You learn something new every day. Like there is a community in Madurai that has erstwhile Tamils who settled in Sri Lanka, who repatriated to Tamil Nadu. And that our very own Priya Bala is from that small and unique community. ITC Hotels under the aegis of ‘The Kitchens of India’ has been showcasing unique & undiscovered cuisines and cooking styles from across India. They now present “Spice Island Flavours” which is the food of Southern Tamil Nadu that has absorbed the influences of Sri Lankan culinary repertoires. This rare cuisine is on showcase at Dakshin, ITC Windsor till the 31st of August. I was invited last Friday, for a preview of the menu and a tete-a-tete with Priya, who lovingly curated and cooked the food of her childhood, alongside the chefs in the ITC kitchen.
At the onset, the food looks decidedly South Indian. Then slowly, as you take in the aromas and a quick nibble – you know this is definitely unique. The tongue recognizes the flavours, but wait… there is more to it. A hidden spice, a surprise garnish, a completely different style of cooking and coconut – lots and lots of coconut! Sri Lankan cusine itself is vastly influenced by Malay and Thai cuisine. Now combine this medley with Indian food and you have yourself a truly inimitable flavour profile.
Take for instance the Sambal – the first thing that pops into my head is the mind numbingly spicy chilli sambal of Indonesia. But the Srilankan Tamils of Madurai have their own version of it. The Venddaka Sambal is a mix of crisp fried okra slivers with tomatoes and onions. Or the Seeni Sambal which is just spiced grated coconut served with their version of the biriyani – Lamprais. The Lamprais is a culinary education in itself with curried chicken, fish cutlets, vegetables and rice parcels baked in a banana leaf. Moreishly delightful!
The names of the dishes also point to a British influence which was rampant in the lush tea plantations that dotted the Northern part of Sri Lanka. Devilled Chicken with its stir fried chicken cubes tossed with onions, salan chillies and piquant sauce or the simply named Fish Cutlets spiced with ginger and pepper and crumb fried. Try the mince meat samosa, with tomato chutney called the Khaima Somasi here.
The mains have a host of vegetarian and meat options. The Kaju Curry with its mélange of tender coconut and greens peas in a coconut gravy was as decadent as it sounds. The Parippu or Dal was a twist to the Indian staple with yellow lentils tempered with onions and scented with Pandan leaves. Now Pandan leaves are a staple in Thai cuisine and you can see how seamlessly it is integrated in everyday dishes like dal in this community. (Of course, finding stock of good Pandan leaves in Bangalore is a challenge in itself, which Priya assuaged by some good contacts in Ooty!)
There are many interesting accompaniments to the curries. The Thengai Rotti is a girdle cooked bread with freshly grated coconut, vaguely resembling Karnataka’s Akki Roti. The Iddiappam, a Kerala inspired rice flour string-hopper, is served with Sodhi. Sodhi is coconut milk, but tempered and mildly spiced with turmeric. The combination is a preferred way to eat Idiappam in Tamil Nadu. The Iddiappam Kothu is a variation of the basic string-hopper tossed with your choice of vegetables, eggs or shrimp. And finally there is the celebratory rice or the Manjal Soru – short grain rice cooked in coconut milk flavoured with spices and pandan leaves. This specialty is served with Brinjal Sambol and Cucumber Sambol. We tried these with the sublime Erachi Curry or meat stew. This mildly spiced curry uses minimal oil and relies on the fat in the coconut milk and lamb to lend it a rich taste.
Dessert was simple ingredients made irresistible, by the alchemy of a cuisine steeped in multiple influences. Kiri Pani is thick set natural yoghurt topped with the deepest darkest palm jaggery treacle. Or the interestingly named Love Cake, which is a semolina and cashew meal cake, scented with rosewater and spices. The Watalappam was a beautiful coconut milk and jaggery custard served with tender coconut ice cream and coconut tulle. The ITC pastry chefs go about plating these desserts with finesse, so rest assured you will have a stylish end to your meal.
Dakshin and Priya Bala have bought to life traditional recipes that are hard to find, except in the homes of this small community. This unique promotion is your best bet to experience the influence of the Emerald Isle on Tamil cuisine, so close to home.
For reservations call +91 80 41401205 or email email@example.com
Priya Bala: As a writer, she specializes in food and travel, and is a passionate home cook. Priya began her food writing career while a junior sub-editor in the Bombay Times. In Bangalore, she was editor of the Bangalore Times and also the paper’s restaurant critic, authoring five editions of the Times Food Guide for Bangalore. She turned freelance a few years ago and is now more engaged with the pleasures and goodness of home-style food, both cooking and writing about it.
25 Golf Course Road, Bangalore – 560052.
Cost : INR 3500/++ for a meal for two