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Come with Me and Partake a South Indian Meal

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A South Indian meal is a blend of tastes, flavours, nutrition and spirituality. Partaking it is an experience for the body, mind and spirit.

Having been invited to partake a South Indian Meal in the home of a traditional brahmin family and gladly accepting it, we both visit a house in the agrahAram of a village where the Hindu tradition and culture is flourishing eternally, rejecting all counter influences. (Whether such a village exists in South India today is a difficult question to answer, but we are partaking only a virtual, what-it-used-to-be sort of South Indian meal here).

Welcoming the guests

The 'you' in this narrative is anyone who is unfamiliar with the experience of partaking a traditional South Indian meal, typically a Western non-Hindu. The 'family' we are visiting is a vedic brahmin family. Though orthodox, the elders of the family are only too glad to invite us to dine with them.

I have already briefed you about the prevailing Hindu dining customs that include sitting cross-legged on the floor, using only the right hand to pick up and eat, not to sip the water straight from the tumbler but to raise the tumbler and pour water into your mouth, waiting till all the dishes are served and the elders start eating after a prayer, remaining silent during the meal session and so on, so you wouldn't find it too hard or odd to follow suit.

The head of the family ('Father' henceforth) and his 'old man' ('Grandpa' henceforth) welcome us at their raised portico called 'thiNNai', joining their palms and saying "vAngo! (please come)" in Tamil. You notice that it is a typical street house in a village, with an elaborate and colorful kolam (decorative artwork drawn on the floor with flour) drawn at its threshold.

You also notice that both Father and Grandpa are wearing their dhoties in the pancha katcham* style, the upper part of their bodies covered by a shoulder cloth known as uttarIyam. Three stripes of dazzling white vibhUti (holy ash) shine on their forehead, arms, forearms, near the wrists and on their chest (visible through their thin uttarIyam). Grandpa is wearing a large rudrAksha bead, a narrow band of gold running over its central rim. The holy threads worn across their bodies appear partially at their hips, where the uttarIyam reveals them. (I have already briefed you that these two men are great Vedic scholars with good fluency in English and Western Philosophy.)

The elders lead us through a narrow corridor (known as 'nadai' or passage in Tamil) with two closed rooms on the left, to a wide hall and then into a courtyard* in the middle of the house. The courtyard is open to the sky at its center, which is a big square of depressed structure paved with large stones, a pair of steps leading down to it. A tuLasi mAdam (Tulsi plant set on a raised structure) and water pump with a large iron bucket of water under it are seen in the open area. The backyard of the house is seen on the opposite side, where the bath room and toilet are located, beyond which is a small garden.

Father waits for us after getting down to the water pump in the wash area, holding a small brass pot of water for us to wash our feet and palms before we partake the meal. You thank him as you receive the pot, do the washing chore and then fill the pot with water from the bucket and extend it to me.

Father says, "'atithi devo bhava*' is an important Hindu dharmic statement. It means 'the guest becomes a god' when he visits a home for dinner and is entitled to the kind of hospitality that would be given to a Deva (demigod). We are really blessed to have you as our guest today."

South Indian mealware

I can see you blush slightly at such eulogy as we ascend the steps and move to our left where four large banana leaves are spread on the floor, backed by wooden Asanas to sit on. We sit cross-legged on the wooden planks and wait for the meal to be served. While we have our seats adjacent to the wall, Father sits opposit us, with Grandpa at his left, leaving in between a passage area of over six feet wide for the women to walk over and serve the food.

At one end of the verandah where we are seated is the kitchen. At the other is the puja room. An old woman (Grandma) is sitting on the floor, stretching her left leg and folding her right leg over it, keenly watching the dinner proceedings through her sharp eyes that knew of no eyeglasses. Her fingers move the beads of a rosary as she silently chants a mantra.

