There’s this little girl, she wrapped her little fingers around mine, and my world has forever changed. Earlier this year, I gave birth to the most precious baby girl. Pregnancy and motherhood has been one of the best, yet most challenging times of my life.
During my pregnancy, I was fortunate enough to have the help of so many wise elders who shared their wisdom with me. In an effort to dig a little deeper, I looked into some of the common beliefs shared with pregnant Tamil women in terms of foods to avoid. I hope you find this information as intriguing as I did.
Papaya: This is the number one food I was told to avoid during my pregnancy. Papaya is thought to be a fruit with a ‘hot’ property, and believed to possibly cause abortion. Looking into some research, I found that the avoidance of papaya could be two-fold. One, papaya in Tamil, papali, is made up of two words – pappa (meaning little child) and ali (meaning to destroy). Literally meaning to destroy a child, and thus avoided. It was also believed that consuming this fruit caused the onset of an overdue menstrual period, therefore linked to early miscarriage. Also, papain, the digestive enzyme in papaya has been used to soften and tenderize meat in some parts of the world, and the belief is that if it can be used to soften meat, it may soften the fetus and cause a miscarriage.
Pineapple: This was also a fruit that I was told to avoid. Pineapple is a fruit with a ‘hot’ property, and thus recommended as one to avoid. Furthermore, I was told eating lots of pineapple could cause bleeding. However, you would have to eat many whole pineapples for this to actually happen.
Sesame seeds: While this is also a food with a ‘hot’ property, it is also believed that sesame seeds embody fertility and can stimulate the ovaries unnecessarily.
Eggs: Eggs are thought to cause the baby to grow too much, making labour difficult and also believe to cause rashes for the baby. Before pregnancy I really enjoyed eating soft-boiled eggs, and as my family doctor also recommended only eating hard-boiled eggs, I found avoiding eggs a little harder to give up. Oddly, after avoiding it in pregnancy, I do not like eggs as much as I did before pregnancy.
Sweet potato: This was another one that I was told to avoid during pregnancy because it causes ‘vayvu’ or gas. The belief is that foods that cause gas cause restriction of the movement of the fetus.
Others: Other things to avoid in general were very spicy foods as they could cause indigestion and heart burn, day-old food as it could have bacteria if not stored properly and other hot inducing foods which were believed to have hot properties, thereby causing uterine contractions (garlic, onion, tea, etc.). Mutton was also limited during pregnancy.
Recommended foods: Foods that I was encouraged during pregnancy to eat were spinach, venthiyam (fenugreek seeds), nethili karuvadu (dry fish) for the iron content, kungumapoo (saffron milk), fresh fruits, rasam, and many others that I can’t remember now. In general, it is encouraged that woman eat what they like also, as being happy during pregnancy is important to the health of the mother and baby. My husband was amazing during my pregnancy in this regard, and traveled far and late at night during those really intense craving times!
What are some things you’ve heard to avoid in pregnancy?
Thanks everyone for all your kind words, support and patience with my blog. I hope to soon get more into a routine and start blogging more frequently. For everyone who has requested recipes for some of the photos I’ve posted, I will surely get to them slowly. Some days all I can manage is to take a snap of my food.
The month of January has been officially declared as Tamil Heritage Month in Canada; at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of Government. January is an important month for Tamils around the world, as it is also when Thai Pongal, Tamil New Year, is celebrated. January has widely been the month of celebration and prosperity for Tamils. Today, through the GTA, many celebrations and events are hosted in honour of Tamil Heritage Month.
As Canadian-Tamils, and Tamils around the world, it is important for us to recognize the achievements we have made to society, and to understand our roots and how they have shaped us today. We have much to be proud of. From academics, to arts, to politics, we have made many contributions to the societies we live in.
In honour of Tamil Heritage Month, here are some facts about Tamils that you may or may not know. This list is not comprehensive, I just tried to include a few that came to the top of my mind. If there are other facts you know, please share them below!
