French Gourmand Awards for South Indian Cuisine Marks a Shift in How the World Sees Indian Food

A few years ago, Nicholas Beaumont, CEO at Michelin Travel Partner, organised Gastrotrends, in Brussels, gathering a group of Michelin-starred chefs from across Europe to discuss the future of gastronomy. The event had four sessions - customer experience, digitisation, the clash of cultures and sustainability and included workshops for the chefs. All of these themes have taken on greater importance today than when they were discussed two years ago.

Nicholas Beaumont and his wife Françoise were in Chennai to kickstart the Michelin Tyre plant. They have picked up some of these sensibilities and concerns from the kitchen of Viji Varadarajan. Beaumont was not there to give Viji a Michelin Star, but as a part of his larger vision which he articulated at Gastrotrends which is “to go beyond the guide and the typical BookATable services”.

Viji is no stranger to the Michelin family. She has bagged several awards at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, of which Edouard Cointreau of Cointreau Wines is the Chairman. With over 24,000 food and wine books produced every year, Gourmand tries to select the best books for readers to choose from around the world and to celebrate those who ‘cook with words’.

Emi Ito and Tomoko Kitamura with Viji Varadarajan

Her book Samayal which elaborates on the pleasures of South Indian Vegetarian Cooking won the finalist in the ‘Best Vegetarian Cookbook’ category in 2008. 'Festival Samayal - An Offering to the Gods' won the finalist Award in the ‘Best Local Cookery Book’ for 2008.

Viji says ‘Tambram cuisine has an amazing range of vegetables cooked in a variety of methods - in the form of stir-fry, kuzhambus/ gravy vegetables or dhals, sambhars/vegetables with dhals, kootus/vegetables with coconut or and, with plain dhals. This can be a challenge for any novice.”

“The food cooked is sattvic paying special attention to the balance and nutritive value of the food cooked; the ladle of plain cooked dhal served before the rice and the topping of a dollop of homemade clarified butter/ghee; the balance of plain and spicy food, and the benefits of yoghurt as a final course to set right any imbalance in the food eaten for the day - were scrupulously maintained. Most days even now, onion and garlic are not used in cooking."

The celebrated Thayir Sadam or curd rice along with many pachdi recipes featured in the ‘A healthy Taste of Indian Culture – Cooking with Yoghurt’ won the finalist award in the category ‘Best Single Subject Cookbook’ for 2008 as well as the “Best Health and Nutrition Book in the World’ for 2008.

Says Viji, “I never thought something like thayir sadam or porcha kootu or idli and sambar would make it on the world stage. They have no idea how our mustard seeds or lentils look like. I wanted to show how sattvic we are there. I won nine awards for seven books. Among them was a book only on native vegetables, and also my Kindle Festival book won Runner up. The Native Vegetables book got a Special Jury Award. They had never seen so many vegetables which had so many benefits.”

At an event at the now defunct Dinner Labs in Louisana where an attempt was made to take out cooking from traditional venues, Viji did a session on “Tasting Pleasures in Tamil cuisine’ in 2015. “I created semia upma, sundal, badam halwa. I had a sous chef and we spoke about our daily life back in India. I told them we don’t touch meat or eggs. After the session one person who said he had come because of his wife, told me ‘I think I can live with vegetarianism all my life'.”

Viji Varadarajan with Eri Suganuma

Viji was asked why this kind of food is never projected in Indian restaurants abroad. She told them that a lot of South Indian cuisine is cooked only at home, for family and shared with others during festivals and other occasions. “We have to tell people this is also Indian cuisine, tasty and healthy. I taught the chefs to make ghee, kasandu with the remnants. These were things they had never conceptualised.”

In an interview with CSP, Viji thanks the legions of “anonymous homemakers who have maintained tradition and passed on the recipes to the next generation. To them cooking was a divine ritual. It started with piping hot coffee in the morning, followed by bath, to picking flowers and then cooking food and offering to God first.”

She say the strictness in all things related to cuisine, between the women of the family, led to cooking become disciplined and structured. “It paved the way for the special way we cook.”

Unlike some popular dishes of India, she says South Indian cuisine requires a fresh approach with the masalas being different for each vegetable allowing the flavour of the vegetable to come through.

