After decades of eating my way through India, I thought I had a reasonable handle on places and food—until I read the latest book by the Swedish-Indian writer known to the world as Zac O’Yeah.
I am not ashamed to confess I had never heard of mutton pallipalayam, or even the small Tamil Nadu town it gets its name from, before Zac’s 20th book, Digesting India: A Travel Writer’s Subcontinental Adventures With The Tummy, a droll but thoroughly researched journey through not just food and places but related literature and history.
O’Yeah, if you are not familiar with his sprawling oeuvre, has a penchant for poking around in grimy backstreets, obscure dive bars and places unfamiliar to large swathes of upwardly mobile India and bringing us stories of people and food that shiny travelogues and accomplished travel writers miss.
Whether quoting Bharathiyar, while describing the mussels he wolfed down in Thalassery, Kerala, or tracing the origins of one of its main streets—Gundert Road, named after the grandfather of German Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse—O’Yeah’s wanderings are liberally garnished with tales both epicurean and literary.
While the book takes you across India, the most endearing journeys, to my mind, were through Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where O’Yeah apparently conducted his basic research in dodgy kallu-shapps, or toddy bars, while battling gastrointestinal resistance and enduring journeys on psychedelically lit night buses.
So, we accompany him to the “squeaky clean” Model Toddy Parlour, located picturesquely by a river in a hamlet called Kaliyil, that offers fish curry, squid koonthal and mashed kappa (tapioca) as accompaniments, dished out by bare-chested, mundu-clad waiters; the main feature, “more like wholesome sweet-sour buttermilk than booze”, only mildly intoxicating.
“In another chamber, a huge clay pot is filled to the brim with frothy kallu,” writes O’Yeah. “I have been sampling toddy before, but this is certainly the best—if toddy was champagne, this would be Dom Perignon and I would, after a few bottles, be James Bond.”
It was during these peripatetic musings that I read the story of the dish on which this column is based. O’Yeah encounters mutton pallipalayam in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur, which—as he notes—writer Pankaj Mishra dismissed as being to underwear what firecrackers were to Sivakasi. A town known for its hosiery exports to the developed world is also home to a branch of Junior Kuppanna, a chain of restaurants that I had never heard of but which is familiar to the folk of Kongu Nadu, the semi-arid region that encompasses Salem, Tiruppur, Coimbatore and Erode.
Erode is the home of the mother restaurant of the Kuppanna chain. It is called, appropriately, Senior Kuppanna and it showcases Kongu Nadu food, which, like the region, is spare and scarce of water.
I was tempted to stick to mutton but I was living through a period of healthy eating, so I used chicken. The internet was littered with examples of chicken pallipalayam, many straying substantially from the original by adding—shudder—red chilli powder.
I stuck to O’Yeah’s listing of basic ingredients and made the chicken in gingelly oil, as sesame oil is locally known.
I hand-pounded ingredients. I emptied out dried red chillies of their seeds and deseeded green chillies, more than a self-respecting Kongu Nadian would, I suspect. The result still had enough fire and verve for my teenager to raise her eyebrows—but approve. It was redolent with flavour and, I am happy to say, browned to perfection.
But it required patience. When the chicken had cooked for 20 minutes, I was dismayed because it looked white and anaemic. Patience and regular turning over led to the rich version you see. What, I mused, might the original version be in Kongu Nadu? I have never felt the need to ever visit Tiruppur but O’Yeah has persuaded me that cheap export surplus banians and mutton pallipalayam might be reason enough.
750g chicken, small pieces, with bone
For the marination: 2 tsp ginger-garlic paste, quarter tsp turmeric powder, quarter tsp salt
Marinate the chicken with this paste and set aside for at least 30 minutes.
8-10 dried red chillies (remove seeds from chillies, depending on how spicy you want the chicken. I removed from six and retained two. Snap each chilli into at least three pieces)
12 shallots (small sambar onions), peeled
Quarter tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 tbsp finely sliced coconut, in small pieces
30 curry leaves
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
4 tsp sesame oil
Paste for cooking: In a mortar pestle, roughly pound 2 deseeded green chilies, 4-5 pieces of ginger and 7 cloves of garlic.
Salt to taste
In a large wok, heat the oil gently, splutter the mustard seeds, add red chillies and half the curry leaves. Sauté for a minute. Add the shallots and sauté till they begin to brown. Add chicken with marination, mix well, then add quarter tsp turmeric and green-chilli-ginger-garlic paste. Add coconut. Mix well, cover and cook for at least 20 minutes. If it starts to stick, drizzle a little water, otherwise it should cook in its own juices. Adjust salt.
Open and keep cooking on low to medium until the chicken starts browning. Drizzle in a little water if required. When the chicken is nicely browned, add the remaining curry leaves and coriander. Mix well and serve hot.
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. @samar11 on Twitter.