There’s much more to Tamil cuisine than just idly, sambar and filter coffee. The truth is that the cuisine of Tamil Nadu is rich and diverse – over 27 types of sambar and 45 types of rasam are made by the Iyers alone. The Nadar community has a menu card of over 800 dishes. Similarly, the Chettiars, Mudaliars, Iyengars, Goundas and Naidus have their own distinctive cuisine, which is rarely seen on restaurant menus.
Though the same ingredients are used, the flavour changes with the style of cooking. Tamil Nadu cuisine can be categorised under six major heads – Chettinad Cuisine, Kongunadu Cuisine, Nanjil Nadu Cuisine, Pandiya Nadu Cuisine, Tamil Brahmin Cuisine and Temple Cuisine.
If you’d like to spice up your visit to Tamil Nadu with some gastronomic adventure, Chettinad cuisine is a fine option. It’s rich, spicy and full in its flavour and caters to the palette of non-vegetarian lovers predominantly.
Chettinad cuisine is popular in the Chettinad regions like Karaikudi, Devakottai, Pudukottai and Kanaddukathan, among other regions. The dominant flavour in this type of cuisine is the spice and the abundant use of fennel seeds. The texture of the food is very different from other cuisine in the state, and one of the key reasons as to why their chicken is famous is because they use Nattukozhi [country chicken and not broilers].
Chettinad cuisine is characterised by its freshly ground masalas that are made with a variety of spices. The richness of its gravies is elevated by the addition of tomatoes, coconut, ginger and garlic. The use of a wide variety of spices like fenugreek, star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, pepper corns and cumin seeds give these recipes an outstanding taste. And when these are pulverised traditionally using grinding stones, the taste and texture turn even more awesome.
Chettinad Chicken and Lamb are the most favoured dishes that win in any popularity contest. Essentially these are consumed with rice which is a staple in the south. Other dishes like Fish, Pawn, Lobster and Crab are also the favourite of many a connoisseur.
Some of the popular vegetarian dishes from the Chettinad kitchen are Idiappam, Panniyaram, Kozhukkattai, Kola Urundai, Vendakkai Mandi, Seedai, Masala Seeyum and Athirasam.
The western region of Tamil Nadu like Ooty, Coimbatore, Pollachi, Udumalpet, Avinashi, Palladam, Karur, Athur, Salem, Palani, Mettur and Dharmapuram form the Kongunadu belt. The cuisine out here stands apart and its culinary traditions are confined to home kitchens generally. Unlike Chettinad cuisine, the spice is mild and has a lot of pepper, jeera and freshly grated turmeric that are used in making these delicacies. Since the region is the highest producer of gingelly oil, coconut oil and turmeric, they dominate the recipes that are distinctive to this belt. In fact, Kongunadu cuisine is rooted to indigenous ingredients - pond fish & country fowl; rhizomes like nannari and turmeric; copra or dried coconut; gingelly oil; kollu or horse gram [typically used to make rasam]; short-grain rice like ponni; and a range of seasonal vegetables. Kongunadu is also famous for its millets and a dumpling called Kali – which is made by soaking millets in a mud pot and steaming them.
Kongunadu cuisine has many specialities like Santhakai/Sandhavai [a noodle like item of rice], Oputtu [a sweet tasting pizza-like dish that is dry outside with a sweet stuffing], Kola Urundai [meat balls], Thenga Paal [sweet hot milk made of jaggery, coconut and cotton seeds], Ulundu Kali [a sweet dish made out of jaggery, gingelly oil and black gram], Kachayam [sweet made out of jaggery and rice], Arisiparuppu Sadam, Ragi Puttumavu, Arisi Puttumavu, Kambu Panniyaram, Ragi Pakoda, Thenga Barbi, Kadalai Urundai, Ellu Urundai and Pori Urundai.
The famous Nattu Kozhi Kuzhambu [country chicken curry] is made with shallots, tomatoes and coconut paste and pairs perfectly with kambu [pearl millet] dosa. The Kari Kuzhambu[slow cooked lamb curry] is also a notoriously tempting speciality that is tantalisingly tender and rich in taste with its special blend of coriander seeds, garlic, chilli, ginger, shallots and whole spices.The zingy sherbet called Nannari, a local herb root, is famous in this region. And to top it all the velvety dessert, called Elaneer Payasam, an ambrosial concoction of tender coconut water and milk spiced with crushed cardamom, is sure to take your taste buds by storm.
