Chef Rakesh Raghunathan traces South India beyond idli, dosa and medu vada

Updated: Mar 24, 2019, 09:00 IST | Kasturi Gadge | Mumbai

On his new television show, Dakshin Diaries, chef Rakesh Raghunathan eat-pray-loves his way through south India

Vatha kuzhambu, a gravy cooked in tamarind water
Vatha kuzhambu, a gravy cooked in tamarind water

To unearth centuries-old recipes, chef Rakesh Raghunathan entered centuries-old temples. On Living Foodz's new television show, Dakshin Diaries, Raghunathan explores the food, cultures and people of three southern states: Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, by first exploring the food of the gods.

He says, "Through this show, we have explored the traditional temple prasadams, the contemporary temple prasadams and what its future will look like. We have conceptualised Dakshin Diaries in a way that it highlights the difference between how viewers have known the southern states until now and how that perception will change through this show."

Bun halwa
Bun halwa

With each episode, Dakshin Diaries breaks the stereotypes about south Indian food by exploring lesser known variations of them, for instance, Kanchipuram idli, a temple prasadam. "This idli is prepared in a bamboo basket, unlike the typical pressure-cooker method of cooking. Additionally, the Maddur vada, which was invented at Maddur railway station in Karnataka, is a broken wheat chakkara pongal [pudding made with jaggery]."

Along with recipes, Raghunathan has tried to offer a multi-faceted view of the south. There are extended segments on how Tanjore paintings and Athangudi tiles are made, how celebrations such as Pongal and the release of a new Rajinikanth film take place, how people as diverse as rapper Sofia Ashraf and LGBTQi activist Gopi Shankar find their space and their voice. "In the episode in which I meet Gopi, who is from Madurai, he took me around the Meenakshi Amman temple and showed me carvings portraying transsexual people. Back then, they were accepted in society and were not considered taboo like today. In a way, it was breaking stereotypes about Madurai, which is perceived to be mainly about temples."

Chef Rakesh Raghunathan
Chef Rakesh Raghunathan

On the show, this diversity is interwoven with food. For instance, in one of the episodes, he visits a monastery in Karnataka to showcase Tibetan food and how the people adapted to living in a strange country. In another, he found a link between the sweet tooth of Tanjore and UP. "Here, we met the founders of Murari Sweets, a well-known sweets establishment. Centuries ago, ancestors of this family moved from UP and settled in Tanjore and started churning out sweets that are popular in both UP as well as Tanjore."

What makes the show unique is the research on temple prasadams and their importance in the history of these states. "When you compare temple prasadams between the north and the south of India, I have noticed that in the north, you can buy packets of sweets from outside and offer it to the idol.

However, in the south, no matter what the size of the temple is, there is always a madapalli [temple kitchen] attached. During one of my conversations with a priest, he mentioned that temple prasadams originated to feed people who volunteered in temples. The scriptures specify the quantity of the food to be offered, which wood has to be used, from where the materials have to be procured, the number of people employed to cook, and so on. These guidelines are followed till date." That should have been obvious to Raghunathan, because centuries-old recipes will lose their flavour if adulterated in any way.

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