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An Elegy for South Indian Food

ISSUE:  Spring 2015

Theresa Seelye (Source material: Hotel Saravana Bhavan is one of the newer restaurants in Manhattan’s Curry Hill neighborhood. Its decor is simple. There are no silk prints of Mughal art. There are no large carved elephants. The tables are Lucite. The chairs and booths have beige padded vinyl. Nothing about the design panders to the nostalgia of the dozens of South Indian families who eat there every evening. Nothing about it evokes India, for that matter. But, as any patron will testify, Saravana Bhavan serves consistently outstanding food.

This New York Saravana Bhavan is part of a growing chain of South Indian restaurants. Its founder, who goes by P. Rajagopal, is one of the wealthiest men in India. Though Rajagopal has an unsavory past—he was convicted of murder in 2011—his restaurant chain earned its status by providing dependable food in a clean and simple environment. The culinary experience is standardized across more than seventy restaurants in India, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Kenya, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, China, and the United States. 

These are some of the countries that make up the Tamil diaspora. For centuries, people from the southeast corner of the Indian peninsula have been trading with and migrating to cities on the shores of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. And since the mid-twentieth century, Tamil migrants have established communities in Europe, the wealthier Arab states, and North America. 

If you frequent generic “Indian” restaurants, even in cities as cosmopolitan as New York or Toronto, you might never have stumbled into a South Indian restaurant. They are usually distinguished by “vegetarian” on the sign. Not all or even most people from the Tamil-speaking region of India or Sri Lanka are vegetarian. Fish is a staple, of course, to a seafaring people. But Brahmins from South India, who comprise the wealthier and more educated among the Tamil diaspora, tend to be vegetarian—or at least pretend to be when their parents are around. 

In early January at this Saravana Bhavan on Lexington Avenue at 26th Street in New York I enjoyed something of a parental breakthrough. For about six years I have been begging my nine-year-old daughter to eat the food my grandmother made for me, the food that my father and mother both still cook when we visit them in Miami. 

My daughter will tell you that her favorite food is Indian. But she has been rather exclusively interested in chicken tikka masala, the blandest and most ubiquitous of North Indian dishes available in Indian restaurants in the United States. In Charlottesville, Virginia, where we live, we can get passable chicken tikka masala at a few places. Only one even serves dosa, idli, sambar, rasam, and other typical dishes that distinguish Tamil cuisine. 

During this visit to New York, after she endured my lecture about how my grandmother would customize her cooking to please me, her American-born first grandson, my daughter decided to taste her way through a few dishes at Saravana Bhavan. She liked them and ate them. It didn’t hurt my cause that she had listened to me pitch this essay to an editor at VQR, and she knew it would be cool to play a part in this story.

As my daughter nibbled at her idli and vada, I thought about my grandmother, pleading with me at three years of age to eat the same things. My grandmother would prepare idli with extra ghee or offer them with sugar on the side instead of spicy chutney. She would beg. She would pretend to cry. She would tease me. She didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Tamil (and still can’t). So we played this game of pleading, refusal, and capitulation with an almost flirtatious joy. We communicated through food and hugs. By the time I was seven, I had grown to love South Indian food. Of course, we just called it “food.” But mostly I loved the game I played with my grandmother.

So while I felt pride and relief that my little American girl would at last expose herself to one of the foodways of one of her strands of ancestry, I knew this moment was shallow. Without the rituals, without the family roles we play, the food was merely food. It carried flavor but not meaning. No one who loves my daughter made or served this food. I only paid for it.

As I consumed my thali, a variety plate of various sauces with rice, I hoped to be carried away with a Ratatouille moment. In that 2007 Disney/Pixar film, the food critic, Ego, tastes the ratatouille composed by Remy the rat, who has somehow taught himself the culinary arts. Ego’s imagination is immediately transported to his childhood in a rural French village, when his mother would make it for him. A mere taste in a Parisian bistro transcends the food itself and sparks a full sensory experience. I’ve visited dozens of South Indian restaurants around the world. And I can’t say that I have had a Ratatouille moment in any of them. 

I had one, however, at my wedding reception in 2003. My aunt Geetha flew in a few days early to train the staff of the Buffalo Marriott Hotel to prepare sambar, rasam, and other basics. Even at a scale to feed several hundred people (mostly friends untutored in South Indian cuisine) and prepared in an institutional kitchen by rookies, these traditional dishes tripped rich memories and deep emotions. But that was probably because of the love and pride that my aunt so obviously put into the work, and because the reception itself was filled with as many of my grandmother’s children as had been assembled in at least a decade. When I saw twenty women in colorful silk saris dancing to the O’Jays’s “Love Train,” I knew that the moment had not brought me back anywhere, however. It was about here and now. The event was a culmination and celebration of my family’s grand journey. We took the recipes with us from a small temple city in the center of Tamil Nadu. But only rarely would the food out of context have the power to bring us all to such a transcendent moment. 

