Takeaway

Three cheers for Tiruppur

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on March 02, 2020 Published on February 26, 2020

Arrival zone: Tiruppur is a part of the Kongunadu region in Tamil Nadu, alongside cities such as Erode, Salem, Pollachi and Coimbatore   -  IMAGES: ZAC O’YEAH

The search for Kongunadu food translates into several meals at just one eatery. But the menu has so many items that the same dish doesn’t reappear at the table

Jumping off the train at 7.23 am, I immediately experience the first pangs of doubt — Tiruppur’s tiny station makes me feel like I’ve travelled to the back of the beyond of the boondocks. But before the issue takes on an existentially defeatist overtone, I exit into College Road, and spot a branch of the iconic Junior Kuppanna. The spacious eatery is empty but clean; a jolly waiter invites me to have a seat and the kitchen is ready to feed me even if I am the only diner at that early hour. Dinner in the morning, anyone?

In a shell: Kongunadu’s geographical proximity to Kerala makes the coconut a key ingredient in its food

I am served a soulfully rustic mutton pallipalayam (₹210), named after a minuscule town near Erode from whence the recipe originated. It is a fairly unusual Indian non-veg semi-gravy dish that’s cooked without oil. Instead, the juice of the meat, seasoned with shallots, chillies, coconut, onions and garlic, is put to use. Further enhancing the experience, here in the region of Tamil Nadu known as Kongunadu, meat isn’t marinated but cooked as is — thus preserving the meatiness. I gobble up the pallipalayam along with a stack of Erode-style dosai (₹30 a plate) that are fluffy like appams from the top but crisp-fried underneath, and the famous egg preparation kalakki (₹20), a kind of poached omelette rolled up around a soft inner core.

All’s well that tastes well: Erode-style dosai(above); mutton pallipalayam; veechu parotta at Junior Kuppanna (below)

 

 

I’ve heard that the original Senior Kuppanna, founded 60 years ago in Erode, specialised in Kongu non-vegetarian favourites; it has since then spread its tasty tentacles to 30-plus branches in the area. But while foodies go gaga over Chettinadu’s hot stuff, Puducherry’s fusionist creole-cookery, or the rich biryanis of Dindigul and Ambur (it is said that Tamilians buy one million pots of biryani daily), comparatively few have experienced the rare ancient cuisine of Kongu. With a name that means ‘nectar’ in Tamil, or ‘honey’ or ‘fertility’, depending on whom you ask, Kongunadu includes, apart from Tiruppur and Erode, Salem, Karur, Pollachi, Coimbatore and 40 other towns with great grub.

Bordering Kerala (which accounts for the popularity of coconut as a cooking ingredient), this was core country during the Sangam age. Known as the Noyyal civilisation, after the river that today forms textile hub Tiruppur’s main drain, archaeologists have not only unearthed huge amounts of Roman coins along these old trade routes, but also traces of foodstuff that seem to suggest their culinary culture has stayed intact. Remains of rice, millets, and pulses have been unearthed by archaeologists. To this day, for example, millets are still baked into rotis in the region.

The area was always arid, so farming techniques of hoary yore featured mixed cultivation so as not to drain the ground of nutrients and water. Irrigation channels from back then are still in use. Milk is used in local cooking and dairy farming remains an important source of livelihood. The name Tiruppur itself is as old as the Mahabharata: When the Pandavas lost their cattle, the missing cows turned up here, hence the city’s name means “place where [the cows] were returned”.

The distinctive Kongu ingredients are natural to an arid climate: Sesame and sesame oil, which is locally known as gingelly and has been in use from approximately Harappan times; plenty of turmeric — Erode is known for having the best turmeric in the world — and the spice is typically grated fresh and then roasted and ground; and, as mentioned, coconut, which is preferred in the form of dry copra, again roasted and ground or chucked into the food as thin-cut chips. The many cereals in the diet — bajra, ragi and jowar — make for robust flavours. And the dishes tend not to be murderous, as Kongu chefs go easy not only on oil but the chillies too, a meaningful difference that sets it apart from the more famous and spicier Chettinadu food.

