As the pandemic deals India a severe second blow, a traveller finds nourishment in the vegetarian renditions of authentic Thanjavur and Chettinad dishes. By Devanshi Mody
“Saptingla?” (“Have you eaten?”) is the single most frequently asked question in Tamil Nadu. Visit a doctor and it’s the first question their secretary asks. Book a medical procedure and medics ensure they don’t violate your mealtime, or indeed their own. Such is the significance of food in Tamil Nadu, rivalled only by temples.
We reach Thanjavur to learn that Raja Raja Chola’s stupendous Brihadeeswarar Temple has just shut due to the pandemic. But a trip to the state must perforce involve temples. So we find ourselves engaged instead in a culinary pilgrimage at the temple of taste that is Thanjavur’s vegetarian abode Svatma.
While many hotels have withered with the pandemic, Svatma’s plush foliage seems plenty nourished on magical elixirs. An elixir of sorts awaits me at the rooftop bar Nila, where the new general manager Suresh concocts seasonal cocktails including a deviously good mango daiquiri executed by Vimal, who remembers my postprandial idiosyncrasies from when we last met—five years ago. Then, Sentil Kumar hands me a rakish mango pina colada and directs my gaze to the bar window. I suddenly spot the Brihadeeswarar Temple. No, not because I’ve had a few, but you actually can.
Supper unleashes seven sophisticated South Indian courses, which are terse but tremendous in flavour and texture. You leave eating everything but feeling you’ve had nothing—it’s almost like reading the Upanishads, so tenuous they ostensibly say nothing and yet tell you everything. Svatma’s seven seven-course menus include traditional rice-based dishes recreated with gluten-free millets to indulge international tourists, including celebrities, afflicted with all the en-vogue alimentary restrictions.
Lunch presents seven Thanjavur thalis with seven sambars, including an unusual mochakottai sambar comprising fat slug-like white lentils. These thalis offer a culinary traipse around the region, although Mysore bonda seems an oddity on a Thanjavur thali. There’s also a Maratha thali capturing a vignette of Thanjavur history: that the Marathas once ruled Thanjavur.
One day, Suresh conjures a magical garden- set seven-course extravaganza. A meticulous composition of dainty idli, uttapam, millet dishes, etc. unfolds. Star-sprayed skies look like someone has popped a bottle of champagne across them. Svatma’s seven-course South Indian suppers are marvels. So, when Suresh suggests a five-course Continental supper, I look at him as if he were mad. Nobody sane goes to Thanjavur for Continental cuisine! But Suresh is persuasive in his quiet way. We are astounded by an immaculate medley: sumptuous carrot and cilantro soup worthy of London; the best garlic bread we’ve had in a decade; fattoush to shame anything in Arabia; and lasagna an Italian ‘mama’ would want the recipe for. This is world-class food. The gargantuan ‘cookie monster’ dessert would daunt even the most resolute gourmand. Or would it? We hear with astonishment the demands of other guests, including some VIP politico’s PA. She wants homemade ice cream, 12 scoops.
Twice weekly, corporates stampede into the Aaharam restaurant for post-conference refreshments. We arrive at breakfast to a hushed dialogue. Presumably about some confidential corporate matter. Oh no, about the buffet’s vada curry! Suddenly, we find ourselves smacked as businessmen charge ever-replenished food counters. Amid gluttonous assaults on delicate puris and vigorous onslaught upon Pongal, Kumbakonam kadappa, and ragi halwa, we try to avail of kovil idli or its remains. Then, a priest is ushered in reverentially. He has the most gigantic belly. He pops a muffin, laden with butter and jam, into his mouth and smiles ingenuously at my bewildered mother as cream drools down his chin. Blithely oblivious to the mayhem around, our steward Aruntony juggles Kumbakonam filter coffee between brass tumblers to generate a fuming foaming effusion.
In Chennai, the group general manager K Sridhar (Sri) presents me Svatma’s sister: a spanking-new beachfront vegetarian culinary theatre and its creator-owner: Bharatanatyam dancer and architect Krithika Subrahmanian. This arena, a triptych on the ‘GLocal’ theme, features three venues: the handsome gastronomic restaurant Svasa, gourmet bar Svara, and gardened global-cuisine restaurant Svaha.
Michelin-star aspirant Svasa (svasa-cuisine. com) has four Chef’s Table menus that refine, nay redefine, South Indian cuisine. Expect bonsai rava dosas twirled into dainty cones crisp as crickets. A tender coil of viper-like ‘ebony’ idiyappam wallows in a moss-green swamp of exquisite drumstick soup. If you can decipher its subtle nuances you know you don’t have COVID!
The intrepid amalgam of unprecedented associations, the intricacy of flavours, and troublingly fine textures, impel larceny. “I must kidnap your chef,” I declare. “Every time she comes, she wants to kidnap someone!” Sri alerts Krithika. When Barman Francis crafts brilliant cocktails showcasing indigenous ingredients, this augments the kidnap list. But Krithika, confident of her staff’s resistance to being commandeered, continue entertaining us (she is as amusing as encyclopaedic about Deccan cuisine), titivating each meal with fascinating anecdotes about dishes or even an ingredient like camphor, which enlivens Trichy speciality akkara adisil oozing from a cornetto. As enthralling as Krithika’s narration is, my attention is often derailed by the epicurean feats of her creations presented with the chic of a Frenchwoman in haute couture, unfolding into the drama and thrill of an accomplished Bharatnatyam performance. Supper may apotheosise in a dish that evokes a French fruit tart but is a savoury masterpiece.