South Indian food does not get the play in North America that the better established North Indian foods get. When South Indian restaurants proliferated in New York City in the 1970s—following the 1965 immigration reform act that opened the door to new Americans from all over the world—many in lower Manhattan were founded by Bengalis from the northeast corner of India and from Bangladesh. Soon after, other north Indians established restaurants in many American cities. The American palate for Indian food soon became anchored by things called “butter chicken” and “lamb vindaloo,” concoctions one would never find in South India back in the 1970s. In the past decade or so, South Indian food has become quite the rage in North India. In Delhi and Mumbai one can find dozens of places that boast of serving “Idli/Dosa.” It has become much easier to find in London and Toronto. And in New York I know of about a half-dozen “kosher” or “vegetarian” Indian places that serve passable sambar with their idli. Every weekday the dosa cart that sets up on the south side of Washington Square Park sells out by about 2 p.m.

South Indian food is mostly rice-based. But it also features dosa and idli, rice-and-dal cakes and crepes that have become the most popular food exports from South India. The staples include vegetarian stews like sambar, a thick tamarind broth infused with dal, vegetables such as okra, and a strong blend of spices that are not often found outside South India and its diaspora (Singapore, for instance). Rasam is a thinner tamarind-and-tomato soup made with mustard seed, turmeric, coriander, and a different combination of spices. 

Both “sambar powder” and “rasam powder” are available in American stores that specialize in South Asian groceries and supplies. But the special ingredient in both, my aunts will all tell you quite firmly, is a spice called “asafoetida.” This is a mysterious product. To my knowledge it’s not used in cuisine beyond South Asia and Afghanistan. If you taste asafoetida powder with your finger, you would not believe that it makes anything taste better. It has a flat, almost bitter taste. But it does wonders to strongly spiced dishes, making all the minor flavors come out. I think. It might just be a placebo whose effect is reinforced by my aunts’ firm belief in its powers. But it is used in so many dishes throughout India, and a billion fans can’t be wrong. Asafoetida smells horrible, by the way. It has been used in Jamaican and African-American traditional healing rituals to ward away spirits and treat various maladies. Again, we must consider the placebo effect. But that’s about half of culture, right? 

Other South Indian foods include chutneys, dips made from ground coconut or mint and then mixed with chilis and mustard seeds. And meals often end with a rich mixture of rice and homemade yogurt with a garnish of spicy pickled mango or lemon. There are many other foods and variations, of course. But most of my family meals through most of my childhood rested on these major themes: idli, dosa, or rice served with chutney, sambar, rasam, and yogurt—often in that order. The tastes and smells, when these things are made well, always remind me of my grandmother and the kitchen she ran in her big house in India. 

My grandmother was married at eleven. She had my father when she was eighteen. She gave birth ten more times. Nine of her eleven children lived to adulthood—a pretty good success rate in those days. She was not expected to learn English, even though she raised nine highly educated and fluent English speakers, each of whom eventually emigrated to the United States. As a Brahmin and the wife of a state-government official, she lived a life of relative privilege. By the time she died in 1977, she had fourteen of what would eventually be twenty-one grandchildren. Each of them would live in the United States as well. I was eleven when she passed away, after six years of various ailments, including tuberculosis, breast cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. In her last years she was in constant pain. But she always smiled for me, her first grandchild. 

Meals in that big house in Madras (now called Chennai) in the last years of her life were massive productions. At least two women, my aunts or my mother, would start the preparation by grinding dal using a large stone mortar. Some meals took several hours to prepare. Breakfast was usually dosa with chutney and yogurt. Lunch would be served about 1 p.m. Dinner would be about 8 p.m. 

The men and boys would eat first. In her last years, when her health prevented her from running the kitchen, my grandmother would join the men and boys. We would sit in a row, usually in order of seniority, so that my grandfather would be served first. We each sat cross-legged on a lacquered wooden plank that raised us about two inches off the floor. For regular meals we used large stainless-steel plates divided into sections to hold each dish apart from the others but allow for easy mixing. For special religious functions we would use rinsed banana leaves as plates. We drank water from stainless-steel tumblers, the type that Saravana Bhavan uses now—its one concession to tradition. 

My aunts would come out of the kitchen carrying the vessels that contained each dish. They would walk along the line of men and boys and put as much as we requested of each onto our plates. We would bark out “kunjam” for “just a little bit” or “porrum” for “enough.” If we wanted more we would just wiggle our heads in a sign common among South Indians. The head wiggle can mean “it’s okay,” or “sure, go ahead,” or “keep it coming.” It’s the closest thing Tamil has to “aloha.” Once all the courses made their way to even the youngest boy, my aunts and mother would come through and pick up our plates, then deposit them on the back patio to be washed at a tap. We had one of the best wells in the city. So we had unlimited clean water, unlike most. Only after the women cleared the plates and swept the floor of all the rice we pushed over the lips of our plates did the women gather to eat. They would pass the vessels among themselves. 

The ritual, like everything in our family, followed a strict hierarchy of gender and age—and gender always trumped age. Whether I was three or thirteen years old, I ate with the men and before my mother did.