• There are more 70 million + Tamils around the world. [Tamilnation]
• Sundar Pichai, Google CEO, is a Tamil man. [Google+]
• Email was invented by a Tamil man, V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai. [Vashiva]
• The Father of Library Science, was a Tamil man. He was mathematician and librarian, S.R. Ranganathan. [Britannica]
• Jallikattu is a part of Tamil culture and has been practised for thousands of years. It has been referenced in early Sangam works, including Kalithogai (a classic Tamil poetic work).
• Tamil cooking influences can be seen in other cuisines, and in the English language. For example,
• The English word Curry, is derived from the Tamil word, Kari.
• Maangai has become Mango
• Kanji became Conjee
• Milagu Thaneer (pepper water) became Mulligatawny (a now famous soup)
Language, Literature and Libraries
• Thirrukural, written by Thirruvalluvar in the first century B.C. has been one of the most widely read non-religious books. It has been translated into many different languages and addresses in 1330 couplets how an individual should conduct themselves in personal, family and society.
• There are 12 vowels, 18 consonants, 216 consonant vowels and one aaydham in the Tamil language for a total of 247 characters in Tamil.
• The Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) in Chennai has some of the world’s most impressive private library collections of Tamil publications. When Muthiah passed away in 1992, the University of Chicago bought the entire collection and now conduct research on the materials. [University of Chicago Library]
The Jaffna Public Library in Tamil Eelam, contained more than 95,000 books and journals, including valuable historic manuscripts before it was burned down 1981 as an act of cultural genocide. [Tamil Guardian]
I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Thank you all for your support in the past years! I hope to start posting more frequently in the coming months. Stay tuned and I’d love to hear all about your food adventures too!
As much as I love cooking, I love reading and writing. Part of the reason I started my blog was to document an important part of Tamil culture, food. I also value the importance of documentation and preservation in general. So, I digress a little and write this post about the Jaffna Library.
The Tamil community has been regarded as one of best preservers of knowledge for many years. The Jaffna Library was a world renowned library. At the time it was built, it was one of the biggest libraries in Asia and held many, many rare collections. The Jaffna Library has always been a point of fascination for me. I would imagine myself perusing the shelves and shelves of books, and finding some secret treasure hidden in the library among a very rare book. I think these imaginations were partly induced by my fascination with libraries and my wild imagination (and maybe a little by the library in Beauty and the Beast).
Tamils value the preservation of Tamil culture, history and language. Many people may not be aware of this, but the Father of Library Science, was a Tamil man. He was mathematician and librarian, S.R. Ranganathan. His lessons and principles are taught in international universities at the Masters of Library Science program today.
There are other impressive library related facts about Tamils. The Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) in Chennai has some of the world’s most impressive private library collections of Tamil publications. When Muthiah passed away in 1992, the University of Chicago bought the entire collection and now conduct research on the materials. This library collection is said to have many ancient Tamil manuscripts that have yet to be translated and having writings in more ancient forms of Tamil that are in the works of translations. (Sometimes I secretly imagine myself decoding some of the many rare collections from its holdings).
When I first learned about the burning of the Jaffna Library, I was shocked. I wondered, how could such a beautiful and magnificent library be burned? But I later learned, that libraries and museums have always been a highly valued part of preserving culture, and as a result, they have always been one of the first physical targets in ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Jaffna Library was burned on May 31st, 1981. The burning of such impressive libraries and holders of culture and history is not new phenomena.
Tamils say the food is medicine and medicine is food. You can only imagine how many books would’ve been there that were references to Tamil cooking that would have been burned, especially all the information about the health benefits of particular dishes and medicinal benefits of these foods. Other than the books that were circulating, the rest would’ve all been destroyed. This is why we need to preserve Tamil cooking.
Books have been targeted for over 55 centuries, with the earliest burning of books being traced back to between 4100 and 3300 BCE. Egypt, China, Armenia, Bosnia, Bagdad and many more examples can be seen throughout history.
