Food historian Rakesh Raghunathan is back with his new series, Highway Dreams, which will start airing on Zee Zest on October 30. The cultural documentarian speaks to us about his experience of shooting for the show, his favourite meals, and of course, his top memories of travel. By Anushka Goel
Rakesh Raghunathan on his love for food, its history and travel
T+L India: Tell us a bit about your journey towards being a food historian
Rakesh Raghunathan: The idea of wanting to do something with food has been around since I was a kid. I was always in the kitchen talking to my mother and grandmother, but the spark came when I was in the USA for my Bachelors. I used to miss the food back home. Though I had access to all the ingredients needed, the food didn’t taste the same because the recipes were never documented. This made me appreciate the value of home food, and that ignited a spark in me. When I returned, I started travelling to smaller towns and villages and spoke to people from various socio-economic conditions. That’s when it occurred to me that I should document it (the recipes).
Today you can call me a food historian, but it started with a lot of research and documentation. Along the way, I poured over literature, ancient texts, poetries and Sangam literature. This gave me context to talk about food and bridge the gap. Indian culinary history has many legends and when you merge it together with people’s perspective, that’s where the role of food historian comes in.
T+L India: Food, for most of us, is associated with memories. Any special such moments that you’ve had while dining out?
Rakesh Raghunathan: I’ve always believed that food brings people together. There was a soul searching trip that I did in Tirunelveli. This was when I was trying to figure out what I want to do with food. I was drawn to the harvest in that year, and the farmers were joyous and celebrating the harvest. There was a lot of singing, harvesting and cooking happening, with big batches of food to feed the entire village. What was interesting that everyone came together during the harvest time to make this one dish. People brought different ingredients for the recipe. Someone brought rice, someone else brought vegetables, firewood, pots, etc. A farmer noticed my curiosity and told me about this specific dish, called “Kootanchoru”. The Tamil word translates to ‘come together as a group’ (kootan), and was apt to describe the celebration of this bountiful harvest. That was my eureka moment and my most memorable meal.
T+L India: How has your approach been towards hosting Highway Dreams, and how was your experience?
Rakesh Raghunathan: I am from Tamil Nadu, and as a South Indian food historian, I’ve documented recipes and culinary practices from across four-five Southern states. Highway Dreams was an eye opener as I was looking at my own state through various new lenses. For instance, I am in Chennai and Kovalam is about a 45 to 60-minute drive from here. Surfing is something I always wanted to do, and it was made possible because of the show.
Again, if I look at my home town Kodaikanal, avocado farming happens there at the mid level of the hills. I knew about it, but hadn’t seen the plantation, which was a unique experience for me through the show. Adding to my experience was birdwatching at Tertanggal, located in Ramanathan Puram, a district in Tamil Nadu. The snorkelling experience I had in Rameswaram, a spiritual and cultural space, was a young, fun and quirky experience which I enjoyed thoroughly.
To sum it up, the experience has been great as I got to truly experience Tamil Nadu from different angles – highways, adventures, art, music and all the other holistic ways.
T+L India: What are your all-time favourite dishes, or comfort foods?
Rakesh Raghunathan: My all-time favourite meal is Tamarind Rice. It’s something very special back home, and takes me back to my childhood. Curd Rice is another comfort meal for me, along with Ven Pongal, which is a South Indian khichdi. Other one among my favourite dishes is Adai, which is a lentil pancake that looks like a dosa (but it isn’t). When I was coming back from the USA, I had asked Amma to make this for breakfast, so it is definitely a special one.
T+L India: Are there any recipes – home-cooked or something you’ve tried at a restaurant – that you keep going back to in your own kitchen?
Rakesh Raghunathan: I think I’ll keep going back to my comfort dishes time and again.
T+L India: Anything else you’d like to tell us?
Rakesh Raghunathan: Yes, and this is for those who want to experience Tamil Nadu from various lenses and in an offbeat way. Highway Dreams will give you that perspective. For instance, we were in Ooty, and there’s a place there called Mind Escapes. You can go there and just be you, and if you’re creative, you can go with ideas and they’ll help you ideate. It’s experiences like these that people will see on the show. They will be able to see Tamil Nadu from a unique, off beat, quirky, young and fun perspective.
All Images: Courtesy Rakesh Raghunathan