Dried kingfish and a glass of amla wine
The storied culinary traditions that led Madurai to cherish idli with eeral (liver) or porota with raktha poriyal (blood fry)
If your wife, father, mother, sister, brother-in-law are doctors, where might your interests lie?
If you were Athideerapandian P.—and not intimidated by these familial medical achievements—your interests would lie in distilling wines from mango, gooseberry and honey and explaining to outsiders, like me, the storied culinary traditions that led the south Indian temple town of Madurai to cherish idli with eeral (liver) or porota with raktha poriyal (blood fry).
So, on a warm afternoon in a quiet suburb of Tamil Nadu’s heaving temple town on the banks of the Vaigai, Athideerapandian, 38, or Pandian, as his friends call him, explains the provenance of the meal he has organized for me. The smiling, clean-shaven caterer-cum-guide motions to a clay pot with pearl-millet porridge, curd and a bowl of dried-fish poriyal.
Many Indians find the dried fish smelly but I am a Goan and have cherished dried fish since I had teeth—and am eager to partake. I have never eaten dried fish with porridge of any kind though, and I am delighted at the rough textures and strong tastes, which remind me of the sea, the earth and those who make their living from it.
“Farmers start the day with the porridge, pickles, onion and chillies," says Pandian, as he notes my approval with evident delight. “It’s filling, and cools down your body." From a repurposed little house, he sells the porridge with ennai kathrikai (eggplant) for ₹90 and with dried fish for ₹150. It sells well, I am told, via Swiggy and direct orders.
A former network engineer, who studied in Australia, Pandian is the proprietor of Ayyamma Samayal, which serves somewhat deconstructed traditional home-cooked food to locals and tourists. Pandian is a walking encyclopaedia of local culinary lore and fact. Everything he offers or invites you to eat comes leavened with history and health benefits.
As I take a swig of his home-cooked panagaram—a traditional temple concoction of palm sugar, lemon and tamarind water—Pandian says, “You have it every night and you will never have cramps." His repertoire of assertions is vast. He attributes the price of liver—double the cost of the goat meat that surrounds it—to the fact that broiler chicken liver is “full of toxins". He shakes his head and says that instead of more than 10 spices in their original form, a lot of Madurai’s famous biryanis now use a “biryani essence".
“If we continue making traditional food in the traditional way, it’s all good," he contends. “Most of our food, we associate it with medicinal properties, and that’s why we eat it." That’s a reference to the Tamil Hindu culture bequeathed to Pandian, a culture that cherishes a variety of sheep and goat spare parts, such as spleen, liver and intestines.
Pandian, you gather, is at heart a traditionalist, but he clearly revels in pushing boundaries. At Ayyamma Samayal, he urges his bunch of female cooks to experiment with their daily offerings, which include the idli and liver or idli and veeral meen kozhambu. That’s a curry made from murrel or snakehead fish, a local delicacy that you find flapping around alive in pans of shallow water at local markets.
I found his experiments with mango, amla (Indian gooseberry) and jaggery particularly intoxicating. Or perhaps something in the dried-fish poriyal was reacting with the wines.
Pandian’s experiments with wine began from his farm, where he grew organic amla. As he explains it: “I didn’t know what to do with amla, so…" Inspiration came from an aunt who used to make jackfruit wine in Virudhunagar, his hometown, 57km south of Madurai.
He has tried fermenting amla with white sugar, amla with honey and amla with jaggery. “People say the jaggery wine doesn’t taste like wine, but it certainly has alcohol," says Pandian. All his wines do.
At the end of the day, my head suddenly started swimming. It could be because he isn’t always sure of what he’s creating. He once mixed papaya with sugar-cane juice and yeast and allowed it to ferment. “Turned out quite well," he claims.
I turn my attention to the familiar—the dried fish. I lend a hand to Pandian’s cook as she makes the poriyal. She uses dried seer fish, which I am unfamiliar with, having grown up with dried Bombay Duck, dried mackerel, dried shark and dried prawns. The seer fish is dense and—to my coastal Goan tastes at least—appears to be somewhat overwhelming when sautéed. Try the recipe and let me know.
In the event, the poriyal is balanced by the pearl-millet porridge and the apéritif. After a few swigs of Pandian’s wine, there isn’t much I can discern anyway.
DRIED FISH PORIYAL
5 medium pieces dried seer fish (aka surmai or kingfish)
2 tbsp sesame oil (2 tsp if using non-stick wok)
K tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp jeera (cumin) powder
1 onion (or five-six shallots)
2 chillies, split
Heat oil in a wok. Break pieces of the dried fish as you fry with turmeric—for 2 minutes. Leave in the small pieces and remove the bigger pieces. In the same oil, fry the onion or shallots with 2 chillies until translucent, or for up to 4 minutes. Add jeera powder and sauté for 1 minute. Put the larger pieces of fish back in. Remember, dried fish is heavily salted, so you may not need any extra seasoning.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.