A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of traveling through southern India with four other members of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. Our itinerary had been arranged by Culinary Historians president, Dr. Bruce Kraig, who had just finished filming a TV special on the foodways of southern India. This had the tremendous advantage of giving us access to chefs and learning opportunities we would otherwise not have had. Though there was a considerable focus on food, the tour also took in a wide range of non-culinary delights as well. We did far too much to include in one post, so I’ll break this up into the four states to which our travels took us: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Goa.
Our first stop was Chennai, formerly known as Madras, in the state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu means “the state where they speak Tamil,” and Tamil is the local language.
When we landed in Chennai, I stepped outside the airport, took a deep breath of the warm, fragrant air, looked around, and instantly knew that I was going to fall in love with India—and I also knew that two weeks wouldn’t be nearly enough time. Our surroundings were enticingly exotic and beautiful beyond imaging. They were also bustling, crowded, and full of life.
Chennai is one of the largest cities in southern India, with a population of 9 million. As we headed off on our first afternoon tour, I noted that they drive on the left—a vestige of British rule. As we drove, our guide pointed out a grove of mango trees and told us, rather proudly I think, that there are more than 400 varieties of mango in India. Mangifera indica is, as the mango’s Latin name indicates, indigenous to India, so it didn’t surprise me that they’d have the lion’s share of the varieties grown, but it did amuse me that this was the first thing our guide pointed out.
That first afternoon, we focused primarily on foreigners who had come to India. We toured Fort George, former seat of British government in this region. In the fascinating museum there, I learned, among other things, that Elihu Yale, for whom Yale University is named, was governor of Chennai in 1687-1692. Small world. We drove through the Portuguese part of town, with the Bay of Bengal off to our left, and headed to St. Thomas Cathedral. This is said to be the burial site of St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles, who reportedly landed in Kerala in 52 A.D., then taught in Chennai for 20 years. This is the oldest church in India.
The afternoon included several other sights and a stop for shopping, but we had just arrived at noon, after nearly 20 hours of flying, and we didn’t push ourselves. But simply driving through town was a pleasure. The markets, motorcycles, trishaws, cows, cars, people, shops, universities, and temples around us were a constant delight, and our guide was a source of much entertaining information. (We learned that Chennai’s major industries are leather—run by Muslims and tolerated by Hindus—and films. While Bombay, or Bollywood, produces films in Hindi, Chennai, aka Chollywood, produces films in Tamil, Malayalm, and a dozen other languages.)
Our hotel, the Taj Connemara, was a splendid place (if it’s good enough for Queen Elizabeth, it’s good enough for me). We all took short naps, then headed down to the hotel’s glorious main restaurant, The Raintree. The tables are set outdoors, beneath massive, spreading raintrees, where the evening breeze brought us the fragrance of the jasmine and frangipani growing nearby. Women sat on a platform by the entrance, making hand-made breads, while dancers and musicians performed nearby. We were enchanted. What made it even better is that the head chef was waiting for us. He demonstrated how many of the local dishes are prepared, including an amazing shrimp dish with huge shrimp (prawns in India, as in Britain) that were tossed in lime juice, salt, and chilli paste, and then rolled in a blend of about a dozen ground spices and deep fried. Wow, was that ever sensational.
After a tour of the kitchen, we were shown to our table, and we had the opportunity to avail ourselves of the splendid buffet. The food was beyond amazing. Personal favorites (among dozens of dishes) included lamb in basil and cilantro sauce, roasted spiced quail, spiced greens, bread rice, kohlrabi in a cream sauce dotted with black mustard seeds, and pineapple tossed with chilli and cilantro.Tamil Nadu is known as the “Temple State, and day two saw us heading off to Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram to visit some of the area’s numerous magnificent Hindu temples. Tall towers covered with images of Hindu deities and stories opened up into halls of pillars, pools, and sacred images. The ancient stones were damp and cool, which was made more obvious by the requirement that we leave our shoes at the door. We were awed and delighted with the antiquity (one temple we visited dates to the 7th century, another to the 9th), the beauty, and the immensity of the temples. After touring the temples we stopped to learn about Kanchipuram’s main industry—silk. About 80 percent of the town’s population is involved in the silk industry. In a local silk factory, we watched skilled artisans hand-weave spectacular silks in iridescent colors, most with intricate gold borders. Everything was just gorgeous. This led quite naturally to our doing our best to support the town’s silk industry. All five of us found much to buy, from ready-made shirts, scarves, shawls, and pillowcases to custom-made clothes. (All our special-order items were dutifully delivered to our hotel that night, by an earnest young man who made sure that each of us had exactly what we expected.)
After lunch, we were off to see more temples. The temples we saw now were particularly interesting because they represented the progression of temple making in this region. We saw temples that were carved into caves, that were carved out of giant boulders and outcrops of rock (pictured above), and that were built out of quarried stone. The artwork was splendid, and some of the bas-relief images of animals were life-sized—including this carving of a cow being milked.
On day three, we headed back to the airport for the flight to Cochin in Kerala.