Some of the signature dishes from Kongunadu are drumstick soup, pazhadosai [dosa made from bananas, wheat flour, sugar and rice flour], vazhapoo vada [banana flower and toor dal vadas], manikaram spicy vadagam curry [made from holy basil and betel nut leaves], ragi idiappams, pathaneer halwa [made from pathaneer or toddy before it ferments] and arisi paruppu sadam [rice cooked with dal and spices - a recipe that has existed from the fourth century]. But much of the Kongunadu cuisine is becoming a lost art that’s getting banished into obscurity.
Nanjil Nadu food originates from the southern-most tip of India – Kanyakumari and its surroundings. Heavily influenced by the neighbouring state of Kerala in taste as well as preparation, its key ingredients are fish and coconut along with a blend of ginger, green chillies and garlic. The other dominant ingredients are pepper, dhaniya, red chilli and saunf [fennel seeds] for a mild taste, and a lot of vegetables are added along with fish in its food. The rice is thicker and harder in texture, and reddish brown in colour- and beef is also served in these parts[one of the few areas in Tamil Nadu where beef is served] as in the neighbouring state.
Some of the signature dishes include theeyal, ulunthuchoru, parotta and mutta-avial. The Nanjil fish curry is a super hit in these parts and all the varieties of fish cooked in this region are quite tasty to say the least. Meat is also cooked in different styles, though fish is always the preferred one when it comes to choices.
Madurai, the temple city that’s famous for the Meenakshi Temple, is also a famed destination for its unique dishes that distinguish it from other regions. Renowned for its idiappams, uthappams and panniyarams, it is the place of origin of the popular milk dessert called Jigarthanda. Its non-vegetarian dishes compete with Chettinad cuisine in their own way and have become popular all over the state. The Virudhunagar area is famous for the Coin Parotta which is deep fried in oil and served with mutton gravy.
Starting with the elaneer sherbet [made with tender coconut, syrup, lemon juice and ice cubes], its chukumalli coffee has been famous for centuries when it comes to treating a cold or a blocked nose. The kothu parotta is a deliciously popular street food that comes in a vegetarian as well as a non-vegetarian avatar, and its mutton chukka is legendary as an accompaniment with rice or biriyani. Madurai has its own brand of idlies and its kari dosa [topped with mutton chukka and spices] is simply unparalleled. The elumbu roast, made from goat bone, and the kola urundai, a meat ball, enslaves many a taste bud. Madurai parotta is something truly special, and when accompanied with mutton curry, it does take a foodie into outer space. The vazhiyal and bun parotta top the charts taking Pandiya Nadu food to different heights.
Tamil Brahmins are also referred to as Tambrahms and their cuisine is different in its own way. In fact, Tambrahm cooking has two variants – the Iyer and the Iyengar style. The typical Iyengar feast for a wedding stays in the sattvic zone and does not include onion or garlic, while the Vengaya sambhar [made with shallots] is one of the highlights of an Iyer wedding.
But overall, both variants are less spicy and Vendhayam [fenugreek] is used in virtually every dish, as well as dhaniya and dried red chilli. Coconut is used selectively as an ingredient for sambhar or poriyal [the dry vegetable accompaniment]. The signature dishes of Tambrahm cooking are thogayal, sambhar, kootu, potato podimas, paruppusili, more kuzhambu and ulundhuvada.
Iyengars use amudhu [literally translates as nectar] as a suffix to name many dishes. So rasam is called Sathumadhu, poriyal [fried vegetables] is called Karamadhu, and payasam is called Thirukanamadhu. Though the dishes are common, the cooking styles vary. While the Iyengars usually serve a vada soaked in curd, the Iyers serve a somewhat crispy aama vada [with lentils]. The Iyengar dessert is sinfully delicious, called Akkaravadisal, and is cooked with milk, ghee, jaggery, cashew, saffron, raisins and edible camphor. On the other hand, the sweet elements in the Iyer wedding feast typically come in the form of a kheer [rice or semolina] and a traditional sweet like the Mysore pak.
Tambrahm cooking is in a different zone altogether. The Iyers alone make around 27 types of sambhar and 45 types of rasam, and in these there is some common ground with the Iyengars as well. In the Iyengar dishes, you can’t afford to miss out puliodhare, kadamba sadham, thayirvada and thirattipaal to name a few.
Tambrahm food is not commonly available in restaurants. They are best experienced at home. However, they are available at select restaurants in select zones, which are usually around very large and ancient Saivite or Vaishnavite temples.
