There’s a certain point on the map of India, north of which ‘South Indian food’ tends to be a one-size-fits-all panoply of dosas and sambhars with minor, if any, variations to distinguish them. In fact, all four southern states have an abundance of cuisines. Geographical location – coastal or interior – and community both play an expectedly large part in determining the shape the cuisine takes.
Chettinad cuisine of Tamil Nadu may be the best known of that state, but there are several others: the all-vegetarian Iyer community famously has 23 types of sambhar; the Nayakars specialize in a deep-hued sambhar sweet with black jaggery, and made with two types of dal, red pumpkin and drumsticks. Similarly, the Mudaliars, Iyengars, Gaundas and Naidus all have their own distinctive cuisines that are seldom seen on restaurant menus even in Tamil Nadu.
However, it is the Naadars that have one of the most highly evolved cuisines of the state. They’re spread out all over Tamil Nadu, but are concentrated in the belt between Madurai and Kanyakumari, with their headquarters at Virudunagar. Chef Jacob Sahaya Khumar of Cherraan’s Arts Science College, Chennai, a member of the Naadar community himself, has been hard at work documenting the history and cuisine of the erstwhile coconut tree climbers who worked as cooks for the British and subsequently metamorphosed into corner shop owners. The series of food festivals he and his team have been putting on across the country shows that there’s huge scope for obscure cuisines as long as they are authentic. The other thing is that it is obviously not an insurmountable obstacle to recreate a traditional cuisine in a commercial kitchen.
One of the hallmarks of Naadar food is the many blends of spice powders that are in use. The most common is referred to simply as ‘coriander powder’ but is, in fact, anything but. While the recipe differs marginally from family to family and is a closely guarded secret, it’s the base ingredient of many fried morsels like shrimp, fish and chicken. In that, it’s something like the ‘bottle masala’ of Mumbai’s East Indian community, but Naadar spice powders are not ubiquitous additions to each and every of the over 800 dishes that constitute their repertoire.
Some trademark touches of their funky, distinctive cuisine include the use of black jaggery – after all, the Naadars started out life as toddy tappers – and unusual combinations: fish with okra, lamb with brinjal, chicken with ridge gourd, prawn with banana flower and crab with drumsticks. There’s a lamb shank braised for over two hours in its own juice that’s tantalizingly close to classic western cookery. It begs the question: did the Naadars merely cook for the British, or was there a certain amount of cross-pollenization between the two communities? And is there any basis for Chef Jacob’s assertion that the British taught the Naadars how to do business, so that a toddy tapping community metamorphosed into one of shop-keepers?
This talented young chef has a few more surprises up his toque. He’s currently researching the cuisine of Kongunad, headquartered in Coimbatore, as well as the ancient food of the dynasties of Tamil Nadu: Chera, Chola and Pandya.
Fun facts: Naadar-owned shops all over Tamil Nadu are great places to buy spices, papads, pickles and spice mixtures. Podis, jocularly referred to as gunpowder, are best bought from Naadar stores like Ambika Appalam Depot in Ranganathan Street, Chennai.