The author and his mother in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, India, in 1969. My mother was an American Navy brat, raised Catholic in California, Hawaii, and Guam. She married my father when she was twenty-two. She finally made her first visit to India when she was twenty-six, I was three, and my sister was one. My mother endured a five-month boot camp in the codes, manners, and practices of a Brahmin daughter-in-law. And she came through it brilliantly, even after my father had returned to work in the United States after only a few weeks in India. But it was harsh. It was her duty as the wife of the eldest son. She was a military kid. And this was her mission.

So in 1969, the same year Kate Millett published Sexual Politics, my feminist American mother trained herself for six months to meet the rigid expectations of a radically different place and a new family she hardly knew. She worked under the tutelage of a kind and patient mother-in-law who spoke no English. And she did so spectacularly. But my mother never let her children accept those norms as given or superior to those we saw at work in the United States. My mother understood that she would be the last woman in our family who would have to go through such indignities. And once we returned to the United States, she encouraged us to contrast the value systems at work in our binational family lives.

The rules that bound Brahmins at mealtime extended beyond gender roles in the home. We were not supposed to eat outside the home unless the meal was prepared and served by other Brahmins. Those of other castes (we were taught they were “lower” castes) were considered impure, and their hygienic practices were assumed to be substandard. So during my first three visits to India, when I was three, seven, and eight years old, we rarely ate in restaurants, or what Indians call “hotels.” When we did, it was in other cities, and we had to seek out the rare Brahmin-run establishment. There were exceptions to this when we were out of context. So, for instance, when we visited my uncle who was an officer in the Indian Navy on his ship in Mumbai harbor, we could eat roasted chicken and drink actual Coca-Cola that the ship had procured in Australia. But my grandparents could know nothing about that.

The success of Saravana Bhavan shows just how much has changed over the course of my lifetime, just short of fifty years. Not only is the system and decor of the restaurant closer to Wagamama in London or Boston than to a classic South Indian “hotel.” Its founder is not a Brahmin. His caste status, and that of his thousands of employees, hardly matters now. His establishments, even in Chennai, are filled with people from various castes who now occupy the growing Indian middle class. Brahmins seem to have no hesitation eating at any of the establishments across the world. The caste system still affects whom one socializes with and often limits whom one may marry. But in the domains of commerce and cuisine only a few still consider caste a barrier to interactions as intimate as cooking and serving food.

That’s the biggest change in daily life for South Indians in the diaspora and at home. Things that were once considered intimate enough to demand social segregation are now subject to the whims of global commerce and immediate gratification. The oral culture that trained so many women for so many centuries in the art of cooking a proper sambar has been boiled down to a collection of precise recipes rendered in English on searchable web pages. Practices that seemed permanent are now portable. While I could lament that loss, instead I have to celebrate it. 

I can’t cook any of this very well. I have winged it on occasion with poor results. My aunt Geetha taught me a few things when I lived in Austin, Texas, where she ran a thriving catering business for years. Most of these dishes are too work-intensive to justify cooking poorly. I’ve been spoiled by my grandmother and aunts. So I can’t tolerate my own mediocrity or anyone else’s.

That’s one reason I love Saravana Bhavan. It’s consistently good. But it’s a distilled cultural experience. While I’m thrilled that my daughter has learned to appreciate the tastes, I concede that she won’t and can’t feel what I did. She won’t and can’t know what I know. But she will never have to serve a line of boys and men and wait until they are burping, high on turmeric and carbohydrates. 

Without immersion in the broader culture, relatives her age in India, multiple childhood visits, and a grandmother who does not speak English, there is no chance that she will ever understand my childhood and how it made me who I am. 

My daughter has the whole world on her menu instead of just two countries. And more importantly, she will never be bound by the gendered roles, rituals, and expectations that trapped her great-grandmother, limited her great-aunts, and influenced to at least a palpable degree her aunts. 

The food, even when my aunts make it, even when it tastes exactly like my grandmother would want it to taste, can’t do anything but remind me how far my family has traveled, the compromises it has made, the corners it has cut, and the sensations that none of us will ever know again. That’s just fine. Tonight I took my wife and daughter out for some of the finest chicken tikka masala that central Virginia has to offer. We all joked around. We shared stories of our day. My daughter gave me a tender hug as I paid the bill. 

My daughter, my wife, and I have our own rituals, untethered from ancient bigotries. And when I beg and tease my daughter, trying to get her to try some roasted rabbit in a French restaurant on the Upper East Side or a kasha-and-spinach knish from Yonah Schimmel’s on Houston Street, I know that the same bond of food and love that brings my grandmother back to me so frequently works for her as well. She will never be Indian. But she is already so much more. 


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Rama Ramanadhan's picture
Rama Ramanadhan · 8 years ago

Dear Siva: I enjoyed reading the article. It brought back memories of your visit to our home in New Delhi with your mom, sister and of course grandmother. I will always remember her beautiful smile and gentle manner. I was blessed to meet such a fine lady and priveleged meet some members of herbeautiful family. God Bless you all.

Nirmal's picture
Nirmal · 5 years ago

Good read :)


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