Tourists who visit temples in Tamil Nadu are in for a treat in many places. Different temples serve up different dishes. The Uppiliappan Temple, for example, serves up prasad without any salt but yet it is incredibly tasty. The Sakkara [sweet] pongal at the Parthasarthy Temple is rich with ghee and cashew nuts. The Pongal at the Nanganallur Anjaneya Temple is iconic. The Srirangam Kovil Dosa and the Azhagar Kovil Dosa are famous by their own counts. The Panchamritam at the Palani Temple is much sought after as an incredible fruit mix. The Tamarind Rice at the Brihadeeswara Temple in Tanjore and the Curd Rice at the Jagannatha Perumal Temple in Tirumazhisai are an integral part of the food offering to the deities. The common temple dishes include puliodhare, kesari, venn pongal, sundal, sakkara pongal,sambhar rice and curd rice, among others.
Idly is the legendary breakfast food of Tamil Nadu which is made of a fermented batter of rice and lentils. It’s an ancient food that has been around for 10 Centuries, and has transformed over the years with its variety (there are nearly 180 flavours available today). The idli is an all rounder and fits into a wholesome diet chart. It suits everyone from toddlers to aged people, as it keeps the tummy calm and provides adequate energy.
Sambhar is a lentil based vegetable stew that is cooked with pigeon pea and tamarind broth. It is part of a tradition of lentil based stews in Tamil Nadu and is usually served with steamed rice as one of the main courses. Sambhar is also a necessary accompaniment with idli or dosa and is made with one or more vegetables. There are around 27 types of sambhars made at homes in Tamil Nadu, but restaurants usually serve up just a couple of variations.
Dosa is a sourdough style pancake that is a very distinctive dish of South India. Made with a batter of rice, lentils and fenugreek seeds, it is first allowed to ferment overnight. It is then laid out on a hot pan or an iron tawa and allowed to cook until crisp.
The style of making the dosa also changes its flavour. While a coating of oil is used to make it thin and crisp, the health conscious may opt to make what is called a Kal Dosa which is soft and fluffy.
There are many accompaniments that go along with the dosa. While it is generally dipped into sambhar or chutney and eaten by hand, it can also be made with a stuffing of potatoes and onions. These are called Masala Dosas and are classics in themselves.
There are hundreds of varieties of dosas and many restaurants specialise in making them with unique flavours. In fact there are even non-vegetarian varieties of dosas, made with eggs or kheema, available in specific restaurants.
For those with the desire to taste the true flavour of South India, filter coffee is a must try. The types of coffee beans that are used, and the proportions that they are used in, bring out its distinctive flavour. In most cases the coffee mix is made to order for the household and not picked off the shelves. Milk is always added and the coffee is never had black.
A superior variation of the filter coffee is the Kumbakonam Degree Coffee. It is perhaps the strongest form of this brew and the after taste can last quite a while. When you are on the highway in Tamil Nadu it is common to see exclusive coffee stores displaying the availability of Kumbakonam Degree Coffee.
Vada is a savoury fried snack that is distinctive to the region. The Medu Vada is the most common as a breakfast accompaniment with idli or dosa, and is prepared using black lentils or a urad dal batter that is deep fried in oil. The other popular vada in Tamil Nadu is the Masala Vada, but that is primarily an evening snack.
Pongal is a thick gruel and is unlike the kichidi. It comes in two avatars – as Venn Pongal [spicy] and Sakkara Pongal [sweet]. The Venn Pongal is a traditional breakfast; a daily driver that is made with a mix of rice and moong dal and seasoned with black pepper, cumin and cashew – it is packed with proteins, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. As it combines complex carbohydrates with proteins, it makes for a complete meal. A must taste dish if you visit this part of the world.
Kuzhi Panniyaram is made of black lentils and rice and has a composition that is close the batter made for idli and dosa. The batter is steamed using a mould and it can be made either spicy or sweet, depending on which ingredients are added. It is made on a special pan that comes with numerous small fissures.
Uthappam is made from the same batter with which idli and dosa are made. The only difference between the dosa and the uthappam is that the dosa is thin and slender, but the uthappam is poured thick and then topped with 1 or more vegetables. From carrots to oats to bell peppers to mushrooms, anything goes as a topping. Even pizzas are made out of left over Uthappams and bread Uthappam is not uncommon too.
These are made with fermented batter of rice and black gram, and are usually accompanied with stew or sweetened coconut milk.
