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In search of the perfect thali

In 1971 the band ' Great Bear we were then ' boarded the Madras Mail at Howrah Station to take part in the finals of the All-India Cordel-JS Rock Contest. It was a big moment for us; we had made it through the preliminary rounds and were among the eight or 10 finalists. There were bands from all over the country.

We spent about four or five days in Madras, putting up at the Ashoka hotel, an unpretentious place with a unique design ' a massive, central spiral staircase with rooms opening directly on to it, and flanking it all the way to the top.

It was during those few days that I fell in love with the simple daily fare of the cuisine of that part of the country ' idlis, dosas, vadas, uttapams, with the divine sambar and coconut chutney ' uppama, curd rice and, of course, those incredible thali meals with rasam at the start and buttermilk to finish.

Coming from Calcutta we were familiar with this fare but personally this was proper and prolonged exposure to the genuine article.

I don't know if the cooks at the Ashoka were exceptionally reputed or if such was the standard to be expected generally, but breakfast, lunch, tea-time snacking and dinner were all at the hotel. It was uniformly excellent and that quality of sambar and coconut chutney I have never had before or since.

Returning to Calcutta, I visited all the places I knew. In most, the cooks were from Tamil Nadu, they followed all the traditional methods and used the right ingredients and they came very close sometimes, but for me, I was still savouring the Madras taste on my tongue.

Was it the water' The air' The slightly different taste of the raw materials as they vary from region to region' Was it all in my head' I will never know. But to rediscover that experience is motivation enough to visit Chennai again and again.

It is easy to take this cuisine for granted and indeed we do. There are south Indian eateries all over the city and every office locality has stalls selling this food on the street.

There is no glamour attached but it is actually extremely healthy and a highly advanced and evolved cuisine with centuries behind it and suited to the climate and its effect on the metabolism.

I have seen a recipe for sambar that is quite elaborate: Boil sambar dal (red gram dal), add turmeric and curry leaves and keep aside. Fry white gram dal, coriander seeds, fenugreek and dried chillies in coconut oil, grind to a paste and keep aside. Boil tamarind water with red chilli powder, curry leaves, salt, asafoetida and molasses. When boiling, add coconut oil and the cut and washed vegetables. When done, add the dal prepared earlier, bring to a boil again and add the ground masalas and ladies fingers. Season with mustard seeds and dried chillies.

The humble idli, or even the rice paste spread on the griddle to make dosas or uttapam, are works of art involving grinding coarsely or finely, leading to ferment to just the right degree ' subtle and full of nuances for the sense perceptions of the cooks who create them.

Rasam, the digestive tamarind water with pepper, cumin, turmeric, ginger, green chillies and red chilli powder (there are many variations), is something you can have glassfuls of if it is spot on, but just a little too much of this and a little too little of that and the rasam is ruined.

One of the major attractions for me is to order a south Indian thali. Most of the places have the thali meal option: a large, heavy stainless steel thali with small bowls arranged all around. In the middle, chapatis or puris and a small mound of rice.

The other day out of sheer nostalgia and yearning, I dropped into a place that used to serve excellent thalis in the early Eighties, the bowls ringed around the thali varying in size, the tiniest ones just for a little ghee or pickle, the medium sized ones for a little buttermilk or yoghurt. Very clean, very homely.

Things have changed now. All the bowls were of the same size. Three kinds of vegetables ' all very different and this was good. There was a dry preparation, a stir-fry of barbati beans with ginger, green chilli, arhar dal and curry leaves (I reckon), a south Indian style aloo dum with a thick, dry gravy seasoned with mustard seeds, curry leaves and fenugreek and a bland olana ' a dish of mixed vegetables prepared with yoghurt and very easy on spices and oil.

There was a bowl of rasam, one of sambar and one of 'yellow dal'. There was one vada, one dahi vada, a bowl of deep-fried very thinly cut potato juliennes (jhuri bhaja to Bengalis) although the menu said banana chips, and for dessert a bowl of payesam ' a combination of vermicelli and rice powder with nuts. Four puris, and rice. And poppadum.

But no tiny little bowl of ghee. No buttermilk. No pickle (though the menu mentioned it). Not as subtle and homely as before and not such an authentic combination either. Why a bowl of yellow dal when there is sambar' Why snackish items in a thali meal' And for me, the rasam too sour and not bland enough; the dahi vada too sweet. But the search for the ideal thali must continue.

South Indian vegetarian cuisine, specially the dosas, vadas, idlis and uttapams, is a part of the fabric of our lives. We would feel lost without it, as deprived as a Bengali without his rice and maachher jhol. It continues, in its quiet way, to pleasure thousands of tastebuds, day after day. Its true scope cannot be done justice to in a thousand odd words ' there are so many regional variations and intricacies.

Eateries have existed in the city for 60-odd years. The oldest, Prema Vilas, near Lake Market, opened in the late Forties. May they prosper and always be with us.

And just for the record, we won that contest. Perhaps that's why the memories are so sweet.

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