During the discussion at The Hindu’s Lit for Life 2019, Perumal Murugan quipped, “It is famously said that if you take coconuts away from the people of Nagercoil, there will be nothing left to cook!”

Foodies Perumal Murugan and Nanjil Nadan leave lit fest hungry for TN cuisine
news Food Sunday, January 13, 2019 - 17:53

Even as The Hindu’s Lit For Life literature festival is currently underway in Chennai, perhaps one of the most entertaining sessions featured the coming together of famous writers and not-so-famous foodies Perumal Murugan and Nanjil Nadan. In the informative and hilarious session, hosted by Harikrishnan Sankaran, the writers delved into the culinary history and practices of south and western parts of Tamil Nadu, affectionately chiding the youth of today for not celebrating the culture of food enough.

Author Perumal Murugan, who hails from Kongu Nadu himself, explained that the cuisine of a region is closely linked with its geography and land use. “Whatever was available, became the food of the region. Kongu is a forest region. There was not much water, so it was all drought farming. The dams – Mettur, lower Bhavani and Thirumoorthy – were built only in the 20th century. So crops like foxtail millet, little millet, pearl millet, kodo millet, and sorghum used to be the staple. If there was a little extra water, then ragi was cooked. White rice was rare, cooked only during temple festivals. Up until the 1990s, white rice was uncommon in my village. After that, if a person didn’t have white rice, then it meant that they were poor so this brought about an aspiration for white rice. Ulladhu kondu unnudhal (eating what is available) was always the motto.”

It was the plucking of the rakiri (keerai or spinach) that made up the majority of the curry, he said. "Pana keerai, thoyal keerai and kumati keerai are used widely, fried or as kozhambu, in varying combinations with the millets. The spinach used to be plucked by the labourers and deposited in bags on their lap, even as they went to work on farms,” he said.

Nanjil Nadan, on the other hand, said that the cuisine of the Nanjil region (comprising areas in and around Tirunelveli, Nagercoil and Kanyakumari) was so vast that he has been writing a book on it for the past 20 years! He recounted that the fertile lands, well-endowed with both Indian monsoons, meant that farmers have to clear the water with their feet, even as they step in for a day’s labour in their fields.

“They say these days that coconut is unhealthy. But in the Nanjil region, there are barely a couple of dishes that we make without coconut. We don't use coconut in rasam!” he laughed. Perumal Murugan quipped, “It is famously said that if you take coconuts away from the people of Nagercoil, there will be nothing left to cook!”

Lamenting that the culture of enjoying and celebrating food had not entirely passed onto the newer generations, Nanjil Nadan, however, said, “Determining what constitutes good food is contingent upon your hunger.”

“When we eat out at a restaurant, people keep the drumstick aside because they think sucking on it may be embarrassing. The refrigerator has destroyed the enjoyment of food. We are disrespecting food today, by not knowing what to eat, when to eat and how to eat. We should eat well, in large spoonfuls,” he said adding that there is, however, a slow return to the old ways.

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