These cylindrical cakes are steamed and layered and made from rice flour. Accompaniment: Black channa gravy or jaggery/ sugar and grated fresh coconut with sesame oil.
Steamed dumplings that are made with rice flour and can be sweet or spicy depending on the stuffing. This dish is very famous during the Vinayaka Chaturthi celebrations.
These are steamed rice noodles which are eaten with kurma or stew. The one good thing about these is that they are light and yet flavourful and filling.
Adai is a dense, protein rich food made with mixed lentils and spices. Resembling a dosa or an uthappam, these are particularly heavy, especially post meal.
The rice varieties in Tamil Nadu are quite different and varied. A traditional meal is made with white or boiled rice and can be mixed with sambhar, rasam, kootu, kuzhambu or curd. There are also readymade variations available in hotels like tamarind rice, coconut rice, lemon rice and so on, apart from biriyani and brinji rice varieties.
The biriyani made in Tamil Nadu is different from its counterparts from other parts of India. Here the rice is not precooked but it is cooked along with the chicken. As a result the flavours penetrate deep into the rice.
There are four regions and four variants of famous biriyanis in Tamil Nadu:
This biriyani is quite famous and is from the small town of Ambur in the Vellore District. The speciality of Ambur biriyani is that the flavour is enhanced by strong coriander, mint & curd and the spice levels are considerably milder than the rest. It is made with jeera rice & mutton, and is accompanied with brinjal curry and cucumber raita. However what’s special about this biriyani is that it is cooked on wood fires and uses a special variety of short grained rice called seeraga samba.
Legend has it that Hasin Baig was a cook in the kitchens of the Nawab of Arcot before he set up shop in his hometown at Ambur. What started out as a small establishment has become a massive brand a century later. Ambur Star Biriyani, as it is called is now, is being run by the direct descendants of Hasin Baig.
Dindigul is Tamil Nadu’s biriyani city and apart from its historical significance it is known for its locks and for its rich cuisine. The oldest biriyani restaurant is Thalapakatti which was established in 1957.
What makes the Dindigul biriyani different from the Chettinad biriyani and the Hyderabadi biriyani is its sour taste. It is said that the quality of water used in its preparation plays a key role - the water from the Kamarajar lake in Athur is said to enhance the flavour of the Dindigul biriyani. A melange of spices like star anise, mace powder and cloves make this mutton recipe a true delight.
There are two key ingredients used in this biriyani that makes its taste distinctive: The Jeera Samba rice [also known as ‘parakkum sittu’] is quite tiny as compared to the long basmati rice [this variety was chosen by Nagaswamy Naidu himself]; and the use of pepper and green chilli sets it apart. The masalas are mostly made from the pepper and green chilli, without any tomato, which is why the flavour is very different from other biriyani types.
This type of biriyani is popular in the Palakkad and Coimbatore regions and has earned its name as it is most commonly prepared by the Muslim Rawther families. It is high on spices and on the portions of goat meat. This spicy dum biriyani is naturally deep red in colour [by using plenty of tomatoes and kashmiri red chilli powder] and is made from an aromatic variety of short grain rice called Jeerakasala rice. It is flavoursome and is consumed even during celebrations & weddings with a non-veg sambhar popularly known as Kaicher.
The Chettinad Biriyani is touted as a chicken biriyani that can be made in one pot, a pressure cooker or an instant pot, but is yet flavourful and spicy. It is made like traditional biriyanis, but with just half the effort.
This biriyani is made of jeeraka samba rice and has the aroma of spices and ghee. It is best taken with nenju elumbu kuzhambu, a spicy and tangy goat meat gravy that is usually topped with fried onions and curry leaves. The biriyani masala that is used is a little different from the traditional ones, and is the most important ingredient that helps make it perfect.
Snacks & Payasams
The snacks from the south of India, like the mixture, crunchy murukkus, spicy pakodas and banana chips are perfect accompaniments with a cup of filter coffee.
Payasam is made of milk and sugar with rice or vermicelli and flavoured with cardamom, raisins and saffron. Cashew nuts and dried grapes are roasted in ghee and it forms part of the rich seasoning. This is usually made to celebrate an occasion or as an offering to god.
In this part of the world, rice is also traditionally mixed with jaggery, a liberal dose of ghee, and is served hot – known as Sakkara Pongal it is served in temples, during festivals or while celebrating specific events. It is healthy too, as it does not use sugar but jaggery.
South Indian sweets such as Laddu, Badushah, Jangiri and Halwas have made a big impact all over the country as well.