The Jaffna Library, founded in 1841 was burned on May 31, 1981. At the time, the Jaffna Library housed 100,000 books and manuscripts that were relevant to the Tamil culture. Irreplaceable manuscripts on palm leafs were also destroyed. The copy of Yalpanam Vaipuavama, a historical chronological account of Jaffna was also burned. The Jaffna Library served much historical and symbolic significance for Tamils and their culture.
Libraries and museums are the epitome and embodiment of culture. We must begin to see value in these cultural institutions, invest in them, and find multiple ways to preserve, protect and safeguard our beautiful Tamil history, culture and traditions.
Baez (2008). The Universal Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq. New York: Atlas and Co.
Coloroso (2007). Extraordinary Evil. Canada: Nation Books.
Knuth (2008). Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century. Westport: Praeger.
I just wanted to thank-you all for your support so far, I’ve been receiving many emails and messages about the blog recently, and I just wanted you all to know I really appreciate it! 🙂
In my previous post, I talked about food and Tamil Sangam literature. Hearing all your interest in Tamil history and culture made me do a little more digging about how this food connected with Siddha medicine, a form of medicine that was part of ancient Tamil civilization.
Diet probably plays one of the most important roles in our daily life and health. Our diets should be as such that we maintain equilibrium of vatham, pitham and kabham. There is that Tamil saying “Unavae marunthu; marunthae unavu” which means food is medicine, medicine is food. Thiruvalluvar talks about this in the Thirrukural. Siddha medicine talks about how we should consume foods in balance, and according to our land.
In my previous post, I spoke about how according to Sangam poetry, land is organized in to five geographical areas (nilam), with food particular to each area described. Eating habits are largely formed by what is grown in these different areas; native produce are incorporated to diet more frequently than non-native produce.
Siddha medicine, an ancient Tamil form of medicine generally predicted disease based on these five geographical lands (nilam) that were outlined in Sangam poetry. Three types of human equilibrium are needed to maintain good health. Marutham nilam is known to be the ideal area to live for optimal health. The three uyir thathukkal (life forces) in siddha medicine are vaatham (air and space), pitham (fire and heat) and kabham (earth and water). Different geographical areas are known to cause an onset of diseases based on these three life forces.
Within the three life forces, there are sub types which control food related functionalities. For instance, kirugaran, a type of vatham is responsible for taste and appetite, anala pitham, a type of pitham is responsible for digestion and kilaetham a type of kabham is responsible for aiding digestion.
Kurinji (Hilly Area)
Kurinji areas were largely formed by mountains and other hills. The diseases prevalent in this areas are vatham related which include diseases in bone, skin bladder, umbilical cord, thigh, nerves, joints and hair roots.
Mullai (Wooded Area)
Mullai areas were largely forested areas. The diseases prevalent in this areas are pitham and vatham related which include vatham diseases in bone, skin bladder, umbilical cord, thigh, nerves, joints and hair roots and pitham related, which have to do with body heat including sweat, lymph nodes, heart, blood, saliva, eye, and skin related.
Marutham (Agricultural Area)
Murutham areas were largely fields and this was thought to be the best place for health.
Neithal (Coastal Area)
Neithal areas were largely areas with ocean and seas in its surrounding. The diseases prevalent in this areas are vatham related which include diseases in bone, skin bladder, umbilical cord, thigh, nerves, joints and hair roots.
Paalai (Dry Area)
Paalai areas are dry and deserted. These areas are said to be the least ideal for healthy living and contain all three elements and all of the vaatham, pitham, kabham related diseases.
These geographical areas as a division related to health is interesting to think of. As many of us Eelam Tamils are no longer living in Eelam and are now part of the Tamil diaspora, we can think about how these geographical areas and their related diseases may play a role in the countries we currently live in. However, with all the urbanization and man made physical alternations, it is hard to tell what type of ecozone we live in, and how that falls into the five types of land. Furthermore, the five types of land were contained as part of areas occupied by ancient Tamil civilization, which would exclude sub-arctic type ecozones in North America.
