Historical Journey of South Indian Cuisine

Historical Journey of South Indian Cuisine

Most of us are known about Indian Cuisine and in general, when we talk about it, the first thing that comes to our mind is food from North India- being it from Punjab, Delhi, Utter Pradesh, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, etc. But do we ever thought of Food from the South which we eat or see on a very regular basis like Idli, Dosa and many more even in the Northern part of India? This article is focused more on food culture from the Southern part of India and how rich is their food culture and cuisine.

The origin of the Dravidian family language is one of the oldest languages in the world which had a presence around 5000 years ago. This language is still speaking by 220 million people in and around India. Kannad, Malayalam, Tamil & Telugu are some of the most famous among them all. Same way South Indian Cuisine has more influenced by these five southern states of India- Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala & Telangana. Before telling much about Dravidian cuisine we need to know what is Sangam Literature and how it relates to south Indian Cuisine?

Sangam Literature is also known as Tamil Literature and this is the earliest known literature of the southern part of the Indian subcontinent. It is in a form of a poem created by various poets and saints. The Sangam literature offers various references to food in ancient Tamil countries. Food in ancient Tamil Country is based on landscape & easily available resources- Kurinji ( Mountain), Millai ( Forest), Marutham ( agricultural field), Palai ( Desert) & Neithal (Coastal Region).

Perumpanarruppatai  is an ancient  the poem in Tamil mentioned in the Pattuppattu anthology of Sangam Literature is a source of cultural & sociological information about ancient Kanchipuram & nearby locations. In a cultural context, Vedas is recited by Brahmins and they used to eat rice, salad, pickles, and vegetables. Hunters were described as a meat-eater, Herdsmen used to consume milk and milk products, fishermen used to eat varieties of fish with rice & Farmers ate farm produce from agricultural land. Rice was a staple food in all landscapes and was also the major part of offerings to the Gods in temples and festivals. Cirupanarruppatai is another poem in Tamil mentioned in Pattuppattu anthology of Sangam Literature mentioned white rice, meat, vegetables, puffed rice, pulses, cereals, legumes, and pickles were the staple diet of people of Marutham landscape( Agricultural Field). Porunararruppatai ( Tamil Poem in Pattuppattu) mentioned about Kurinji people ( Mountaineers) in Chola Dynasty ate tubers & honey. So, in lots of poems in Sangam Literature mentioned the cultural inheritance and their food habits where Vedic food is also mentioned.  

In Sangam literature the Cooking Style is also mentioned that varied from region to region :

1.    Vakkuthal ( Direct fire Cooking)- This kind of Cooking was prevalent in Kurinji & Mullai Landscape.

2.    Frying & Sun-drying – This kind of Cooking was prevalent in Palai & Neithal region.

3.    Boiled & Steam- This kind of cooking was done in the Murutham region and later this style developed into the elaborate cooking method.

Sangam era culture had recognizable delicacies and a particular set of cooking traditions. The six tastes of Tamils are 1. Sweet, 2. Pungent, 3. Bitter, 4. Salt, 5. Sour & 6. Astringent is also mention in the food culture of the Vedic age. The use of spices for flavoring the dish was common. Peppercorn, coriander seeds, honey, jaggery, tender coconut, turmeric, tamarind, mustard seeds & ghee were used in the early days of cooking.   

South Indian Cuisine still retains the ancient Dravidian culture and unaffected by any outside influence. We are proud to list few dishes which have been mentioned in history and still those dishes are alive and the world is admiring it till today. Few dishes like Dosa, Idli, Uttapam, Appam, etc earned fame across the globe. Let’s see how old these dishes are:

Dosa – Dosa ( Dosai) is a thin pancake made of a fermented batter of lentils & rice. 

1.    Dosa was already in use in Tamil Country around 1st AD as per Sangam Literature. There are also reference that dosas were a part of temple food and offered as a prasad.

2.    Idli- It is a steamed rice cake made of a fermented batter of Black lentils and rice. This dish is not as old as Dosa but it also has a history of more than 1000 years. Idli is invented around 800 CE in Indonesia which a historical influence of Indian Culture has called “Kedli”. A form of idli known as ‘iddalage’ is mentioned in a 920 CE Kannada language work, Vaddaradhane by Shivakotiacharya. 

3.    Appam- Appam is again one of the famous South Indian dishes made of fermented rice batter & coconut milk. As per food historian Mr. K.T Achaya, Appam is mention in Sangam literature in Perumpanarruppatai .

4.    Payasam – or Kheer is made of boiling milk, rice & jaggery is mentioned in Ayurveda, and in the south, it is famous as a Payas in ancient India. It is served as a ‘Prasadam’ in Hindu temple to the devotees.  

5.    Kozhukattai – This dish is made of grated coconut dipped in jaggery syrup & placing inside rice dumpling and steamed it. It is the same as modak and has historical evidence.

6.    Adai – A shallow fry circlet made of a thickly grounded batter of equal part of rice & 4 kinds of pulses. This dish is described in ‘Silappadakaram’ & Mathuraikanchi ( a collection of the poem written in the Sangam Era) is still a pride of South Indian Kitchen.

If we go on we will find countless ancient recipes which still exist in modern Indian cuisine especially in South Indian kitchen and maintained the originality. While writing this small article I learned about our ancient food culture and still need to learn a lot because it has deep roots of