By Asha Anandkumar
When billions of dollars are poured into luxury travel and “exclusive destinations,” one can look at the nooks and corners of rural India to experience the country, a stripped-down version that is brimming with culture and intimacy that seems natural and not crafted. This authenticity can be vividly felt through the flavours and spices that are exclusive to a specific geography. South India, which at times has been blindsided by Indian tourism being marketed primarily towards the North, is home to a myriad of communities, cultures, and cuisines.
From the coastal villages in Mangalore to the paddy-filled ‘Oorus’ of Tamil Nadu, the signature dishes of each rural settlement capture the essence of daily life. The food, mainly made from locally produced sources and regional spices, is welcoming and even if you are miles away from home, it seems to remind you of a place of comfort. The crux of Indian hospitality is echoed through the principles of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’, the Guest is God. The villages and its residents take great pride in serving guests their local meals, simply because the plate they serve is a sum and substance of their roots, lifestyle, and hard work.
The South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana come with their differences, but the food primarily surrounds rice, stews, and lentils. Travelling through the metropolitan cities in these states, you can acutely witness two sides of a spectrum. You can see restaurants emerging that pay tribute to the rural cuisine while other places overcharge for dosa by calling it a rice and lentil crepe. Sometimes Idlis are referred to as steamed savoury cakes.
Travelling through the Ramaserry Village, in the town of Palakkad in Kerala, one can see the popularity of the Ramaserry idli, which a particular family claims ancestry for over 100 years. These flat idlis are made in traditional earthenware on a wooden fire, burnt with dried logs from tamarind trees. Many have tried replicating this recipe and they even travel through the rocky roads from the city to pack some idlis for an international flight. Another traditional dish from Kerala is the Chemmeen Pollichathu, in which prawns are cooked in a spicy coconut sauce and wrapped in a banana leaf. You can frequently see coconut, tapioca, jackfruit, and red rice being used in rural areas of Kerala as staple ingredients.
While visiting Kerala’s neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu, one can witness a rich cuisine where the combination of spices and vegetables, and meat has created unique combinations for every region. Ancient Sangam literature had divided Tamil Nadu’s landscape primarily into mountains, forests, agricultural lands, seashore, and drylands. Tamil literature describes a variety of cuisines that were integrated into each of the above landscapes. For instance, from then till today, Ragi Kazhi, which is essentially a thick porridge-like dish made from millet, is a regular breakfast option in agricultural settlements and forest areas. To boost flavour, chopped onions and chilies are added and can even be eaten along with fresh raw mangoes. The villages of Chettinadu are globally renowned for their food, especially their chicken, which is marinated with a tomato, hill, and cinnamon paste to produce a rich and spicy flavour. While certain villages in the state are known for their excessive use of chillies to enhance flavour, it is the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh which are predominantly known for their use of red chillies and spicy pickles.
If you are a visiting the villages of Andhra, you can impress your local Andhra host by finishing their meal without struggling for water. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have land that is highly suitable for chilli cultivation, and thus the chilli has been a prevalent ingredient in their daily diet. For vegetarians, the Gutti Vankaya Kura, which is spicy stuffed eggplant curry, is an item that cannot be missed. Anybody in the rural settlements who knows cooking will know this recipe. The Gongura Pachadi from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh is an intrinsic part of their cuisine. The pickle made from dried hibiscus leaves is one for the record.
Like the other Southern states, Karnataka also has unique recipes based on its coastal, inland, and agricultural regions. With spicy curries, a delectable array of snacks, a unique combination of spices and meat dishes, world-famous vegetarian cuisine from Udupi, coastal seafood dishes from Mangalore, one can go about the variety that Karnataka has to offer. Some of the special dishes from here are Neer Dosai, Patrode from Mangalore, Kachampuli Pork Curry from Coorg, Bisibela Bath, Mysore Masala Dosa. Not to finish off the meal with the world-famous Chikmagaluru Arabica filter coffee and the one and only Mysore Pak. These dishes from rural Karnataka today have become synonymous with the entire state’s dishes.
These are a mere handful of the many regional foods that can be found in rural south India. While we can go to these places and explore a different lifestyle, one must be mindful of certain things. While rural areas are home to flavourful food, we should also consider the food security and nutrition status in these areas. The dietary profile of a person can be affected by poverty, health status, and education. While certain areas are developing, there is a long way to go to ensure food security for every man, woman, and child in the country.
Awareness is needed to create a better living situation and tourism can be a great opportunity for understanding the struggles of daily rural life. With our country healing from a global pandemic, it has become imperative to look after each other and help when needed. Food unites cultures, religions and has the power to break barriers. Food can unite and rejuvenate and at times, even create a greater sense of purpose among us. Rural cuisines carry with them the stories and pains of the past, which should be preserved in order to understand our heritage better.