Since I live in Toronto, I just looked up a little bit of background on the land of Toronto. Toronto sits on land that is identified as “mixedwood plains ecozone.” According to Natural Resources Canada, Toronto is actually named based on the word “Tkaronto which means “where there are trees standing in the water”. Mohawks used the phrase to describe The Narrows, where Hurons and other natives drove stakes into the water to create fish weirs.” Rayburn, Alan (1994): Canadian Geographic -September/October ’94. Ottawa, pp. 68-70.
Its land is described as a plateau with many rivers, valleys, rolling hills and is home to over 10 million trees, and 1600 parks over 8000 hectares of ravine, valleys, parks, etc. Toronto sits on sedimentary rock. The deposits from all the glaciers and ice underneath make the soil in Toronto one of the most productive and fertile soils in Canada. It seems like Toronto’s ecozone is as diverse as its people and contains different aspects of all five types of land described.
I hope you enjoyed learning more about Siddha medicine and how that may affect disease.
When I was younger, in elementary school, I use to feel embarrassed bringing my lunchbox of iddiyapa mix or biriyani to school. Although I grew up in Toronto, the area I grew up in did not have many Tamil children. Yet, my mom insisted that we bring Tamil food for lunch, and this meant being the one of the few kids my class with something different for lunch. When I think about it now, I feel sad that I was embarrassed of bringing my cultural food to school. However, after starting to cook, I have a new appreciation for our cooking. Today, my coworkers can attest to this, I am very proud to bring my own home cooked Tamil dishes to work. Here’s just some brief points of what Sangam literature says about cooking.
Sangam literature has been one of the greatest accounts in documenting ancient Tamil life. According to Sangam poetry, the land was organized in to five geographical areas, with food particular to each area described. Eating habits are largely formed by what is grown in these different areas; native produce are incorporated to diet more frequently than non-native produce. In most areas however, rice, idli, dosai, puttu, idiyappam and appam remain staple basics.
There is also much information about food habits of Tamils that are chiseled on Temple walls. Through these epigraphs on temple walls, you can see how sacrificing and fasting became integral parts of religion and worship. My husband and I talk a great deal about traditions and how they are intertwined with religion in order to make more people follow them. For example, fasting is cleansing to the body, and fasting from eating meat is also a way to stretch money further as meat was (and still is) costlier than vegetarian items. If you are able to impart that fasting should be done for religious reasons, people are more likely to follow than when you tell them it is just good for them.
There are also many Tamil food habits that were based in medicine. For example, taste is classified into six groups, and foods are classified as hot or cold. This classification of hot or cold is integral when preparing food during times of illness or preparing meals at different times of the day. Usually, when an illness is caused by one classification, the cure for it is foods from the other classification. Weather also plays an important role in this, and time of day – for instance, you may have heard from your grandmother or mother not to eat items classified as “cold” for dinner.
When preparing a meal, it is also important to keep in mind the different tastes. It is quite common to create dishes of contrasting taste – a spicy meat kulambu is often paired with a vegetarian milk curry.
There are many other little things that are important to cooking that is outlined in ancient Tamil literature and epigraphs – for instance, when cooking, you shouldn’t hold any grudges for this is believed to add distaste to the food. Oddly enough, I’ve noticed that the happier I am, the tastier my food is. Or other hygienic instructions, such as typing your hair when you cook to avoid any of it from accidently getting into the food. Even some of the spices we use regularly, like turmeric, are used to clean meat and veggies as they are antiseptic.
Hospitality is a big part of Tamil culture. When someone visits your house, you should always offer food. Whatever you have, you should offer it to your guests. You may have noticed when you visit a Tamil person’s house, you get offered so much food and tea. This is kindness and part of our culture. We should be very proud of this aspect of our culture!
