Tamil Food Habits in Sangam Literature

Painting by: S.ELAYARAJA ARTIST

Painting by: S.ELAYARAJA ARTIST

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:

Thiruvalluvar and the Needle

Importance of Food in Tamil Literature

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.

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