"The posture of sitting cross-legged, you know, is known as sukhAsana in yoga", says Father. "It is the best posture for dining. It orients the biceps forward and loosens up shoulders and the upper part of the belly, making it easy to breath. It also opens the hips and the groin area and gives a good grounding for the body that allows the mind to relax. Are you comfortable sitting cross-legged there?"

"I do some yogic exercises that include this posture, so no problem", you reply smiling, as you watch the crows busy on top of the compound wall opposite us, pecking at the sample feed.

Non-human guests have precedence!

"The crow is a sort of VIP for us Hindus," Father says, looking at you. "Our scriptures exhort us to feed the lower beings first before partaking a meal. The kolam artworks at our threshold is drawn using rice floor that is feed for the ants. We used to have a cow some years back. The cow and the crow were regularly fed in the mornings with the same food that we partake. The crow being the vehicle of Lord Shani, feeding it also amounts to appeasing that god."

"What happened to the cow?" you ask.

"We sold it off, finding it difficult to maintain it, in the midst of our Vedic activities. Named Lakshmi, she was a favourite of the entire household."

On the left of our leaf-plate, a small bronze pot and tumbler filled with water are placed. You regard a pair of cups made of cut banana leaf, placed at the left corner. Father explains that this cup is called a dhonnai in Tamil. One of them is used to drink pAyasam, while the other is used by the diner to drop any leftovers, so it would be easy for the women to fold up and throw away the leaf-plates after the meal session. The banana leaves have already been sprinkled with water and cleaned for our convenience, though this is usually done by the diner after he takes his seat.

Amma, serve the food!

"Amma, you can start serving", Father calls out towards the kitchen on his left.

Two women, wearing tucked saris (worn by traditional married Brahmin women in a style known as Madisar) appear at the entrance to the kitchen. Mother serves pAyasam to start with and places a small quantity of it at the right bottom corner of our leaf plate. Daughter follows her to serve the cucumber pacchidi (salad), placing it at the top right corner.

As they get back to the kitchen to serve other padArtha (dishes), Father says, "A South Indian meal is served according to a bhojana kramam (food order). A little of pAyasam is served and tasted first in a feast, as it is customary to start eating with a sweet dish. Actual serving of the pAyasam as dessert will be after the course with rasam. Actually the term pAyasam indicates a delicacy prepared by cooking rice in boiling milk and adding jaggery, ghee-fried cashews, raisins, cardamom powder and two or three crystals of pacchai karpUram (menthol). What we have today is the same as what is known as Sweet Pongal, though a bit more fluid, to fit the name pAyasam. These days we have all sorts of pAyasams made by cooking lentils, vermicelli, battered rice or ravA (ground wheat). The semiA pAyasam made of milk, vermicilli and sugar is a favourite with children.

"The pacchidi is a condiment based on yogurt (curd) and used as a sauce or dip; usually prepared with cut or mashed vegetables such as cucumber, onion or carrot or all of them mixed. Served at room temperature or chill, it has a cooling effect on the palate and serves as a foil for other spicy dishes to follow. It is called raitA in the North and is a popular condiment served with their different kinds of roties. The onion raitA is a good accompaniment for the Vegetable Pulav. For our Tamil New Year day, we have an additional special pacchidi made of the tiny neem flowers to remind us that life can sometimes be bitter in its many passing phases."

Mother and Daughter serve three types of vegetable curries, placing them to the left of pacchidi. We notice that one is a cabbage curry with green peas and ground coconut added, another is a curry of lady's fingers (okra) and the third is a curry of finely cut stems of the banana tree.

"Do you know that okra seeds were roasted and ground and used as a substitute for coffee whose imports were disrupted by the American Civil War in 1861?" says Father. "Okra is a favourite vegetable of everyone and can be used in curry, salad or sAmbAr or even taken raw. You might find the banana stem curry a bit difficult to swallow after masticating it, but do swallow it for it is full of fibre."