The Gastrotrends event focussed a lot on the awareness of chefs of environmental issue, something that is close to Viji’s heart. Maxime de Rostolan, speaker of the day and coordinator of the Fermes d'avenir (Farms of the Future) project said it is up to chefs to “explain why you can't eat strawberries throughout the year or why it's best to use local and seasonal produce to get better flavours and reduce impact on the environment.”

Viji with Hiroshi Suzuki

Viji says Ayurveda which is a very important part of Indian cuisine has always emphasised the regional and seasonal. “During Sri Rama Navami, the celebration of Sri Rama’s birthday, we make neer mor, panakam, which is very apt for hot summer season. We also eat bitter gourd and drumsticks during certain times of the year. Tamil cuisine is against anything which is not seasonal and is not grown organically.”

She has been promoting growing vegetables in one’s own backyard. “You can only grow seasonal and local vegetables which will be native ones that are healthy for you. You can create your own compost. The pleasure of seeing your vegetables growing in front of your eyes is not replaceable. Lot of youngsters are competing in showcasing their cuisine but I am advocating that we grow our own vegetables too.”

She is not for modern fads including veganism. “In the West, people have health issues because of the hormones injected into cows. That has not crept into India. For us Krishna is bathed with curd, with milk, with ghee. Ayurveda recommends homemade ghee and making sweets from jaggery. We must also use the oils from India, especially nalla ennai (Sesame oil), kadalai ennai (groundnut oil), and coconut oil.”

Viji has been attracting many foreigners especially from Japan and France. Her French Cookbook co-authored with Sophie Girot won the second place in “The Best Translated Cookbook In the World” Second Place in 2010. This book has now been reprinted as “Saveurs subtiles du Sud de l’Inde” which was launched by Alliance Francais, India.

The Japanese have come in small teams. In 2007, one Japanese lady who saw her recipes wanted to learn to make kozhukattai or steamed dumplings, similar to the steamed dim sums and wantons.

Another girl who heads the largest culinary school in Tokyo came to learn a few dishes. “Some of these girls have gone back and started bistros where they offer Ayurvedic cuisine. It is not that they don’t eat non-veg but they offer our food too. Emi Ilto and Tomoko Kitamura had set up a samosa restaurant and are now doing another project. Eri Sugunama offers Ayurvedic Bento boxes. When they cook, they are worshipping Indian sciences.”

Recipes not to miss by Viji Varadarajan

Parangikkai Paal Kootu / Pumpkin Spicy Milk Curry:

I wonder how many Tanjore families prepare this if not frequently at least once in a while. It’s an absolute favourite in my in-laws home. Peel the skin, chop it into chunks adding a little water and into it goes a teaspoon of sambar powder, 1/4 tsp turmeric powder, a tablespoon of grated coconut, a little hing and very little salt. (Some families add a couple of slit green chillis. You may add if you wish).

Cook until soft but don’t make it mushy. Heat oil, season with mustard, urad dal, adding curry leaves in the end. To this add a half a cup of milk with a tsp of rice flour dissolved in it. Add a teaspoon or 2 of sugar a mix it up too. (Sugar levels depends on each person). Add this, and the cooked vegetable to the seasoning and stir them all gently without disturbing the shape of the soft vegetable. If too thick you may add a little water. The taste is unique and unbeatable. It’s a wonderful side for a main course. Now let’s get back some old fashioned authentic dishes to the fore shall we? There is always excitement when dishes like these are taught, learnt and made. The end result is total comfort food. There are variations of preparing this dish in each family. These are heirloom recipes and I am truly proud to be talking about them.

Keerai (Spinach) Sundal

Keerai Sundal is a great dish - highly relished in my home. Tear the keerai without chopping it. Molai keerai works best - it cooks well as the thandu / tender stem can be used too. Wash well in water and the wetness is enough to cook it well. The final product is without any water as it is a kari. Add a little oil in your pressure-pan add and spread the torn keerai. Add a tsp of sambar powder, a little salt, 1/4 tsp hing, 1/4 tsp turmeric powder, a little sugar and some grated coconut. Close lid and cook on medium high for a whistle. Switch off, gently open lid and mix them together. If it needs to cook a little more, stir on a medium low flame; close lid for 10 seconds and open. It’s done.

Season with mustard, urad dal and one torn dried red chilli. One of the tastiest recipes, you can mix it with plain steaming, (grainy rice), a little ghee and enjoy a yummy meal. This can also be prepared in a large deep pan. A well washed and cleaned spinach does not need any extra water. It cooks well when you add all ingredients and keep it on a medium low flame.