The traditional way of eating Tamil food is on a banana leaf, using your hands. You start with salt and pickle (oorkai) on the far left, and then start the meal with a sweet dish, then with a series of veggie dishes, appalam, meat on the top half of the leaf. Rice is placed on the bottom half of the leaf. Tamils were always cognizant of wastage and being in harmony with the environment and nature. Banana leaves were traditionally served to cows afterwards so it would not go to waste.
There are many symbolic meanings in the way you fold the banana leaf, if you enjoyed the meal and want to maintain the relationship of the person serving you, you fold the banana leaf inwards, towards you when you complete your meal. If you did not like the meal, and do not want to maintain a relationship of the person serving you the meal, you fold outwards. This is considered quite rude, and should not be done!
Tamil cooking is an art, and based in a lot of history and tradition. This is just a small sample of Tamil food habits. I’ll try to include some more information about this in future blog posts. I hope you enjoyed reading 🙂
If you’re interested in more topics like this, check out these blog posts below:
Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Baskaran, Thilaka. “Rice and ritual; the Tamil art of cooking.” UNESCO Courier Mar. 1984: 12+. Academic OneFile. Web. 9 Apr. 2016.
I enjoy riddles. My uncle use to listen to riddles on the radio and share them with me. Many Tamil riddles from Jaffna are passed down through the oral tradition. The odd times I listen to the Tamil radio, I still hear riddles and trivia, and it makes me think that this tradition and interest in riddles is still alive. Here are some Jaffna Tamil Riddles about food – I’ll see if I can find a few more. See how many of them can you guess before checking the answers!
Riddle: மண்ணுக்குள் இருக்கும் மனிதன். உரிக்க உரிக்க தோல்தான். அது என்ன? There lives a man under the soil, whom when you strip, is nothing but skin. What is it?
Answer: அது வெங்காயம். An onion.
Riddle: மஞ்சல் நிறத்தழகி. மங்கையர் முகத்தழகி. அவள் யார்? A lady coloured yellow, most beautiful on ladies’ faces. Who is she?
Answer: அது மஞ்சள். Turmeric.
Riddle: ஒரு பெட்டிக்குள் இரு தைலம். அது என்ன? Two different substances in one box. What is it?
Answer: அது முட்டை. An egg.
Riddle: ஆயிரம் பேர் கூடி, அழகான மண்டபம் கட்டி, ஒருவர் கண் பட்டு, உடைந்ததாம் மண்டபம். அது என்ன? A thousand people came together and built a beautiful hall, but when a single person spots it, it is broken into pieces. What is it?
Answer: அது தேன்கூடு. A honeycomb.
When making curries, it often calls for garlic (vellai poondu) and ginger (inji). Remember that it is always best to use a mortar and pestle to grind the garlic and ginger. I usually add peppercorns when I’m grinding garlic and ginger since I will often use peppercorns in my dishes. Ginger and garlic are very good for you. This is also why it is added to many curries. Many of the ingredients used in Tamil cooking has a reason beyond taste – much of it is based on the benefits of the spice to the body.
Garlic (vellai poondu) can be eaten raw or cooked. But it is such a strong flavour and odour that it probably is best consumed cooked in curries. It is believed to be antibacterial and contains antiviral properties. Garlic is commonly used to help digestion, treating coughs and colds, killing stomach worms and removing flatulence. It is also used to lower blood cholesterol levels by preventing blood vessels from clogging.
Ginger (inji) The English word Ginger was derived from the Tamil word Injiver. (Inchi- ver (root). It is widely used in Tamil and South Indian cooking. You will often see a paste made of ginger and garlic. Ginger is tooted for its benefits, including aiding in digestion, removing flatulence, indigestion and stomach cramps. See Verkombu for stomach cramps home remedy. It is also used to clear sinus and phlegm as it is an expectorant and helps loosen and expel phlegm. In the mornings, you can make a tea of ginger and cardamon to ensure you get some ginger in your day.