In their next turn, Mother serves the avial to the left of the curries, and Daughter places a pair of vadais at the leftmost bottom. This is followed by appalam, placed over the vadais, two kinds of pickles, lemon and mango in the form of mAvadu, placed on the left extreme at the top and a pinch of salt below them.

Father says, "That completes the vegetarian side dishes. We usually have a kootu which is a kind of stew of a single vegetable for our daily meal and avial in feasts. The avial is a specially enhanced form of kootu with a mixture of vegetables such as potato, yam, colacasia (sEmbu), raw banana, brinjal, beans, carrot, white pumpkin, tomato, drumstick--all boiled in separate lots and then mixed with a paste of coconut, cumin seeds, ginger, green chilies, salt and curd and seasoned with curry leaves and a few drops of coconut oil.

"You might find the avial the spiciest and might be tempted to take sips of water in between but don't do it as that will fill up your stomach; instead take the cucumber salad as a foil."

Daughter serves the boiled and salted lentil paste of redgram (called thoor dahl) at the middle of the bottom portion of the leaf plate and waits with a small jar of ghee. Mother serves steaming cooked rice, placing a good quantity of it near the lentil paste. Daughter pours a little melted ghee over the rice.

Father continues his talk: "The redgram paste is an excellent source of protein. Mixing it with rice also enriches the nutrients in the rice.* In Tamilnadu they used to call us brahmins 'paruppu thinni pAppAn' (dahl eating brahmins) because the dahl is used lavishly in our sAmbAr and rasam whereas the people of other communities usually have puLi kuzhambu with tamarind and much less or no dahl in their preparations.

"You would notice that we don't use spoons to mix food, but use the fingers of our right hand instead..."

"Any specific reason for that or is it just a custom dictated by tradition?" you say. "Since you have ladles, spoons may not be an alien article to you, though a fork might be."

Father smiles. Grandpa speaks for the first time. "Spoons are not certainly alien to us Hindus! You can notice Lord Brahma, who is the Lord of the Four Vedas, holding a wooden spoon in one of his arms in his portrait! Wooden spoons are typically used to scoop and pour ghee into the rising flames in a yajna."

Grandpa reflects for a second and continues with a sparkle in his sharp eyes. "It is a joy to eat with hands! Hands are considered our most precious organs of action. Our hands and feet are said to be the conduits of the five elements--space, air, fire, water and earth. One of the five elements courses through each finger. Through the thumb, aMguSTaH, comes space; through the forefinger, tarjanI, air; through the midfinger, madhyama, fire; through the ring finger, anAmikA, water and through the little finger, kaniSTaka, earth.

"In the Vedic tradition, we eat with our hands because the five elements within them begin to transform food and make it digestible even before it reaches the mouth. This transformation also heightens the senses so that we can smell, taste and feel the texture of the foods we are eating. We can also hear the sounds of eating. All of these sensations are a necessary prelude to beckoning agni, the fire of digestion, to ready itself for the meal to come. The Hinduism Today magazine published by the Kauai's Hindu Monastery has a good number of such revealing articles. You may read them on their Website.*"

Starting with a prayer: parisEshaNa mantra

"Now that the annam (rice) is served, we can commence a prayer to sanctify the food we are eating, before we actually start eating," says Granapa. "In the Vedic tradition, every act becomes an act of worship and an act of recognition of the pervasiveness of the Supreme Brahman and Its power. Thus the act of eating is an act of thanksgiving to God, typically preceded by a prayer.

"The Hindu thanksgiving prayer is known as parisEshaNa mantra and is an important part of our bhojana vidhi. This prayer has a dual function: to offer all that we eat to God and his deputies who administer Nature; since these deputies are also present inside our bodily systems, the mantras chanted also regulate their functions.

"parisEsaNam means sprinkling water over and around the food to santify it. My son and I shall now recite some mantras as part of this prayer. You people need not follow suit but just watch and know the meaning and philosophy behind this ritual. We will explain it as we go on."

