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The Traditional Feast of the Tamils

Tamil Nadu, the state perched on India’s south-east coast, boasts a long and creative culinary tradition believed to be the root of all the Indian dishes of the south. Although the southern states are renowned for their rich and varied vegetarian cuisine, the recipes are not always exclusively so. However, there is a high reliance on colourful vegetables, packed with nutrients as well as rice, lentils and an inventive use of all the spices of the Indian store cupboard. Curry leaves, mustard seeds, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, coconut and plenty of hot chillies feature in Tamil cuisine.

The bulk of a Tamil meal is nearly always rice. It is the central component to the traditional meal known as ‘sappadu’. If you are sitting down to sappadu, you can expect a minimum of three courses, complete with curries and sides. If the feast is for a special occasion or laid on for guests, it is known as ‘virundhu’ and could consist of at least five courses.

Traditionally, a Tamil feast would take place seated on the floor, using banana leaves instead of plates. The banana leaves are washed thoroughly before the meal takes place and are scattered with salt. The salt symbolises giving thanks for the meal and to the person who is feeding you.

In a traditional Tamil feast, the order the dishes are brought to the table follows a specific pattern. First come a selection of vegetables, placed on the leaf along with a serving of daal. Then comes the rice with a preparation called thaalicha paruppu, a seasoned lentil dish created from red lentils and flavoured with mustard seeds, cumin and spicy, green chillies.

The next dish to expect would be the popular, everyday dish of the southern states: sambar. A hearty, curried stew flavoured with lentils and chunky vegetables. This would be followed by kuzhambu, a word which refers to any kind of gravy-based dish. This part of the meal would typically be a tamarind curry, peppered with spices for a hot, tangy taste.

Next up is the rasam, another dish experiencing great popularity throughout the southern states. Rasam refers to a thin broth and is believed to aid digestion – this is why in a Tamil feast it comes near the end of the meal, as opposed to appearing as a starter.

Saving the best ’til last (well, for those with a sweet tooth anyway), a decadent dessert will finish the feast. The creamy payasum, or pudding, is spooned onto the banana leaf or occasionally served in a dish of its own alongside the main meal as a soothing accompaniment to spicy dishes that can be a little too tough on the tongue.

The feast is punctuated by a final rice dish, served with thayir – a form of curds or buttermilk. This refreshing final dish can be consumed with pickles, the combination of salty and sweet tastes blending in an unusual yet delightful manner.

If this description of the many mouth-watering courses of the traditional Tamil feast has set off your Indian food cravings, satisfy your urges at one of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants where you can indulge in as many courses and dishes as you like.

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