Saturday, January 1, 2011

Kutcheris and kuzhipaniyarams

On New Year’s Eve, while my brethren were all set to blow their brains out on the dance floor, I found myself at the Narada Gana Sabha. Weird, I thought. But, those who know me wouldn't be surprised at all. Weird, to me, is what normal is to the rest of the junta i.e. a way of life. And by now, I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm a certified weirdo. And, contrary to popular belief, we (the weirdoes) have our crosses to bear. Normal doesn't apply to me, oh no! For instance, if I were to meet an alien in the middle of Mount Road, I'd just say hello and after a few pleasant exchanges, move on. That would just be another day of my life because stranger things have happened to me. But, I digress.

While many would think that the Margazhi season would have drawn me to this sabha, well, it’s time to put those rumours to rest. I haven't been to many kutcheris (though, I’m sure they are good) and I really can’t differentiate a raga from a tala, even if it were displayed with clear labels and audio demonstrations. I know as much about dance as a sculptor would know of rocket science. But what I did know was that there was the best of South Indian (or to be precise, tam bram) food in the offing. And being a practicing experimental foodie, I couldn't miss a trip to what promised to be an interesting experience. And, I wasn't disappointed.

Walking straight to the makeshift food court, I felt an emotion similar to what Alice would have experienced when she entered Wonderland for the very first time. I stood rooted to the spot, gazing wide eyed, as waiters clad in white rushed by with plates of fluffy idlis or bloated puris and the aroma of crispy dosas permeated through the air. Strains of recorded Carnatic music played softly in the background, adding melody to the mood. As far as the eye could see, there were clusters of steel tables with four chairs hastily thrown around it, all occupied with diners tucking into their favourites. On the opposite side, there were live counters for dosas and appams with other delicacies appetizingly showcased right down to a fantastic display of snacks and sweets while the packets of paruppu podi made their presence felt. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. So was my friend, who knew my fascination for experimenting with myriad cuisines, and agreed to be my gastronomic guide for the evening.

The veshti clad man, who was a manager of sorts, complete with beads and the ubiquitous namam on his forehead walked up to us and in his heavily accented English, informed that we could sit anywhere we liked. In such places, there are no written rules and we were foxed. We didn’t know if we had to pay at the counter (a predominant feature in every occasion of this sort) first or enjoy our dinner and then pay for the tab, like the common practice at any restaurant. It was a complex situation but the quasi-manager came to our rescue as he affably said, “Eat first, then pay.” After taking a tour of the goodies on display, we made a mental note of all that we wanted to try out.

As I had mentioned before, all the tables were occupied and a close scrutiny brought us to a table where two women and an old man were seated. I thought they were a family. But luckily, I was mistaken. It was obvious that the two women had eaten and were planning to leave. Standing in the corner with a vantage view of our quarry and dodging the assortment of waiters and servers of all hierarchy, shape and size, we patiently waited for the two chairs to turn vacant. And finally, to our immense relief, we were comfortably seated.

The waiter, this one wearing a maroon shirt and a really large patte covering the entire surface area of his forehead, came forward and in his near-decent English, politely took down our order. I also spotted a puny saamiyar in the trademark saffron robe, liberally slathered in sandalwood paste, sitting motionless upon a table for quite a while. I didn’t know if he was waiting for a vacant table or was a part of the d├ęcor (like the motionless sentry at the Buckingham Palace). But, before I could ponder over this, the steaming kuzhipaniyarams with brown chutney wafted into my vision followed in quick succession by the appam and it’s thrice remove cousin, idiyappam with accompaniments like paruppu usili and thengapal. At this moment, my friend had to make an important call and instruct her driver to pick up a rather important package. So, she walked towards the parking area leaving behind a drooling foodie surrounded by steaming manna with the old maama (a Tamil Brahmin male, for the uninitiated) for company.

Fingering my kuzhipaniyaram, I got into a conversation with the solitary maama who was enjoying his dessert of jalebis. A glance at me (complete with my electric blue nail colour) and I think he was certain that Carnatic music was an alien terrain for me. He patiently related about the concert he had attended that afternoon and took all the pains to explain who the great artist, Sudha Raghunathan was. His intense enthusiasm stopped me from admitting that I was well acquainted with the credentials of the famous Carnatic singer, though I had never been to any of her (gasp!) concerts. Flashing a toothy grin, he reminded me in his hoarse voice that my ‘item’ (the appams, he meant) was getting cold. Awwwwwwww! Cuteness! And, incredibly entertaining, none the less!

My friend returned as I was adding the ‘finishing touches’ (literally) to one of my kuzhipaniyarams which were beyond delicious, steaming hot, gorgeously golden and perfectly tempered. The spicy, brown chutney added fireworks to the already enticing experience. The appams were poetic, with their boat shaped magnificence, fluffy in the center and amazingly crisp as you proceed towards the edges. And, I fell in love with the thengapal which had a weird assortment of pulses and vegetables, from pieces of cucumber to a sprinkling of chickpea. At this moment, the friendly maama gathered his walking stick and bid adieu to us while we waved our goodbyes in return.

We ordered for bahala bath, fantasizing about an exotic and colourful delicacy. And, when a plate of curd rice was placed before us, it was an anticlimax. However, all was not lost. The pepper sauce which accompanied this integral aspect of any South Indian cuisine was fiery and it melded beautifully with the blandness of the curd rice. The silver lining, you may say. And, the next disappointment was when the afore mentioned waiter told us that the sweet poli were sold out. There was a hollow groan as my friend (a 'poli'te soul) heard this piece of devastating news. Obviously, it was a traumatic experience, as any poli lover would agree. The waiter smiled apologetically as he suggested poornakolukattai, a local version of steamed momos with a jaggery based filling, as a suitable replacement. The J word (Jaggery) was magical and motivation enough to restore our faith in the strange machinations of destiny.

What made the entire experience quite unique was the ambience of bonhomie created by perfect strangers for perfect strangers. Bonding over food, it was like a large family dining together or going over to your best friend’s home for dinner. It never mattered that we didn’t know the waiters (or the ancient maama, for instance) from Adam, but as we tucked into heavenly food, conversation flew seamlessly casting an aura of intimacy to what would otherwise be a rather normal instance. The bustling waiters were politeness on a pedestal and were smiling cheerfully, despite all the chaos. It was flattering as we were comfortable without any intrusion into our dining space. And, all that attention made us feel really, really special.

Sipping on the authentic filter kaapi, I mused aloud that it was an unusual albeit perfect way to welcome the New Year. And, my friend nodded her agreement, purring in collective contentment. It was a trip to foodie heaven. And, I loved every moment of it.