Grandpa and Father touch the tip of their plates with their left hand. They take some water from their pancha pAtram-uttaraNi (puja cup and small spoon) in the palm of their right hand and pour it through the fingers in drops around their leaf-plates saying the first line of the Gayatra Mantra: 'Aum bhUr bhuva suvahaH'.

Then they sprinkle a little water over the annam, saying the remaining three lines of the Gayatri Mantra: 'tat savitur vareNyam, bhargo devasya dhImahi, dhiyo yo naH prachodayAt'.

Father explains this act thus: "The Gayatri Mantra is addressed to the Sun, the most visible of the gods. Since he is the giver of all food, we first invoke his blessings. Remember it is he who nourishes the agni, the fire and heat necessary for digesting food."

The elderly pandits once again encircle the food with the mantra 'satyam tvartena parishincAmi'. Father explains that this mantra means, 'O food, you are true and I encircle you with divine righteousness.' He says further that from 5 o' clock afternoon this mantra will be replaced by 'Rtam tvA satyena parishincAmi'.

Then they pour one uttaraNi of water onto their palms and sip it saying under their breath, 'amRuthOpastharaNamasi'. Grandpa says, "This mantra is actually to be recited within the mind. amRut ApaH upastaraNam asi: upastaraNam means the act of spreading out under as a substratum. I have invoked the little amount of water I sipped now to spread within me as Amrutam or nectar and form the substratum for the food to follow. Vishnu Purana says that liquid substances should be taken at the beginning and at the end of the meal."

Grandpa elaborates on the significance of drinking some water before and after food: "The Rishis have mentioned in the Upanishads* that realized people, while eating, before and after their meal, 'dress up' the prANa (breath of life) with water. You see, water is a purifier; it also sustains the body. Most Hindu rituals start with sipping water, an act known as Achamanam. The Yoga Shastras recommend that we should fill only half our stomach with food, a quarter with water and the rest should be air. This ideal proportion brings in spiritual and bodily health."

prANAhuti: offering to the vital breaths

Grandpa continues on the next act of the parisEsaNam: "After water, it is now the turn of the air or breath. Water nourishes the body to keep it healthy, but air in the form of life breath sustains the soul and holds it in the driver seat of this bodily vehicle. The life breath or prANa has five functions. prANa is the principal breath coursing through our nostrils and lungs; you can use it to control and regulate your mind and thoughts. apAna is responsible for the excretory activity. samAna circulates around the navel and plays a vital role in digestion. vyAna is diffused through the body and is responsible for circulatory activity. udAna is the wind that goes upward in respiration. These five vital airs together represent the Vaayu deity; they are also infused with agni or fire and Apas or water. Therefore we offer a morsel of annam as Ahuti to these gods, by swallowing the food without biting it. We don't bite it because it is not for personal consumption. Watch how we do it."

Using the thumb, middle and ring fingers of their right hand in a typical mudrA of a deer-head, Father and Grandpa pick a morsel of rice mixed with ghee and throw it straight into their mouth, keeping their heads down. For each such morsel they swallow they recite a line of mantra:

"aum prANAya svAhA | aum apAnAya svAhA | aum vyAnAya svAhA | aum udAnAya svAhA | aum samAnAya svAhA | aum bhrahmaNE svAhA |". Then they drop a little water on the left side, touch it with the ring finger of their left hand and then with that finger touch their chest, while chanting "aum brahmaNi ma AtmA-amRtatvAya".

"This last line of the mantra says, 'May the Self be united with Brahman so it may attain immortality'," says Grandpa. "That completes the parisEsaNam prayer. We can now start eating."

tRupti bhojanam: a satisfactory meal

Since you are unfamiliar with the way to go about mixing and eating the mouthwatering variety of food whose fumes and aroma are lingering around your nostrils, you decide to observe Grandpa and follow suit.