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Today, Tiruppur and its surrounding Kongunadu constitute one of the major garment manufacturing hubs of the world, so I browse the many factory outlets, export-reject godowns and cut-rate fashion emporiums where prices start from around ₹5, until I get hungry again. Then I go looking for Kongu Mess, a promising name that shows up on the GPS. When I get to the location, nobody’s heard of any Kongu Mess. Right then, an epic cyclone hits Tiruppur — which is odd, since the area is known to be extremely dry, its river reduced to a mere trickle of sluggish goo pumped out from the textile plants. The deluge brings everything to a standstill as 47 mm of rainfall within an hour turns streets into interconnected jacuzzis, uproots 200 trees and fells 100 electricity poles.

So, to cut a long story short, I end up at Junior Kuppanna again and study the many tempting options with great fascination: Naadu chicken gravy, leg piece fry, boneless chukka, brain fry, mutton kola urundal 5 pcs and kaadai roast (not a roasting wok, like a Hindi-speaking person might think, but quail). I wish I could order everything but eventually settle down to do justice to a bowl of Kongu mutton curry, or so-called kuzhambu (₹200), that has a lingering tinge of black pepper. I have it with veechu parotta (₹45 including gravy), which turns out to be a thin eggy see-through version of rumali roti folded to look like a postal letter.

The next day I’m determined to find more unusual food and discuss my mission with locals who give me strange looks, as if I’m David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase, asking: “You want north Indian?” No-no, I want Kongu. They seem not to understand the word “Kongu”, maybe thinking that I am asking for honey. “Go to A2B,” someone suggests, referring to the popular quick meals chain, which is the McDonald’s of Tam-Brahm fast-food. Could it be that they’re unaware of their culinary heritage? Or is it the usual explanation: Home food isn’t eaten out?

Indeed, there’s a lot of inventive cookery going on in Tiruppur and I’m tempted by signs offering chocolate chicken, which appears to be grilled chicken stuffed with chocolate, or dozza(dosa with pizza topping), or disco paratha (best inserted into a CD-player, I’d say). I eventually spot the promisingly named Tiruppur Mess, which should certainly be able to dish up local lunch. It’s a cavernous hall that would have seated my entire family tree, but there’s only a couple of aged plastic chairs and grubby tables in view. When I ask for the menu, the maître d’ who is dressed in underpants and a baniansays, “Fried rice”.

Anything else? He stares at me for a few seconds as if I’m being a troublesome customer, then says, “Fried noodles”. I clarify: This is Tiruppur Mess, so I’d prefer Tiruppur food. He shakes his head, “There’s no Tiruppur food.” I don’t feel like arguing since we’re not on the same wavelength anyway, never going to be Facebook buddies, and he’s barely wearing clothes. I like to wear clothes when I visit eateries and it would be a nice touch if staff wear them too.

Instead I hunt for what supposedly is the oldest and most reliable biryani joint, but the area I’d mapped it in turns out to be an endless stretch of fancy garment surplus outlets and nobody has heard of any biryani. It also starts to pour again, so the only thing I can think of is Junior Kuppanna — by the time I enter I’m starting to feel I might spend the rest of my life eating Junior’s superb cookery. I ask for pepper-fried brains (₹200) and, to top it off, I order the chicken biryani (₹120), which is al dente with muscular jungle fowl rather than softly spineless broiler, and for which small-grained seeraga samba rice is used; unlike northern biryanis it has a mild coconut flavour.

Even if my Kongu food adventure turns out to be all about Junior Kuppanna, I don’t mind having my three daily meals there — the menu has so many items that I don’t eat the same dish twice. As the saying goes, a perfect restaurant is a perfect restaurant is a perfect restaurant.

 

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on February 26, 2020
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