Why Onions Cry documents Iyengar cuisine with unfussy recipes adapted to the modern world.

Iyengars (Tamil Vaishnavites) have evolved a sumptuous spread all their own. So far, however, foodies have rarely been exposed to the subtleties of this cuisine, what with the spotlight firmly on its flashier counterparts like the tangy Chettinad cuisine. There are a few exceptions, including some Iyengar food bloggers and rare books such as the Traditional Iyengar Recipes of South India by Kamala Narasiwodeyar, where she describes the cuisine as ‘food for the soul', appealing both to the mind and taste buds.

A sleek recipe book on Iyengar cuisine, Why Onions Cry: Peek into an Iyengar Kitchen by Chennai-based Vijee Krishnan and co-authored by Nandini Sivakumar, hopes to tantalise foodies with the specialised dishes that characterise it.

The book, which will hit the stores soon, has been adjudged the best vegetarian cookbook from India for 2011 by the prestigious World Gourmand Cookbook Awards. It is also among the final six contenders for Gourmand's The Best Vegetarian Cookbook in the World title, and the duo has been invited to the Paris Cookbook Fair 2012, when the winner will be announced.

Culture and cuisine

With 60 recipes and their variations, the book is really not exhaustive, but comes armed with lovely photographs and uncomplicated recipes that enthuse confidence in trying them out. “I wanted to create a recipe book that would enable the making of a dish which would have the original, authentic taste, regardless of who attempts to make it, even if it were a young man living abroad,” says Vijee. A plus point is the suggestions for variations, such as transforming the traditional Araitha kalaral into stuffing for a bread roll.

The book touches on the cultural moorings of the cuisine, giving readers, for instance, insights into the intellectual premise behind a festival spread. Readers will also get to know that Iyengar cuisine comes with built-in fasts (on every ekadashi, or the eleventh day of the new moon or full moon), and delectable dishes to keep the body healthy and focused on spirituality. Incidentally, many Iyengar dishes end with the suffix amudhu (meaning life-giving nectar) such as Saathamudhu (rasam), Kariamudhu (curry), Thirukkannamudhu (kheer), because the dishes were designed to be life-giving, rather than just stomach-filling or tasty.

Cooking up a book

The idea for the book came about when Vijee's domestic help passed on her recipe to a stranger, who later called up to say how tasty it had turned out and that she ought to write a recipe book. So Vijee, an Iyengar herself, jotted down recipes she regularly uses, and went round consulting elderly Iyengar women who know traditional recipes to perfection. To write the book, Vijee got together with journalist Nandini Sivakumar, who was on a sabbatical from work, and incidentally also authors a food blog. “We also emailed the recipes to non-Tamil friends unfamiliar with Iyengar cuisine to see if they got the dishes right with the specified proportions and instructions”, says Vijee.

So if you have relished Triplicane Parthararathy Kovil's delicious, ghee-dripping sakkarai pongal (made predominantly with jaggery), and wanted to make it at home, or try some subtle and healthy vegetarian recipes, now you can.

(This article was published on March 22, 2012)
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