Grandpa scoops up the little amount of pAyasam in the plate and eats it with a single slurp. Then he mixes the lentil paste with the required portion of rice, partioning the balance to the left. He makes a small depression in the dhal mixed rice, into which Mother pours two or three ladles of the bitter gourd sAmbAr. Kneading the mixture into convenient scoops he starts eating them one by one, adding from the side dishes to the scoops or taking the side dishes like curry in separate scoops.

As you start preparing your own sAmbAr rice, Grandpa says, "We generally don't talk or discuss things over a meal, except for asking what one wants. The idea is that you should pay complete attention to the details and tastes of the food you are eating. However, today being a special day, I shall describe ways and things. Today's sAmbAr has the bitter gourd or melon as its thAn or chief vegetable to keep its pungency down so it may suit your palate. The bitter gourd kills any worms in the stomach. You may notice that this feast has all the six kinds of tastes. Pungency in sAmbAr and avial, sweetness in the pAyasam, astringency in the banana stem curry, bitterness in the sAmbAr, salt and tamarind diffused through most of the dishes."

In a leisurely rhythm, Grandpa finishes his sAmbAr sAdam, emptying most of the side dishes, and waits for the others to catch up. Mother and Daughter walk to and fro, asking to serve more helpings of the side dishes. They gently compel us the guests by filling up whatever side dishes we empty, while the elders have their own preferences of quantity to take.

When everyone is ready, the second course of rice is served, followed by ladlefuls of tomato rasam. The rasam is less spicy, and tastes heavenly due to its seasoning with coriander leaves and rich tomato. We receive some of it in our palms to drink separately and then mix the rice and rasam to make the rasam sAdam which is more fluid than the sAmbAr sAdam. Then we eat them in handfuls, adding scoops of side dishes to the mix and slurping at the juicy rice from our palms. The rice mixed with rasam, true to its name and meaning as the essence, gives us an idea of the sensations of the palate and ear and the joy of eating with the hands that Grandpa spoke about in the beginning.

By now, our plates are almost empty, except for the pickles, vada(i)s and the pinch of salt. Mother walks in to serve pAyAsam as the dessert, and fills up our dhonnais. While we prefer to drink it straight from the leafy cups, and also dip pieces of the vada(i) into the dessert and eat them, the elders pour it onto their plates and slurp it in handful scoops. As he finishes with the pAyAsam, Grandpa gives out a long, loud belch, straightening his back!

The final course of meal is the buttermilk rice. Thick buttermilk seasoned with lemon juice, salt and curry leaves is served to make our buttermilk rice. As we eat it with bites at the pickles, specially the mAvadu, Grandpa says, "As Kanchi Paramacharya has observed, we don't serve the dessert at the end of a meal, but in the middle. The meal is concluded with the buttermilk, whose salt and sour taste is excellent for the teeth."

Father adds to Grandpa's explanation, looking at you. "You like the mAvadu pickle made from tender little raw baby mangoes? The mango tree flowers and fructifies so lavishly, that many raw mangoes are plucked even in their infant stage, before they grow and ripen into fruits. As a seasonal pickle the mAvadu is astringent in taste. Generally astringency is good for health. We also make mango pickles and eat lots of mango fruits in the season. There is a proverb in Tamil about the mango pickles: 'The mango (pickle) will feed the rice that the mAta (mother) cannot feed.'

When everyone has finished eating, the elders pour a little water onto their palm and sip it saying, "amRuthOpastharaNamasi". Then they pour some water in drops around the leaf and say "annadAtA sukhI bhavaH".

Grandpa explains the meaning: "annadAtA sukhI bhavaH is a Sanskrit proverb. It means, 'May the food provider be happy and hearty!' Should we not remember all the people whose labour has gone into the food articles we consumed? This includes the people who cooked the food. As Bhisma said in Mahabharata the physical and mental health of the cooks who prepare the food influences the people who partake the food. This is the reason orthodox brahmins avoid restaurants."

