Saturday, 5 July 2014

Sitting in Delhi, Eating in Madurai and Talking Khushboo Idlis with Dakshin's Custodian, Praveen Anand

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

FEW INDIANS have worked as hard as Praveen Anand, Brand Custodian of ITC's Dakshin restaurants (six, and counting!) and Executive Chef, Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers, Chennai, to document our country's rich culinary heritage and gastronomical traditions.
I've avoided so far the temptation of carrying my
picture with the celebrities I interview, but on this
occasion, my admiration for Chef Praveen Anand
got the better of me. We had breakfast together
at Baywatch, Sheraton New Delhi, Saket.
In the last 25 years that he has spent giving birth to and mothering Dakshin restaurants across the country, Anand has collected an encyclopedia of recipes and cooking secrets of communities as different as the Shivali Brahmins of Udupi, the Rajus of Andhra Pradesh, the Chettiars and the Ravuthar Muslims of Tamil Nadu, and the Mappilas of Kerala. This intellectual diligence driven by a  hunger for greater knowledge has made Dakshin a constantly evolving brand, so there's always an excitement about it, as I have learnt through the many food festivals that the one at Sheraton New Delhi, Saket, keeps organising from time to time.
In my view, Dakshin is India's most vibrant restaurant brand, which is why whenever I get a chance to dip into Chef Anand's knowledge bank, I leave everything at hand to be able to do so. That is exactly what I did when I got a call from Chef Anand, saying he was in the city for an inspection of the local Dakshin and a recce of the competition, which, I was shocked to learn, included Swagath, which is without doubt the most faux 'Madrasi' restaurant in the city.
Over a breakfast consisting of the most heart-warming podi dosai I have had in a long time, Chef Anand revealed the most interesting fact of his life. Immediately after school, he had got admission into a 'Triple Maths' honours course (Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Operations Research), but it was his desire to grow up outside the comfort zone of his home that made him opt study hotel management at IHM-Chennai. He chose it over an aeronautical engineering course (also in Chennai) just because it got over in three years, compared with the five of the competing option! It may not have been the most rational career choice, but we should be thankful for such irrationality, for we wouldn't have had a Chef Anand had he opted for aeronautical engineering!
Our conversation started with the irony of the temple town of Madurai having a robust tradition of liquor shops opening at 6 a.m., which was celebrated event by the ancient Pathupattu epic poem, Mathuraikkanci (composed sometime between 100 BCE and 100 CE), and the hearty non-vegetarian dishes developed at the city's famous messes, shacks and homes of the local Chettiar families. "It's a town that never sleeps," Anand said, "and you get awesome food 24 hours a day."
He mentioned a popular shack outside Madurai University, run entirely by women, "which serves dishes made with every part of a goat, including goat's blood." It is also in Madurai that Anand saw a karandi omelette being made by breaking eggs on a large wooden or aluminum ladle and then exposing the contents directly to a wooden fire. "The omelette comes out like a poori!" he said, going on thereafter to describe the kari dosai of the Konar Mess (originally for the cowherd community), which is actually an uttapam with a layer of curried mutton and diced onions. Another of Anand's Madurai discoveries was the Khushboo Idli (named after the unconventional Tamil cinema star), which is spongy because of the use of castor seeds. "Nothing has changed about Madurai since the time of Mathuraikkanci, which describes its 'world-famous fried foods' and 'wine shops with colourful buntings'," Anand said.
The conversation moved on to the kebabs of Thanjavur, whose recipes were meticulously recorded by the last ruler of what was then a Maratha principality, the enlightened Serfoji II (Sarbhoji Raja), in a cookbook titled Sarbendra Pakashastra. The recipes, according to Anand, had been translated from the original Marathi into Tamil and "putrid English", so he had to get a Maharashtrian chef to read the manuscript and ensure nothing got lost in translation. An interesting facet of the king's life, Anand said, was revealed not long ago by the founder of Sankara Nethralaya, Dr S.S. Badrinath. Serfoji II, apparently, was a qualified eye surgeon and would conduct cataract operations around his principality, paying his patients a small sum to help them during the time it took them to recover.
Anand's life is studded with such delicious discoveries, like when he stumbled upon recipes for unusual payasams made with garlic and Cape gooseberries (amla) in Ramachandra Naidu's Paka Shastra, a cookbook written in the 1890s and re-published on the occasion of King George V's visit to Madras in 1911-12. Anand mentioned how Naidu wrote about women increasingly having less time to devote to house work because of their changing role in society, which must have been a revolutionary statement to make in his time.
If Ramachandra Naidu led Anand to dishes whose existence he could never have imagined, a recipe book by a Marie Kolandaisamy and her mother, published in 1927, which he secured with a lot of effort, introduced him to Pondicherry's Tamil-French cuisine, with showpiece dishes such as the peppery manthakali (night shadow spinach) soup and prawns cooked with ice apple (or sugar palm) being added to his already crowded repertoire of culinary secrets. Pondicherry is the only place in India where seafood is cooked with fruits (and more than one type of fish or seafood are used together in curries). It is also the only enclave in the south where curry leaves aren't used, nor is cardamom, at least not in quantities acceptable to the Indian palate, obviously in deference to the French aversion to the spice.
You can never have enough of Chef Anand, for it takes just one conversation for you to go on a magic carpet tour across little known kitchens of the country. He said it was his dream to travel down the course of the Tamarabharani river, which flows across Tamil Nadu, to see what people ate on either of its banks. That one journey would reveal facets of the state in a way that no one has ever done before.