Ink on my Apron: Of sambar and settling in
Sambar pairs beautifully with everything ranging from rice batter-based idlis and dosas to the hard-to-dislike upma and whole black peppercorn-flecked pongal.
Chopped fruit. This is a particular luxury I have come to associate exclusively with Chennai. For a week since my arrival now, I have woken up every morning to the smiling faces of Babu, the caretaker of the guesthouse where I have temporarily been put up, and his wife Veronica. Veronica’s limited skills in English are made up for in the cooking department and Babu seems to compensate for her silence with his cheery, eager-to-please disposition. He is, without doubt, the more outgoing of the two and I have come to enjoy his easy presence, hovering around the dining table as my mum and I eat - letting off steam at the end of a long day of unpacking at my new apartment and dealing with incompetent electricians and plumbers.
They are both feeders, often urging me to eat “at least some toast and papaya”, managing, in the process, to convert me into a breakfast person. I have now willingly traded my single-cup-of-coffee-before-noon habit for a hearty South Indian breakfast and find myself chuckling at how easily this transformation has come about. Veronica’s dosas are consistently golden brown and crisp with lacy edges and as for her sambar – it is a glorious ode to everything I missed and failed to find in every version sampled after my departure from Chennai a decade ago.
I have forgotten how good this stuff is. It isn’t just any sambar, it’s the luxuriously thick “first sambar” of the day, which isn’t to be mistaken for its subsequent lunch and dinner counterparts that are usually disappointing watered down, runny versions. Often, this lentil-based stew will feature the addition of vegetables such as carrots and drumsticks, but I’m partial to the unadulterated kind that clears up your sinuses in the morning.
The first batch, I have come to observe, is the best and pairs beautifully with everything ranging from rice batter-based idlis and dosas to the hard-to-dislike upma and whole black peppercorn-flecked pongal, which I liken to the Marmite of Tamil Nadu. Breakfast sambar in Tamil Nadu makes no bones about being indulgent and done right is a testimony to how Indians don’t just do “spice for spice sake”. This is the stuff I’d like to make some of my closest English friends sample when they wax eloquent about a tikka masala or “korma-pilau”, meals that I’ve felt are best reserved to microwaveable Tesco containers.
So while settling in for me has been rather comfortable so far, I’m aware that I would be naïve in thinking that this is the same India that presents itself to everyone. It’s a country of constant contradictions and juxtapositions where “bucket baths” prevail as comfortably as rain showers and rickety ceiling fans make the sultry nights just as bearable for a certain demographic as central air conditioning does for a privileged percentage. It’s also the India where I hit up no-frills Buhari - a surviving culinary relic in Chennai that has been serving old faithfuls from the time it opened doors in 1951 – with the same gusto with which I take a culinary journey across southern Indian states set against the plush backdrop of Southern Spice at the swanky five-star Taj Coromandel.
Ultimately, this city wins people over every time with its large dose of “realness”. Post-morning run, you could find yourself breaking bread with the most unassuming man at Murugan Idli Shop, who turns out to be one of India’s richest industrialists. The same man is likely to have a deep-seated reverence for traditions and will probably remove his footwear before stepping into a house without being prompted.
You will be extended genuine invitations to people’s homes for a meal, where the menu will be unpretentious and offer you a taste of honest-to-goodness everyday living complete with the customary ladleful of curd rice to help take the edge off and digest your meal. And this, quite frankly, is what I have a hard time articulating when people ask with bewilderment why I chose to give up the creature comforts of Dubai for a stint of slightly rough-around-the-edges life in India.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and a food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.