Forgotten vegetables and dishes of south India: A Chennai man is on a revival mission

Akash Muralidharan's cooking project -- ‘100 days of Cooking’, is a series on Instagram, where he cooks dishes made of forgotten vegetables.
Akash Muralidharan
Akash Muralidharan
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For Akash Muralidharan, food and the joy that comes with cooking, has always been a part of his life. “I think I’ve enjoyed cooking and food from the time I’ve been conscious,” he chuckles. Perhaps this was also a reason why he chose to embark on a quest to find out about the forgotten vegetables from our meals today. Akash’s ‘100 days of Cooking’ project on Instagram just ended and has definitely caught the fancy of food enthusiasts.

Having grown up in a joint family, he attributes most of his inspiration to his grandmother. “My grandmother was a prominent figure in the household and the kitchen was my favourite space in the whole house. I’d spend a lot of time around the kitchen, chatting and just being curious about what she does. I think my interest in food might have stemmed from my relationship with my grandmother and the kitchen,” he adds.

The 25-year-old from Chennai studied architecture before swinging around and doing his Masters in Food Design and Innovation from Scuola Politecnica di Design (SPD) in Milan, Italy. But this decision was not entirely a surprise to him. “I wanted to pursue something I could specialise in and I found architecture to be too mainstream at that point. It was a very last minute decision but my portfolio interested them at the Institute. The course helped me expand my interests and I realised I enjoyed working with food everyday. My background helped me get creative with food,” he explains.

After an internship with a food designer in Amsterdam, he was back home in Chennai. Now, a part of The Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, a group of artists, who work together virtually from around the world, Akash has been spending his time studying about food and human behaviour, designing food, and presenting his thoughts through exhibits and workshops.

‘Have you seen them?’

According to Akash, food has a lot of untapped potential. And it is in this strain of thought that he began studying the South Indian vegetarian platter. “I found cookbooks that belonged to my grandmother, notes that my mother had written down in her diary, letter exchanges with recipes in them, a whole bunch of interesting things while cleaning out our attic,” he says.

While Akash derives pride from his knowledge about cooking, names like ‘Thummatikai’ (country cucumber), ‘Rasavalli Kizhangu’ (purple yams) and ‘Vetrilai valli kizhang’ (air potato) from the cookbooks, baffled him.


Day 84. Air potato bulbils are medium to large in size and are oblong and irregularly shaped, averaging fifteen centimeters in length. The skin ranges from brown, rough, and spotted with warts to tan or light grey and smooth. The flesh is firm, starchy, slimy, and a beige-orange. Air potatoes have a mild, earthy, and sometimes bitter flavor. They grow on an herbaceous twining vine, meaning it uses other vegetation to cling to and support its weight. Twinning in a counterclockwise direction, these vines have heart-shaped, emerald green leaves that appear in an alternating pattern on the stems. The bulbils grow in the air and hang down from the vine or they can also be found growing underground in the dirt. Air potatoes have been growing since ancient times, are native to Asia and Africa, and have been spread throughout the world via ships and explorers. Today Air potatoes can be found growing in the wild and being sold at local markets in Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, Northern Australia, the United States. Air potatoes, botanically classified at Dioscorea bulbifera, are not a potato, despite the name, and are members of the Dioscoreaceae, or yam family. Also known as an Aerial yam, Potato yam, Bitter yam, Uchu imo, Dukkar Kand, Karaino, Varahi Kand, Kaachil, and l’hoffe, Air potatoes can spread quickly over natural vegetation and grow over twenty centimeters per day. Due to its prolific growth habits, Air potatoes are valued as a food source in Asia but are often considered an invasive species in states such as Florida because of its aggressive nature. In Tamil they are called as Kaai valli kodi, Pannu kilangu or Vetrilai valli kizhangu etc. (Source: Speciality Produce) Immense gratitude @architect_amy For helping me find this vegetable and acquire more information about it. Thanks to @anchoredhues_ And @darshini.narayanan #southindianfood #fooddesign #foodstagram #foodart #instafood #foodculture #foodandcuisines #foodforthought #foodforever #foodstories #foodtradition #indianfoodmovement #fooddesignthinking #foodinvestigations #foodism #cookandsee #100dayschallengephase2

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Day 86. Food historian K.T. Achaya writes that pumpkins are a part of our food from ancient times, and were grown on the banks of rivers in village outskirts. Chinese traveller Xuan Zang, who visited 110 of the 138 kingdoms in every part of India between 629 and 645 AD, mentioned pumpkin, ginger, mustard and melon. Ibn Battuta noticed that only pumpkins grew in the dry river beds in some tracks adjacent to the Sindh desert. The Indian pumpkin is very unique. The skin goes from dark green to a mature yellow and the inside is a darker shade of yellow. Unfortunately, when the world is out experimenting with pumpkin, its usage in our kitchens has come down a lot. This pumpkin stew is heavenly. Pumpkin is a part of a squash plant, which has dainty and edible flowers attached to it. These flowers have an orange and yellow hue and many may not know that they are edible and make some of the most popular dishes in West Bengal and Kerala. Otherwise, pumpkin flowers are used in various delicacies as condiment, soup ingredient and others. You can eat them in salads and use them as dressings in cold salads or other delicacies. Thanks to @anchoredhues_ And @darshini.narayanan #southindianfood #fooddesign #foodstagram #foodart #instafood #foodculture #foodandcuisines #foodforthought #foodforever #foodstories #foodtradition #indianfoodmovement #fooddesignthinking #foodinvestigations #foodism #cookandsee #100dayschallengephase2