The finale to each meal is gorgeous curd rice hatted with neem buttermilk or mango pickle rarefied with ingenuity into a chilled foam. Palate cleansers could be kamala orange and liquorice sorbet; playful desserts include pal podi cunningly transformed into pani puri-style pouches into which rabdi and almond crème cascade.
Here, South Indian cuisine acquires a glamour quotient. For once, I’m not apologising for being vegetarian! The venturesome menu even beguiles inveterate carnivores with ‘mock meats’, recreating regional specialities with jackfruit or banana flower.
If you can’t extract temples from Tamil Nadu, you can’t remove drama from dining in Tamil Nadu either. The first time we visited the heartbreakingly beautiful heritage retreat Visalam, exactly 10 years ago, we arrived in a thunderstorm. Yet, supper was belted out in a blaze of lightning and thunderous explosions, as if the heavens were applauding the food. Our last visit to Visalam is no less dramatic.
Around Kanadukatham, in the enchanting rurality of Chettinad, where Visalam nestles in wreaths of bucolic landscapes, goats graze in abundance. Ask Visalam’s guest relations manager Siva if the goats are reared for milk or meat and he declares emphatically, “Meat, of course!” The famous mutton biryani is a platitude in Chettinad’s immense culinary repertory, we learn.
But this time, we aren’t dashing about to visit those fabled Chettinad mansions. They are shut. Instead, as we languish in-house, Siva intimates us with what transpires in them. Chettiyar homes engage a village amma to cook, a tradition upheld at Visalam by Lakshmi Amma.
Siva scoffs, “In Karaikudi restaurants, Chettinad chicken curry is made in 10 minutes. But Lakshmi Amma takes an hour!” He theatrically imparts the rigorous training she was submitted to in Chettiyar homes under stentorian, exacting grand dames, and dwells on the art of cooking for immense families with their immense feasts for 1,000 people (hence those enormous cauldrons in Chettiyar homes with ladles like they were made for Gulliver!). Lakshmi Amma’s stunning banana leaf meals are a mosaic of flavours where the spices Chettinad cuisine is renowned for shimmer like sequins embroidered on silk. Amma has us discover rare rural specialities that tourists are unlikely to encounter—unless invited to a Chettiyar wedding. A dry yam curry, karunaikilangu masiyal, is exalted amid the pageantry of colourful preparations regally arrayed around a banana leaf while bell pepper mandi is maddeningly delicious. Tamarind and ginger preponderate in Thanjavur cuisine; garlic and onion (heaps) inform Chettiyar cuisine. However, tangy vathal kozhumbu, comprising nightshade berries, has us swooning.
Visalam’s interesting breakfast platters bear esoteric Chettiyar dishes whose names we can barely pronounce: kandarappam, kallappam, kalla veetu aviyal... Is this why simple Chettinad chicken is the region’s best-known dish?
Strangely, a mere chutney lacking finesse betrays that Visalam’s breakfasts aren’t Amma’s work. We infer there is more than one cook in the kitchen, which thali lunches establish. Amma’s own creations exude polish, contrasting with the shoddier preparations. A disproportion of salt, oil, spices, and indifferent texture evidence the presence of untutored hands. When we find entire pepper globes in rasams and tell-tale cinnamon sticks lying like batons in a curry or adventitious star anise in a poriyal or in a koottu, we deduce the culprit isn’t a Chettiyar. Indeed, he turns out to be Visalam’s Malayali Executive Chef Tennyson, rather too accustomed to casting entireties of spices into dishes à la Kerala stew.
Poor Tennyson redeems himself with pieces of bread and cookies. But Amma overwhelms us with authentic Chettinad sweetmeats we didn’t know existed like the superb five-lentil adikumbayam and ukkara. Unsurprisingly, Visalam’s guests have tried hijacking Amma away to New York!
We’ve been gorging at Visalam. It seems like a good idea to walk to Chettinad’s legendary Pilliyarpatti Temple, which Siva says is 12 kilometres away. It is likelier 20 kilometres from Visalam, through bewitching landscapes, suddenly obliterated as night and rain come crashing down. The dark devours Siva too. I hear only frogs hopscotching about me—and slithering reptiles?
I reach the temple. A miracle.
Back at Visalam, Siva does another vanishing act. Malai, his colleague, laughs and tells me that Siva loves to talk but not so much to walk—and collapsed after the famous temple expedition so couldn’t quite make supper. Temples, food, and drama are indeed intertwined in Tamil Nadu!
The nearest airport is in Tiruchirappalli, about 55 km from Thanjavur. It is well connected to major cities of India.
Svatma is akin to an elegant family home and flaunts arts, architecture, and the culinary heritage of Tamil Nadu. Doubles from INR 5,000; svatma.in
Visalam is a Chettinad mansion built nearly a century ago. Price on request.
Editor’s Note: Keeping the current situation of the pandemic in mind, T+L India recommends every reader to stay safe, and take all government-regulated precautions in case travel at this time is absolutely necessary. Please follow our stories on COVID-19 for all the latest travel guidelines.