We all wash our hands and feet in the courtyard and then sit to take the tAmbUlam. We put a little of aromatic betel nut pieces inside our mouth, smear some lime to the back of the betel leaves after washing and cutting their tips and stalks, and munch the mix, enjoying the pungent juice that gets into our throats. Then we spit out the sediment and thoroughly gorgle and wash our mouths. Grandpa explains that the tAmbUlam is meant to stimulate digestion.

When we take leave, the elders give us a gift of pUrNa phalam (unshorn coconut) with betel leaves and nuts and a banana fruit, placing them in a large and shiny brass plate, along with a dhoti and towel. We thank and prostrate to the elders and their wives as they stand in a row and say bye to Daughter.

As we take leave, you say appreciatively, meaning what you say, "I now understand how Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma is not just a religion but a way of life."


*atithi devo bhava - Taittiriya Upanishad:
mAtr dEvo bhava pitr dEvO bhava AchArya dEvO bhava atithi dEvO bhava. (Let you be one who worships mother, father, teachers and guests as God.)

*courtyard - for the type of interior courtyard described here, check: http://klkillahs.blogspot.com/2007/05/nals-mudhal-payanam-part-2.html (scroll down for photograph number 7).

*nutrients in rice - http://www.hinduismtoday.com/archives/2001/5-6/53_food_rice.shtml

*eating with hands - http://www.hinduismtoday.com/archives/2001/1-2/2001-1-19.shtml

*sipping water before and after a meal -
Chhandogya Upanishad 5.2.2 & Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 6.1.15

what-is links:

avial - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aviyal
curry - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curry
kootu - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kootu
Madisar - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madisar
pacchidi - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raita_(condiment)
pancha katcham - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancha
pAyasam - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kheer
ravA - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rava_(food)
sukhAsana - http://www.nshouseofyoga.com/Pose-Sukhasana.htm

how-to and recipe links:

Madisar sari, how to wear - http://www.nilacharal.com/anjarai/alangaram/madisar1.html

pancha katcham, how to wear - http://www.siddhashram.org/gaqmaterial.shtml#q07 (faq 7)

avial - http://www.indiaexpress.com/cooking/avial.html
curd rice - http://www.geocities.com/NapaValley/3925/recipe_rice_15.html

curry and kootu - http://www.geocities.com/NapaValley/8826/Kootu.htm
okra curry - http://www.spiceindiaonline.com/ladys_finger_curry

payasam, rice - http://www.recipezaar.com/24246
payasam, Akkara Adisal - http://grubs-up.blogspot.com/2007/03/akkara-vadisal_12.html
payasam, sweet pongal - http://www.geocities.com/NapaValley/3925/recipe_dessert_12.html
pAyasam, vermicelli - http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/recipes/recipe/0,,FOOD_9936_27946,00.html?rsrc=search

pacchidi, cucumber -

pacchidi, general Indian -

pickles - http://www.sysindia.com/kitchen/pickles.html
pickles, mavadu - http://www.ammas.com/topics/Cooking/a113880.html
tomato rasam - http://www.geocities.com/NapaValley/3925/recipe_acc_01.html
traditional sambar - http://www.geocities.com/NapaValley/3925/recipe_acc_04.html

agrahAram - royal donation of land to Brahmins, land or donation given us. In practical usage, agrahAram refers to the street inhabited by brahmins, which surrounds a temple like a garland being the first street outside the temple, hence the name agra + hAram.

thinnai - (Tamil) a raised sit out at the entrance of a house
dhonnai - cup like vessel made of leaves pinned up at corners
pAyasam - a delicacy in liquid or semi-solid form, usually made by boiling cooked rice with milk and jaggery, and then adding cashews fried in ghee, raisins and powdered cloves.
pacchidi - a condiment based on yogurt, with a soaked vegetable such as cucumber or onion with salt and mashed green chili added for taste
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