A spice so readily available on our dining tables now, black pepper was once a highly precious commodity, having attracted traders and invaders to India who came with the sole intention of taking back with them this “black gold”.
Black pepper, the tiny, hard, nut-like berry, was first mentioned as a cooking spice in Tamil history in Sangam literature dating back to 300 BC. Tracing the origins and evolution of this spice, JW Marriott Chandigarh is organising a Black Pepper Food Festival, a unique exploration of the Tamil cuisine across the Sangam, Medieval and Contemporary eras of Tamil history. The festival will explore how, from being black pepper oriented in Sangam era, Tamil cuisine got infused with other spices, by outsiders who were attracted to India by this unique spice.
To create an authentic experience, one which is steeped in history of black pepper and Tamil cuisine, renowned food historian and chef, Sridevi Balasubramanian popularly known as Shri Bala, an authority on Tamil cuisine, has been invited to curate the Black Pepper Food Festival. An epicurean initiative to trace the journey of spices in India through a culinary sojourn of Southern Deccan region of Tamizhagam, Bala, who has a keen interest in the evolution of food from pre-historic times to the present day, has recreated an entire menu of Tamilian dishes covering three eras spanning 3,000 years.
“The menu features ancient Indian recipes made from simple ingredients from the pre-historic Sangam era to the more complex recipes specifically from the Southern Deccan. The highlights of the festival are ancient rustic recipes from the Sangam era in Tamizhagam or the old Tamil empire, which use only black pepper as the spicing agent,” said Bala, talking about the traditional spices she has got for the festival.
On the menu are dishes prepared with just black pepper as the spice, but offering a variety of flavours owing to use of other ancient ingredients and cooking techniques. For instance, Druva grass smoked meat in which Druva grass is used to smoke and cook mutton is spiced only with black pepper, but the smoke of Druva grass lends a peculiar spicy flavour to the meat comparable to the modern day garam masala.
From the Sangam Era, dominated by black pepper, the festival moves ahead in time to explore the medieval era of Tamil cuisine, when the Arabs, Dutch and Portuguese came to India through the sea-route. Chillies and tomatoes were introduced to the Indian cuisine during this time and it was during this time that red curry recipes flourished in Tamizhagam. Soupy curries like Mutton Paya, the Goat leg curry soup or Pallipalayam, a spicy gravy, are part of the festival, with both having a liberal use of chillies in the gravies.
Explaining the contemporary Tamizhaga cuisine, Bala says the Mughals and Britishers have had major and long-lasting influences over Indian cuisine in the south. Several spices like cloves, black cardamom and star anise got introduced from Mughlai cuisine to Indian cuisine and ingredients like potatoes became part of our daily cooking due to the continental influence. The focus of the festival is on authentic food from the ancient Tamizhaga region that spread across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
A must try from the Sangam Era is Mukkani Payasam, a combination of jackfruit, banana and mango. For meat lovers, there is Manga Meen Kuzhumbu, fish with raw mango gravy and Eral Keerai Kuzhumbu, prawns with amaranth gravy. Representing the modern day recipes is Sodhi or the sweet coconut milk gravy, cooked along with an assortment of seasonal vegetables and offers a subtle burst of flavours. For those with an insatiable sweet tooth, Serki Bath or the Cotton seed and rice pudding from the Medieval era and the Kavuni Arisi Halwa or the black rice pudding from the contemporary era are must-haves.