Woman. The eternal giver. Woman, a devi. Annapoorni, the one who gives you food in abundance and delights in giving. Annapoorni, India's Amalthea, with her horn of plenty. For the Tamil speaking Indians in particular, she is the everyman's annapoorni, tireless source of all the delicious dishes that figures in the oral and written compendium of Tamil cuisine handed down by great-great-grandmothers who presided over large, sooty kitchens.
Our own everyman's annapoorni will do her grandmothers proud by showing us how well she can feed the menfolk in her household, will show how well she can feed the senior women and the children of the family. Yes, she is either a super cook or well…nothing else. If, by chance, due to some fatal flaw in character, she does not know cooking (hard to imagine a condition like that), or if she bravely tries but her dishes turn out to be disastrous, then her man wipes her off from the face of this universe. She instantly ceases to exist as a woman, much less a wife, and if she decides to live on nevertheless, she lives as an embarrassment to her family, indeed a blot on society.
So the meals are the top priority in her life. For each meal should have variety, infinite variety. And each item of each meal should be excellent and faultless. Items served during the day are not to be repeated in the evening meal. The more complicated and painstaking a dish, the more credits for the woman who cooks them. If a woman qualifies, in the final analysis, then she earns the approval of her man and the entire family, no matter how illiterate or dowdy she is, no matter how fat and dull-headed, no matter how silly and gossipy, or no matter how educated and gifted, no matter how smart and elegant—she can now be her own self. Once she has proved to herself and her family that she is Super Cook, she will be forgiven for being illiterate and gossipy, or equally, she will be forgiven for being bright and professional. She first has to fulfil the requirements of the Great Tamil Cuisine and the serving etiquette that follows.
In Tamil it means the supreme etiquette of serving the food that has been cooked as if it is fit tor the gods.
PANIVUDAN PARIMARAL. In Tamil it means the supreme etiquette of serving the food that has been cooked as if it is fit for the gods. Usually, it is a three or four course meal on ordinary days when no god is born, or no rain gods invoked, or no special season of harvest. On those special days, festival days, it may be a five or six course meal, complete with a sweet dish. There are rules to be followed regarding what item is served when, what comes before or after what. There is an unstated code of conduct about how to place the banana leaf on which the food items are served. Why a banana leaf? Because it is auspicious and at any rate, more pure than a used dinner plate. The banana leaf is cut and only the pieces with the edge of the leaf are used (the rest are relegated to other uses, for children, servants, women folk, and so on). The leaf is always carefully placed so that the uncut edge of the leaf is to your left. There are strict rules about which item is placed where on the banana leaf for each has its proper place, the curry, the dal, the vegetables, the rice, the lentil...Shame on the woman who doesn't know even that!
Once the meal starts, items that have been introduced as starters already on the banana leaf are served once more, but one by one, the woman bending down to serve the persons usually sitting on the floor. After each item is served, the morkuzhambhu, sambar, rasam, pacchadi, koottu, avial, delicacies cooked in coconut milk and garnished with freshly ground spices, quick sprinkle of juice of tamarind, and unfailing pot of yoghurt, the woman retreats into an unobtrusive corner, usually the door of the kitchen or against a remote wall, and patiently waits while she keeps a vigilant eye on the persons eating from the banana leaves, slurping, grunting with pleasure, crumbling papadam. She is standing all the while, never sitting, because she has to hover over the people with motherly concern (never mind that she has just turned twenty five), enquiring (read pestering) if they want a second helping of something, or if they won't have a little more, oh just a little more of something, and why ever not, was that particular dish so bad (this said with endearing modesty and coyness) and she jumps joyously at any odd request for an extra serve of curry or papadam. Usually the 'request' is issued more like a peremptory, curt command without as much as lifting the head:
"Water! I say, will somebody give me water!"
That will galvanize the woman into action again, sending her sprinting about to get the things for the irate eater. She makes several rounds of serving all items that were called for, together with the ones that were not mentioned till they are through with the meal. It may take roughly one hour. As they finally get up with some difficulty, making loud gratified noises of satiation, often belching aloud (a sure sign of masculinity, if not manliness), she murmurs her protest: "But you haven't eaten well at all. What's the matter? Was the food bad? Why, you haven't eaten anything to speak of..."
They wash their hands and amble over to the room in the front where they await the customary betel leaves and scented supari. The woman enters the front room, this time with a tray of betel leaves and supari and passes it around. Sporadic conversation floats about the room languorously.
"Feel like stretching myself. I really ate a heavy meal!'
"You should eat the avial made by my mother. You'll eat so much that you'll not be able to get up from the floor!'
"Absolutely! She has a trick of cooking vegetables till tender, and then adds the coconut milk and spice at the very end so that the final taste is fresh…ah!"
