Ever heard of the Kaima Kothu Parotta or the Thalai Vaazhai biryani? While the former is a mildly spicy and zestful churma with mince meat and can be equated to the popular baida (egg basted, meat filling) paratha, albeit more aromatic in comparison, the latter is perhaps the only biryani known till date to have not meat but banana stem, fruit and flower as main ingredients other than rice of course.
So which cuisine does these belong to?
The Nadars — the descendants of the Pandya Kings and the rich landlords who popularised the use of jaggery in cooking. So how was their cuisine like? In one word, revolutionising.
Consider this: The Vimalakka kari saalna — a coconut-flavoured lamb curry served with Vrudunagar parotta – uses meat that isn’t marinated and yet has meat that can fall off the bone. In fact the dish isn’t just about how meat was had back in the 15th century, it also showcased prosperity of the community that flourished under the British.
Thanks to the community’s enterprising nature and addiction to travel, their food culture not only picked up nuances from other cuisines, but became the first South Indians to create new ways of cooking. Like the use of fresh herbs and spices, especially turmeric both in its fresh and dried, ground state, which gives their food a distinct, rich yellow colour – and makes them distinct. It would not be wrong to say that Nadar cuisine greatly influenced the Chettinand cuisine as well.
The use of palm juice, jaggery and plantain in cooking was first popularised by the Nadars. That was just a part of the cuisine that introduced the art of flavouring ghee by using drumstick leaves when making ghee (clarified butter) out of butter, the easy use of vegetables in meat dishes and milk to flavour the curries.
Thanks to the Nadar widespread presence — Madurai, Sivakasi, Tuticorin, Virudhanagar and Nagercoil — their cuisine evolved as the business evolved, much like their palm plantation, which became their sustenance during arid season.
The use of dried or desiccated coconut in food was first done by the Nadars, in the royal kitchen of Pandya Kings, when a chef realized that roasting dry coconut to get a richer flavours to the meat and vegetable, which were always mildly spiced and used the fat of a fish to flavour dishes.
Like the Sigappi Yeral Varuval, (prawns fried in coconut oil) got its subtle, nutty flavour from the fish fat and the use of freshly ground spices. Contrary to the rest of the kingdom then, Nadars also began using fresh herbs to marinate fish, which is second favourite of the community. Their Kanya Kumari Meen Varuval a deep fried seer fish marinated in cumin-fennel paste. The use of unpeeled potatoes and the use of millets like ragi, maize and bajra in place of rice was developed in the Nadar kitchen, which also popularised the concept of “Pickle Making” using gingelly oil. Curing meat was another Nadar specialty. Vadagams is one of the rare dishes to use cured meat.
Known for their subtle flavours, Nadar cuisine also introduced the art of off-setting flavour balances. Much like the Yin-Yang philosophy of Chinese, the Nadar cuisine used khus khus to off-set the strong flavours of coconut. The vegetarian favourite, Kasa kasa thengai saalna, was such case in point, where the coconut was off set with khus khus to create a dish that was flavourful yet subtle and went perfectly with yet another Nadar kitchen innovation, the Jasmine Idli.
Revered for its softness, the idli was a traveler’s delight as it managed to retain its shape and aroma no matter how you kept or fold it. It was with the Nadar cuisine that mushrooms made their debut into the South Indian culinary world. In fact, some of the best dishes showcasing mushroom and herbs come from the Nadar kitchen. No wonder, the cuisine, which in its innovation is next only to Rajasthani cuisine, was such a favourite of the Pandya rulers.
Desserts, though fewer than others, displayed the same ingenuity as the main course. Take the panniyaram, which traditionally used toddy to give it the fluffiness and jaggery the sweetness.
As time passed and the spice route bought in treasures of dry fruits, cashew nuts and raisins became a part of the Nadar cuisine. So if someday you are looking to find an interesting vegetable and meat dish, try a Nadar home. You will be surprised as to what they have to offer.