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With his curiosity piqued, Akash plunged himself into research, “I spoke to my neighbours, noted their responses on whether they’ve tasted or even heard about these vegetables,” he says. And this is how he started what would go on to become a 100-day project, equipped with a battered copy of S Meenakshi Ammal’s Samaithu Paar and his passion for cooking. He picks one vegetable a day and uses Meenakshi Ammal’s austere notes to do the rest. “My mother Sundari Muralidharan has been a great support. We work on these recipes together,” he adds.

“Thummatikai is the country cucumber and is mentioned a number of times in Samaithu Paar. Unfortunately, I could not find it anywhere in the city. I scoured markets, called friends… no one had heard of it,” Akash explains. “Although, I did find the sun-dried thummatikai in Pazhamudhir Nilayam,” he adds.

This vegetable with its white and green stripes, from pictures, looks like a watermelon on the outside, but only grows up to a size of a big marble. The air potatoes too, Akash tells us, are unusual. “These are tubers that don’t grow under the soil. Instead they are creepers,” he says. Akash puts out simple illustrations of how these vegetables look like on Instagram, done by his friends Priyadarshini Narayanan and Srishti Prabakar, along with short notes on the variety itself based on internet searches.

For instance about the purple yam, he writes that they can be boiled, roasted, cut into discs and baked or fried into chips. While in India they are used to make savory vegetable and curry dishes, like we do with potatoes, in the Philippines, they are even made into jams.

What would be on your plate in 10 years?

Akash was in Dubai this January presenting their team’s explorative study on what the United Arab Emirates would be eating in 10 years from now. “We studied how their food has changed over the past two decades and we presented four alternative futures with different stories that they could choose from. It was to show how their decisions right now could be influencing what they ate 10 years from now,” he shares.


So what do we look forward to in Phase 2 of the challenge. For 45 days we brought you vegetables and recipes through Images and vlogs. But the world is in a very different situation now from when we started this challenge. Though we are ably assisted by technology, we have been rendered powerless in a pandemic situation like this. The challenge has also been affected by this situation wherein it has restricted us from going out physically and forage the vegetables needed. But we cannot let it stop us from going ahead. We are going to slightly tweak the medium in which we bring the recipes and vegetables to you. Imagine a time period in which you did not have a camera with you. A time period where vlogs were not available to learn or exchange recipes from. How did we learn new recipes? How did we share them? For the next phase of the challenge we are going old school. It is an ode to the mediums of recipe transfer that have kept these recipes safe and alive through centuries. A situation like this is where we strongly realise the importance of physical touch and tangibility. Lets pay tribute to recipe books and thousands of inland letters in which our women shared and explored with recipes. Get ready to receive vegetables and recipes through books, letters and illustrations. Lets us start with a beautiful letter that @vaishalimenon8 penned for us. We have @darshini.narayanan @strokesandsoliloquies and @magesh.babu working on the illustrations and animation. We have worked really hard to keep the challenge up and running in a tough situation like this. Thanks to all the artists who were happy to collaborate and help out. And thanks to all of you for your constant love and support. Stay curious. Stay home and stay healthy. #southindianfood #fooddesign #foodstagram #foodart #instafood #foodculture #foodandcuisines #foodforthought #foodforever #foodstories #foodtradition #indianfoodmovement #fooddesignthinking #foodinvestigations #foodism #cookandsee #100dayschallengephase2

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This project, he is now extending to the south Indian vegetarian platter. “For us to be able to visualise what we’d be eating 10 years, we’ll have to go back 20 years in time. If we study what has happened in our past, we can answer the questions about our future,” he says.

According to him, over the last 20 years, our eating patterns too have changed drastically. “It has made me realise that there is a vast difference between what we ate in 2000 and what we eat today in 2020. The culinary landscape has changed. I wanted to know why these vegetables have fallen off our plates,” he explains and adds, “I can tell you now that if we don't make some changes, many more vegetables could follow the same route.”

Akash talks about how markets influence what we buy and how they dictate our diets. “I’ve been doing a survey with about 25 to 30 home cooks in Chennai, asking them about their shopping lists and how they plan their meals. It was a revelation to me that people don’t give this much of a thought. They are happy with the 15-20 vegetables that are available in the market. But if this were to continue, we would risk losing more variety,” he points out.

With his 100-day project, that’s part of this bigger idea, Akash plans on writing a book. 

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