I have often referred to Kongu food in these pages and for many years now I have eaten these Kongu dishes pretty much every day but I have never consciously tried to find out what Kongu cuisine is all about. I set about trying to find out more and also employed the services of my dad in this quest. Here is the first installment of my analysis.
Where is Kongu Naadu?
The areas of Salem, Namakkal, Erode, Coimbatore, Karur districts in Western Tamil Nadu is what is referred to as the Kongu Naadu region. The people of this region speak Tamil with a very specific accent which is very respectful and it easily distinguishes people who belong to this region (for those who watch and are familiar with Tamil movies, actor Sathyaraj anyone). This is a region very well known for its hospitality and guaranteed no one leaves a Kongu home without a satisfying meal.
What exactly is Kongu Food
I don't know if there is something as specific as Kongu food but it is mostly about the foods that is common among the people of this region. The occupation of most Kongus was in one way or the other related to farming and dairy and hence fresh fruits and vegetables and milk readily available and most dishes incorporated them.
Any well balanced diet contains both Macro Nutrients which include Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins and Micro Nutrients which include Vitamins and Minerals. Almost all regional foods incorporate them into the diet by way of local ingredients available easily. Using local ingredients and supporting local farmers is hip now but it was a way of life not too long ago and it made perfect sense.
Cereals or grains
Best the other ingredients Kongu foods also included a lot of cereals. Foods made with cereals, (these are grains which are seeds of cereal plants) such as Ragi(Finger Millet), Cholam (maize) and Kambu(Pearl Millet) were common. These grains are rich in fibre and can be good alternatives to rice. My grandma talks of Kambu Saatham and Chola Saatham being common during her childhood. The love affair with rice and moving away from rotation crops which include most of the cereal grains have proved harmful to both the land and the humans. Besides overworking the lands and drawing on the ever scarce water resource has also added to the lack of diversity in the carbohydrates we consume.
Besides being suited to grow in semi arid regions, cereals are very close nutrition wise to rice and wheat and in most cases even better. These grains besides being gluten free also don't have the high glucose content of rice and are also richer in vitamins and minerals compared to rice. I am surprise at why they lost popularity as as a staple. They could be eaten cooked and also used in dosais and paniyarams. Due to their abundant protein and are a main source of energy and protein for vegetarians and dad says it is described as "poorman's meat". This might not be valid anymore as more and more it is the rich man after his ultra rich fatty glucosy diet has been advised by his doctor to switch to a more appropriate diet which includes more of these cereals.
I will attempt to recreate some dishes which are popular and common today and some that are not so common. I have probably touched on the most common ones already, I will attempt to find ones that are mostly forgotten.
I had bajra flour left over after my experiment with making bajra roti, the slight bitter taste of the bajra made the roti unpalatable and did not know how to make them correctly. In one of my pantry cleaning sprees I was getting ready to toss it into the trash but MIL stopped me suggesting we make dosai with the flour. And boy was I glad that she did. The dosai was absolutely delicious. It should only taste so much better with some whole Kambu.
For the batter
1. 1 Cup Kambu/Bajra (1 1/4 Cup Bajra flour)
2. 1/4 Cup rice
3. 1/8 Cup Urad Dal
Soak the above overnight
4. 1/2 Medium Red Onion
5. 1 tsp cumin seeds
6. Curry leaves
7. 3 Red Chillies
8. pinch asfotetida
Add the first 3 to the grinder/blender and when it is halfway blended add the rest of the ingredients and blend to a consistency of dosai batter, smooth but not too watery. If using the bajra flour add it right after 2 and 3 are blended.
1. Heat a dosai pan or griddle and when hot add ladle full of batter and spread it around as a circle. It should not be thick.
2. Add oil on the edges
3. When cooked, flip and cook on the other side.
Serve with chutney of choice, usually a mild one because the dosai is on the spicy side. Coconut chutney goes well. We had it with some sweet pepper chutney. Mildly sweet it went well with the dosai.