Green hot chilli peppers. Could be the name of an Indian rock band.
I just recently spent five days in Chennai, aka Madras, at the Indian east cost, where I was well taken care of by a hospitable South Indian family.
I watched their routines: waking up around seven to some South Indian coffee; then some oats with milk or curd. Ceiling fans in full gear. The French windows wide open. The sound of the bustling street invades the interior. The maids sweep the floors and wash dishes. The dining table is transformed into a working surface where Ms P and Mr R prep the meals of the day.
“We are rice eaters”, underlines Mr R while chopping the fresh vegetable yield of the day.
Indeed, rice is omnipresent in the South Indian cuisine. From the grain as we know it to rice-bran oil or flour. Puffed or transformed into tender noodles.
It is funny to think that just as Mr R will not consider a meal complete without rice, my father will almost always accompany meals with bread, in true south European fashion.
The activity around the dining table, laden with vegetables waiting to be finely chopped in perfect dices and then cooked in some oil and a blend of masalas, is fascinating.
It goes without saying that I am curious about both this and that. My hosts patiently explain and share their recipes…
“Heat up the oil, add mustard seeds and asafoetida, then when the mustard seeds pop, add the vegetables, some turmeric and salt”. “Do you add chilli?”, I ask. Silly question. “Yes, of course, chilly for the taste”.
From the North to the South, chilli is the common denominator of Indian cuisine. The degree of spiciness may vary, but spicy it will be.
South Indian lunch and dinner are quite ceremonial. A first serving of rice is eaten with sambar, a daal-based stew, and vegetable side-dishes. After the sambar, comes rasam, a soup-like sauce, made of tomatoes, green chillies, tamarind water, daal and different kinds of spices. A portion of curd-rice completes the meal.
Food is eaten with the hands, on metal plates. The table is full of containers with various delicacies, including an array of scrumptious pickles – raw mango, lemon, bitter gourd. Salty, spicy, slightly bitter, pungent – I love them all.
Being around this active family, I am thinking how, in a far away land, my parents will start their day very early in the morning to some cups of black coffee, cereals and a toast slice of home-made bread. My mother will go off to work and my father will do the grocery shopping and cooking, putting all his love and care into the process.