When one of our neighbours tells me, ‘I loooooove south Indian food,’ I groan silently and roll my eyes mentally. While it is a very broad hint for me to invite her (and her family) for lunch/dinner, which I am always happy to, but I am tired of the menu that I am expected to lay out. In fact, it has remained unchanged since my childhood when my mother used to entertain our neighbours — itali, dosa (d as in dumb), sambher, bada and chutney!
It is my pet fantasy to lay out a spread of poriyal, kootu , mor kuzhambu, sweet pachadi, rasam, payasam – in short everything except the ubiquitous idli-dosa-sambar-chutney.
Before the advent of satellite TV, with its cookery shows from various regions, DD just gave us a (over)dose of culture — Bharatnatyam, Garba, Bhangra and kathakali. Even today in fact, these channels continue churning out stereotyped images of various regions. And so we began associating these art forms to the respective states. Post 24×7 invasion of the TV of our homes, other things like food and dress from various parts of the country began catching our fancy. This in turn set off a new game of associations: south Indians eat idli-dosa and do Bhartanatyam (maybe as they eat?), Gujaratis eat dhokla, wear the sari with the pallu on the right shoulder and dance garba and so on and so forth.
Make no mistake. I am very proud of the fact that these snacks have become universal favourites along with such stuff as pijjha, burger and ‘noodals’. But the assumption that the we eat only these to the exclusion of everything else is what gets my goat. Does Italian food begin and end with pizza? Or for that matter, Punjabi cuisine is only ‘chole bhature’?
Some even look at me disbelievingly when I tell them that I make sambar and rasam only occasionally and idli-dosa only if we are expecting guests or friends who like them. At home, it is poha/upma/dalia/oats for breakfast and roti-subzi-dal-chawal for meals. It is not just us, but most south Indians settled in the northern parts of the country have adopted this meal pattern. But you should see their expression when I say this. They look at me as if I was lying and trying to get out of giving them a treat.
One of my Delhi friends explained why the masala dosa is so popular in the north in comparison to other snacks. According to her it is the most north-Indian-of-south-Indian foods, if you know what I mean. ‘It is a complete meal to us – ‘The dosa is the equivalent of roti, the sambar is the dal and the potato filling is the subzi, with chutney to round it off’, she explained. Wow! I never thought about it like that, did you? So while it is a breakfast dish/evening ‘tiffin’ in the south, our north Indian brethren have it as a meal.
They make itali-dosa at home and try teaching me the nuances of grinding the batter! I listen to them with a smile – there is always something one can learn. I am happy and proud that it has become a part of their repertoire! As for adapting dishes to suit one’s tastes, that is welcome too, for that is how the popularity of a particular dish spreads, I guess. Haven’t we sufficiently Indianised the pizza and noodles? We get tandoori chicken pizza and Chinese bhel among other variations, if you please!
Some of my friends actually like their version of the sambar and chutney and wrinkle their noses at the original stuff as they find it too ‘south Indian’! I can understand that since I am pretty sure that most of us would not be able to enjoy authentic Chinese noodles or maybe even the pizza.
Before north Indians take offence, let me hasten to add that the situation is not too different in the south. To them, north Indians only eat ‘sukka roti’ (phulkas), chola- batura, samoosa, panneer, chenna (chana) and chat (pronounced as in ‘chat’ting. The other words have been spelt as they are generally pronounced in the south.
Just as the north Indians have adapted the art of making idli, dosa and sambar to suit their palates, south Indians have sufficiently southernised the matar paneer and other subzis. We once had a Tamil cook in Delhi who made a tadka of mustard, urad and chana dal (the standard tadka-triumvirate for SI cooking) for all the north Indian dishes including palak paneer and aloo matar. Needless to say, they all tasted like the good old poriyal or kootu!
This is not to say that all north Indians like the south Indian ‘foods’ and vice versa. There are those from both sides of the Vindhyas who can’t stand the sight of idli-dosas or the masala saturated north Indian foods as the case may be. But by and large, the these are favourites.
Today we can go so far as to say that the idli-dosa, matar-paneer, dhokla and roti-subzi are as much pan Indian foods as the salwar- kameez and kurta-pyjama are pan Indian dresses. No only that, even wedding rituals and festivals are assuming pan Indian identities. This however is increasingly a south-going-north affair.
Awareness is a two-way street though. For example, earlier wedding receptions followed religious rituals in Tamilian weddings. Today they follow the barat–varmala pattern of north Indian weddings. Then again, holi is increasingly becoming popular in the south. Conversely, the north Indians know about Ayyappan, the southern deity from the annual pooja celebrations that are held by Keralites in their neighbourhoods (and now due to the temple being dragged to court for not allowing women); they also know about Navratri kolu and so on.
One interesting aside here: While Tamilians, Telugus and Kannadigas get classified jointly as ‘south indians’, the Malayalis merit a separate category of ‘Keralites!!’ Wonder how? Are they more visible or do they observe and uphold their customs more conscientiously?
Coming back to food, Indian food is so varied that one can spend an entire lifetime learning the cuisines of the different states and still not skim the surface. While it is a wonderful thing to have pan-Indian foods, is it too much to ask that the names of dishes whether northern or southern – at least be pronounced properly and that they learn a little more about the dishes of other states, before assuming that the people of a particular region just eat so-and-so foods?
As I said at the beginning of this post, the next time someone tells me that he or she looooooves south Indian food, I will invite them home promptly and cook exactly that — and enjoy seeing them going into catatonic shock….before reviving them with fluffy idlis and crisp dosas and bucketsful of sambar!