Speak south for me

For renowned Chef Rakesh Raghunathan, food is a tasty icebreaker that helps people connect and engage with each other, writes Shilpi Madan

Chef Rakesh Raghunathan

For Chef Rakesh Raghunathan, working towards reviving the traditional methods of cooking and delving deep into our cultural fabric to retrieve culinary gems is only part of his calling in life. Dipping into the centuries-old customs that surround the making of prasadams at both little-known and famous temples fall into RR’s ambit. As does his fascination for tamarind rice. A rich, flavourful amalgam transpires and emerges to woo us in his telly show Dakshin Diaries on Living Foodz.

Rooted in traditions

“Born and raised in South India, I always felt that the region has never been nurtured and represented, both in India as well as globally,” says Rakesh with a smile. “Like any other cuisine, there are intricacies aplenty involved in cooking South Indian meals. Often, regional cuisines have a lot of nuances behind the choice of ingredients as recipes were usually put together based upon the seasonal availability of vegetables or fruits, and their nutritional value. In the absence of a written recipe, it was passed down to us through the generations by our elders. Hence, South Indian cuisines are very special to me,” he shares as he has travelled across the region, pulling a leaf out of the local kitchens to enrich his own repertoire of recipes and treating us to wholesome preparations both on and off the television.

Prod him about his favourite ingredient and he responds instantly, “Sambar powder! It is a mixture of different spices, and each state in South India has its own version based on the locally available ingredients, spices, or even the communities staying in that region,” explains Rakesh passionately, his knowledge of the intrinsic understanding of the permutation and combination of southern spices in full glow.

“For instance, in Karnataka, it will be a little sweet in taste because of the abundance of sugarcane. In Tamil Nadu, roasted and grated coconut is added to the spicier mix. Andhra Pradesh brings in a thicker and an even spicier version. Sambar is versatile in nature, just like garam masala in North India,” he says, effectively busting the stereotypical thought that sambar is the same throughout the length and breadth of South India.

He continues, “If you look at rasam, there are 75-80 different variations. Every region has its own recipe or technique of making sambar, pickles, masalas... and that is what I find absolutely fascinating. For Dakshin Diaries, we shot in about nine places in Tamil Nadu, including Trichy, Madurai, Chennai, Kanchipuram. We also shot in Kerala and Karnataka. The entire journey of Dakshin Diaries has been very memorable for me but if I can call out one unforgettable experience then that it would be talking to the chakli-makers in Manapparai,” confesses Rakesh with humility.

Singing chef

During his extensive sojourns, Rakesh has worked with several stalwart hotels to revive traditional cooking methods and unique techniques. His forte is slow cooking. What is the most underrated dish according to him? “Curd rice or thayir sadam,” says Rakesh. “Again, each part of South India enjoys a different manner of preparation for curd rice. It is a simple ‘cure’ dish that suffices both as a meal as well as a staple on an upset stomach. People take freshly cooked rice, soak it in water and buttermilk overnight for fermentation, and then have it for breakfast or lunch the following day,” he says.

Rakesh is popularly known as the ‘singing chef’, drawing references from old literature down south language where there are references to, linking it to our history. 

Legends often power the inclusion of specific ingredients in certain recipes. With his wealth of culinary knowledge, Rakesh shares with us the ingenious making of three such preparations. “First, for making rasam, you must add asafoetida (hing); second, while making pongal, you must definitely add black pepper and cumin; and third, while making a sweet dish down south, the inclusion of jaggery is a must.”

The freshness and originality of the spice matrix make or break a preparation, universally.

What is that one gem of culinary wisdom regarding the masalas that Rakesh has culled effectively to reform his own cooking techniques? “Back then, our grandmothers used to sun all the masalas. This was very useful in keeping them fresh for a longer period of time. These days when people make masalas, they add all the spices and roast them together, but our grandmothers had a very different way of making them. They used to roast every ingredient individually because every spice required a different roasting time and temperature. After that, each spice was cooled down and ground into a fine powder. Also, there is a particular sequence of roasting spices, from the first ingredient included until the last inclusion. Even the oil should be mixed in a specific way such that the masalas taste better.”

What powers his passion? “I want to put the food from South India onto the culinary map of the world. There is a whole realm, beyond the idli, dosa... I want to bring forth the nuances behind creating South Indian cuisine and also encourage all those underrated cooks whose food and recipes were taken for granted. These underrated cooks dotting my country are my inspiration.”

RECIPE

Vatha kuzhambu with lotus root
Fresh lotus root Vatha Kuzhambu

Fresh lotus root Vatha Kuzhambu

Ingredients needed:
Tamarind – 1 tbsp tightly packed
Sambar powder – 1-2 tbsp 
Fresh lotus root– 1 med size (cut into rounds)
Curry leaves – 1 sprig
Salt as required
Sesame oil -4 tbsp 
Jaggery - 1/4 tsp
Coconut paste or milk- 2 tbsp (optional)
Mustard seeds- 1 tsp
Fenugreek seeds- 1/2 tsp
Red chilli – 3
Asafoetida/Hing- 1/4 tsp

Method:

Soak tamarind in 3 cups of warm water and extract the juice. Discard the fibre.
Heat oil in a wok, once hot and not smoking, splutter mustard, fenugreek seeds, asafoetida, dry red chillies and the fresh lotus root.
Add salt, curry leaves and the sambar powder and sauté.
Add the tamarind extract and allow to boil until gravy thickens.
Check for salt and to see if the raw taste of tamarind fades.
You will also notice the oil on all sides of the wok when cooked.
Add jaggery and mix well.
Switch off the stove and finish with the coconut paste/milk. Serve hot with rice.

 

 

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