IT was during her chartered accountancy days, that Chennai-based Shri Bala travelled to cities in south India. There she learnt the nuances of south Indian food. “I wanted more from food, so I began my research in ancient Tamil heritage and its food,” says the 44-year-old. The home cook- turned-guest chef will showcase her food and research on the Sangam period at the upcoming World Heritage Cuisine Summit and Food Festival in Amritsar, organised by the World Chefs Cultural Heritage Committee, chaired by chef Manjit Gill.
Bala has created a concept called ‘Tamizhaga Ula’, which means a journey around Tamizhagam, which is just not the present Tamil Nadu, but parts of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. “My search took me to the history department of the Government Arts College in Chennai, where the professors told me that I should not limit my research to Chola, but extend it to Sangam literature as well,” says Bala.
The most documented history of Tamil heritage is Sangam, starting from 300 BC. Soon, she realised that there were only a mention of ingredients and few cooking methods, but no recipes. Bala therefore focused on poems related to food. “The landscapes here were divided into Marutham (cropland), Mullai (forest), Kurunji (mountains), Palai (barren land) and Neithal (sea and seacoast) and food habits were based on topography.”
She listed the ingredients and created a food scheme imagining the probable recipes based on the ingredients available. Black pepper was the only ingredient used for making the food taste hot, as there was no use of either red or green chillies. She recreated the idea of how people would have eaten then. For instance, Kootansoru is a one-pot meal, prepared during travels and according to Bala, it can be compared loosely to the present-day Bise Bela Bath. “Only country vegetables and roots are used in the dish. Madhura Kalavai, is a sambar made with moong dal and butter beans, as arhar dal was not in use then. This sambar did not have tomatoes or onions, and only fresh masala with black pepper was used. From the Neithal sea coast, Kudampuli Fish Kuzhumbu is cooked with drumsticks and brinjals. “Kudampuli is a special fish tamarind widely used in coastal Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka.”
At the festival, apart from other dishes, the two that Bala will be highlighting are Arugampul Erachi Kari, a slow-cooked mutton. “The mutton was of the goat which has eaten only durva grass and I created this recipe by imagining how slow cooking might have been done.” The second dish Bala mentions is Angaya Podi Rice. In the Chola dynasty, the kings would first eat this rice before eating meat, as the rice preparation was power packed with the goodness of ingredients like neem flower, Turkey berry, long pepper, dry ginger et al. “I prepare a concoction and mix it with steamed millets. The aim of my work is to understand the science behind the food our forefathers ate, and preserve our rich culinary heritage.”