"In our house, we brown the coconut gratings a little over clarified butter and then add it to roasted potatoes!'
"I can just smell those potatoes. In my friend's place, rasam is something that goes down your throat like a warm, balmy golden fluid. You feel you're having the very rasa of life!'
The betel leaves and supari makes its rounds, winding in and out of the food talk.
"Come on, have some morel' the host (the woman's husband) presses the betel leaves on his family and guests. He is a clerk with the government, a man of meagre means with little or no pretensions to education, but never mind. He can feel seven feet tall once he enters the dining area of his house, because he will be treated and served like a prince. He insists on seven varieties of pickles for the seven days of the week and he gets it. Amla, lemon, mango, ginger, stuffed chilies, raw green pepper, tomato.. .All day long, all through the year, his wife has been pickling them between her household chores, slicing, cutting, adding salt, spices and hot oil, mixing, turning, stuffing them in jars, tying a clean piece of thin muslin over the mouths of the jars to let the sunlight and air through. She wards off straying flies and sparrows, pulls the jars lovingly towards the receding sunlight all day long, following the slanting shafts of warm light as she sits beside the jars, knitting, reading a romantic serial in Woman's Own or just dozing. Sunlight pours on her, pickling her along with the lemon and the mangoes and the ginger, till she turns into a puckered up, wizened pickle of a woman, all seasoned. Ready.
She is indeed the woman "whose hand is fragrant" (in Tamil, kai manakkiradu), the ultimate compliment for a Tamil woman, for whatever she cooks turns out to be excellent, with the magic of her culinary skills. Actually, it is not just her hand that is fragrant, she now has a permanent odour of besan, hot oil, roasted mustard seeds, fermented rice together with yoghurt and chopped coriander clinging to her hair, her skin and the folds of her sari so that when she walks past, a man is overcome by a whiff of such godly kitchen smells that he is almost sexually aroused in seeing the woman. Why she smells good enough to eat!
And what does the woman do after everyone has eaten? She sits down to eat the odds and bits of left-overs, serves herself the now cold food. She eats up the confusing bits of residue with a beatific smile although nobody really inquires if she has enough of what she likes, or if the food is fresh. For she has indeed lived her role. Blessed is the home and hearth that has an Annapoorni like her.
After meal-time, she returns to the kitchen and plans breakfast for the following day. That again is a mini-meal, calling for variety. What variety could there be about cereals or corn flakes and bread? Wait a minute, did you actually say bread? B-R-E-A-D? Horrors! Didn't you know that bread is canine food in this part of the world, that it is strictly for the dogs? Oh no, breakfast is a round of idli, dosa, puri, upma, pongal, puttu and sevai. All of them require careful cooking and garnishing and serving with the right kind of warmth. The woman's reputation rises with the idlis and puris, never mind that she gets flattened out as a dosa, making reputable breakfasts. But the end result is aromatic and gratifying for one and all, for our Annapoorni, remember, has a fragrant hand.
Fasting for the family
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, the woman fasts for the long life of her husband and children, fasting all through the day, and breaking her fast with a light meal in the evening. But this does not exempt her from cooking a good breakfast and two fabulous meals, ignoring the pangs of hunger from her stomach. For a married woman, it is auspicious to go on a fast. It is even more auspicious to complete the fast and then break it with a celebratory meal that has a festive touch about it. The family ravenously wolfs down the special evening meal she serves, and the hungry Devi is again the last one to eat. Well, let's hope she has at least something left of the feast she prepared to mark her fasting.
For the Hindu godheads, such as Ganesh, Krishna, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Durga, Shiva, Narayan and Hanuman, festivals are invariably skirted around certain special food items, particularly special snack items both sweet and salty. Often it involves sacrosanct numbers, like five varieties of sweet and salt, or three to complete the ritual and this is seldom violated. A large quantity of the snacks are prepared and generously given that day to the children of the household and to any visiting child. No child, or adult for that matter, least of all the easily offended servant, shall go empty-handed on the day of a festival. Everybody gets more than his share of the snacks to eat. More because he may wait uncertainly to be given more, for it is indeed very delicious. Particularly because the lady has prepared the snacks on an empty stomach, maintaining a devout fast. It is believed that the items get a divine aroma and superior taste only when the woman fasts and cooks them with bhakti, a spirit of utter devotion.
She ends the day of the festival, like she ends any other day, a truly fulfilled woman, cleans up the kitchen and the dining area and retires to bed with food thoughts buzzing in her head. There are meals to be planned for the tomorrows and the days after in the vast kitchens of her mind where spectres of great-great-grand mothers blowing over a recalcitrant log fire, smoke stinging their eyes, are bent over in the sacred art of cooking. Blessed is the home and the hearth that has a living, dedicated everyday Annapoorni.