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This biryani is different!

Rasheeda Bhagat

The remarkable feature about Tamil Muslim cuisine is the total absence of hot and pungent spices that permeate most other Indian non-vegetarian food. After all, how many times have you had mutton biryani that looks almost white?

A good chef can make any dining experience a delight; and if the chef is adventurous enough to explore new cuisines and rediscover past ones, he can give culinary rasikas a truly memorable experience. Chef Praveen Anand at Chennai's Welcomegroup hotels — Chola and Park Sheraton — belongs to this clan and is always interested in researching the kind of food we once ate.

Last month, patrons of Dakshin, the South Indian restaurant at the Park Sheraton, were treated to an unusual fare... mouth watering recipes from the Tamil Muslim cuisine. What was remarkable about it was the total absence of hot and pungent spices that tend to permeate most Indian non-vegetarian food. After all, how many times have you had mutton biryani that looks almost white?

And, yet, it was so delicious that you could down a sizable portion without any remorse. When you murmur that this biryani is very different from the masala-rich, saffron-coloured Hyderabadi Biryani, Chef Anand explains that the mutton biryani prepared by Tamil Muslims has some Sri Lankan influence. "The spice they use is called rampe or pandan leaves (a kind of long pine leaf). This leaf gives out a distinct beautiful flavour only when cooked."

A `delicious' idea

The idea for such a food festival struck him when a friend took him to a Muslim family's home for dinner. "The food served was rather simple and there were hardly a few items — coconut cholam, chicken curry and some raita; but during dinner they were talking a lot about their cuisine."

This sparked the chef's interest and he called all his trainees from Tamil Muslim families — the Maraikars, Labbais and Rowtars; at any given time the hotels have 50-60 trainees from various catering colleges. "I asked for a list of boys and girls, and ticked on the Muslim names from Tamil Nadu — only those who spoke Tamil, and not Urdu — and asked them to give me a list of the food they eat at home."

The chosen six — five boys and one girl — gave him the list but he was hardly pleased with it. "They didn't really understand what I wanted, so I sent them back, saying `talk to your mother and give me another list'." Another list came and the girl student even came to his kitchen and made some traditional dishes. "They make rice dumplings and cook them with mutton, something that is very different." Next, he got on to the art of making paya (trotters), and going by the tender and delicious paya put on the table at Dakshin, he certainly got this one right!

As the research progressed, so did Chef Anand's ambition to get the whole thing totally right. He requested students visiting home to carry back some food for him in tiffin carriers. "I couldn't travel to the interiors of Tamil Nadu; this way, I managed to get food from Salem, Vellore, etc," he says.

Next, he invited women relatives of the trainees to demonstrate some recipes. This was easier said than done; "most of them were reluctant to cook in a five-star hotel, as the chefs are all men." But some aunts did turn up and he also got a few cooks who dish out fare at Tamil Muslim weddings, to unravel a few secrets. He learnt that this cuisine uses a lot of Masi or dry fish, which is powdered and used with many different items. "They also use ada urugai, which is nothing but whole lime pickled in salt but with no chillies; this is mashed and mixed with the Masi powder. The combination gives a sour taste and a distinctly different flavour."

If it is Muslim cuisine, the biryani has to be the crowning glory and Tamil Muslims have not one but two types of biryani; the other being idiyappam (string hoppers) biryani. "Normally they make the idiyappam biryani with mutton, but the only deviation I made was to use chicken," he says.

Well, the meat he used was so tender that it just melted in the mouth. As one wondered at the tenderness of the meats — mutton, chicken or prawn, Chef Anand said, "It's the way in which you cook the meat; the slower you cook it, the better it turns out to be."

Sometimes he figured out a dish simply by tasting it. "That was quite easy as their recipes are simple and they basically use five to six spices. After all, we are in this business and if a few of us taste a dish, and give our inputs — that such a spice will give such a favour, or colour — the rest is simple. You have to see the colour of the item, taste the flavour and feel the texture, and you know exactly how to go about cooking it."

That he and his team got it right could be seen from the packed tables at Dakshin, where 26 dishes were on offer. But while the non-vegetarian part of the cuisine was easy, it was in dishing out vegetarian fare that he had a tough time. By definition, Tamil Muslim cuisine has little to offer vegetarians and he could barely put together four or five dishes. But lack of vegetarian dishes was not the only headache the chef had; "even in their vegetarian dishes they use Masi quite liberally, so I had to give an option with Masi and without Masi!"

Long after the meal was over, apart from the two biryanis, one could still savour the taste of the prawns, which were succulent and soft. When quizzed on the secret, he said, "Oh, that was the most easy part; for thickening I used cashew, coconut and poppy seeds; the rest was the usual tomato and chilli powder, and very little spices."

The eating out trend

On the increasing tendency among Indians to eat out, Chef Anand, who has completed 20 years in this business, says these days it is the kids who induce parents to eat out more often. And which parent doesn't know that it is the kids who decide whether it will be noodles, pasta/pizza or Mughlai for dinner?

The chef raises an interesting point when he says that youngsters, particularly during their teens and early 20s, are more addicted to pizzas and burgers. "But as they grow older, they return to the food they grew up on during childhood. What they ate in Class VII or VIII is once again fancied after they cross 25 or 30. The kind of people who'll come to a restaurant like Dakshin are not the very young but the 30-plus."

On more and more international eateries doing brisk business in Indian cities, he says that this is true of the whole of Asia. "Today, people are more willing than ever to experiment with food; if they like it, they come back," he says.

But the more interesting aspect is that as the economy gathers steam and India Inc gets its act together, many business houses feel that their executives should get cuisine-literate. "That's why many business houses are training employees on how to eat, how to order food, and we conduct such courses where we train them even to use the fork and knife rightly. Also, when you entertain business clients, you should know how to behave at the table, what wine goes with what kind of food, etc."

He adds that tastes are different the world over, especially when it comes to something quintessentially Italian such as pasta.

"Now, al dente is not fully cooked, but most Indians like their pasta overly cooked and soft, so you can have a problem with people who do not know about al dente (a fancy term for pasta that's fully cooked, but not overly soft; in Italian it means `to the tooth' or testing the pasta's consistency with your teeth). They will complain that you're serving them raw food. But if you have the knowledge and want it fully cooked, you can say so while placing the order; we understand that perfectly!"

But at the end of the day he is delighted that "at long last people are getting more knowledgeable about food."

Picture by Bijoy Ghosh

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