I think for many people, when they think of their grandmothers they think of three things – love, food and stories. My grandmother was very special. I fondly remember when I was younger, eating seeni murruku and hearing stories. She was a wonderful storyteller and would tell me many stories about Tamil culture, biblical stories and fairy tales. This is a story she told me that really stuck with me.
Thiruvalluvar’s wife, Vasuki Amma was on her deathbed. She was very ill. Thiruvalluvar asked her if there was anything he could get her. She said there was just one question she wanted to ask him so that she can pass away peacefully.
She asked him, “Since we got married, you always placed a cup and a needle beside your food. Why did you do that?”
He said, “I did not want to waste any food. The cup and needle were placed beside the food so that if ever a grain of rice fell while you were serving food, I would use the needle to pick it up, and use the water to wash it and eat it, so not to waste it. However, in all the years we have been married, it has never been needed. ”
With that answer, she passed away peacefully.
I think the point of the story was to show that we should never waste food. Even a grain of rice is valuable. When we cook, this is something we should consider. We should only make as much as we/our family will eat. I myself am guilty of this sometimes, and need to remind myself that I should only cook enough to last one or two days.
I’m kind of addicted to finding out more about Tamil history – I blame this on my husband. My husband reads a lot and tells me little snippets of what he’s read that makes me curious to find out more. I’ll share some more of those stories, but for now, let’s start with the beginning.
The Thirrkural, by Thiruvalluvar, is a classic Tamil Sangam Literature that is made up of 1330 couplets or (kurals) on how to live life. It is regarded as one of the most important works of Tamil literature. I’ve pulled out some of the kurals from the chapter medicine that goes to show you the importance of food, and how food is seen as medicine.
941 – The learned books count three, with wind as first; of these,
As any one prevail, or fail; ’twill cause disease.
If (food and work are either) excessive or deficient, the three things enumerated by (medical) writers, flatulence, biliousness, and phlegm, will cause (one) disease.
942 – No need of medicine to heal your body’s pain,
If, what you ate before digested well, you eat again.
No medicine is necessary for him who eats after assuring (himself) that what he has (already) eaten has been digested.
943 – Who has a body gained may long the gift retain,
If, food digested well, in measure due he eat again.
If (one’s food has been) digested let one eat with moderation; (for) that is the way to prolong the life of an embodied soul.
944 – Knowing the food digested well, when hunger prompteth thee,
With constant care, the viands choose that well agree.
(First) assure yourself that your food has been digested and never fail to eat, when very hungry, whatever is not disagreeable (to you).
945 – With self-denial take the well-selected meal;
So shall thy frame no sudden sickness feel.
There will be no disaster to one’s life if one eats with moderation, food that is not disagreeable.
946 – On modest temperance as pleasures pure,
So pain attends the greedy epicure.
As pleasure dwells with him who eats moderately, so disease (dwells) with the glutton who eats voraciously.
947 – Who largely feeds, nor measure of the fire within maintains,
That thoughtless man shall feel unmeasured pains.
He will be afflicted with numberless diseases, who eats immoderately, ignorant (of the rules of health).
948 – Disease, its cause, what may abate the ill:
Let leech examine these, then use his skill.
Let the physician enquire into the (nature of the) disease, its cause and its method of cure and treat it faithfully according to (medical rule).
949 – The habitudes of patient and disease, the crises of the ill
These must the learned leech think over well, then use his skill.
The learned (physician) should ascertain the condition of his patient; the nature of his disease, and the season (of the year) and (then) proceed (with his treatment).
950 – For patient, leech, and remedies, and him who waits by patient’s side,
The art of medicine must fourfold code of laws provide.
Medical science consists of four parts, viz., patient, physician, medicine and compounder; and each of these (again) contains four sub-divisions.
This is a statue of Thiruvalluvar in Kanyakumari.