God made coconuts.
Kongunadu loves its millets. A millet dumpling called kalli is typical of the region. Millets are soaked and steamed in a mud pot and a big ladle is used to churn them. Hand-pounded spice pastes and podis are building blocks for most Kongu dishes. Spice levels are toned down, and meat is rarely marinated. Tart country tomatoes are used to sharpen curries and shallots play a starring role in most dishes. “It’s simple food from the village, straight from a mud pot,” says Natarajan.
The late Jacob Sahaya Kumar Aruni, who researched Kongunadu’s culinary traditions extensively, is credited with playing a huge role in reviving this cuisine. Though the chef died tragically young, his restaurant, Jacob’s Kitchen, still serves faithful renditions of Kongu classics. A 30-minute cab ride takes me to the no-frills eatery. I don’t mind the somewhat stodgy interior; there’s nothing to distract from the delights on my plate.
A steaming bowl of fresh drumstick and lentil soup kicks off my lunch. Keen to try a Muslim-style dish, I order the pot biryani. Jafar Sadiq, a former student of Jacob’s who now helms the restaurant, tells me it’s a specialty of Dharmapuram. “We use short-grained seeraga samba rice, a special garam masala blend and a precise 3:2 measure of ginger and garlic. Once cooked, the biryani is put on dum in a mud pot for 20 minutes.” I finish with some kumba halwa, a decadently dark dessert made of millet milk, rice flour, ghee and sugar.
So what holds the key to the appeal of Kongu food? It is first and foremost a cuisine of terroir, rooted in indigenous ingredients: pond fish and country fowl; rhizomes like nannari and turmeric; copra or dried coconut; gingelly oil; kollu or horse gram (typically used to make rasam); short-grain rice like ponni; and a range of seasonal farmed and foraged vegetables.
Comparisons with the more popular Chettiar cuisine are inevitable. Chef Praveen Anand of Dakshin, who recently won a lifetime achievement award for his work in reviving lost recipes of south India, finds Chettiar food more evolved. “Kongu dishes are tasty but the spicing is more refined — and therefore superior — in Chettiar food.”
For me, Kongu food offers the perfect counterpoint to the fieriness of Chettiar dishes. The taste is rich but not heavy, a great find for devotees of health food. What I love most about the cuisine is its quiet confidence, its rootsy character. It reminds me that in this mad world, things were once simpler and people had a close relationship with the land.
Ratna Raghunandan, who runs an export business of coconut-based products in Pollachi, loves to cook up Kongu feasts at her home. She paints an idyllic picture of her childhood. “My grandfather encouraged us to have our own little flower and vegetable garden. We were thrown into wells to learn swimming and drank gallons of fresh sugarcane juice.”
The cuisine’s variety begs to be documented. Banished into obscurity, it risks being lost to us forever. Food blogger Kamalika Krishmy, who attended a Kongu workshop with Jacob a few years ago, shares some of his recipes with me. She rues that dishes like kalli are disappearing because people find them cumbersome to make.
A handful of local restaurants that do Kongu dishes offer some hope. Author Sabita Radhakrishna, who devotes a chapter to Kongu recipes in her book Annapurni: Heritage Cuisine from Tamil Nadu, recommends eating at Rasam in Chennai. Anand vouches for Hotel Junior Kupanna, while Raghunandan swears by a small, homey family-run restaurant called Valarmathi Kadai in Coimbatore.
For now it’s been a good introduction to Kongu cuisine with some darned fine dishes. It’s lured me enough to deep dive into one of south India’s lesser-known cuisines, one that is all too often overshadowed by its more famous counterparts.