In India, cuisines change every 100 kilometres, so to say, travelling for food here brings forth a slow unfolding of different flavours and aromas. Nearly every region in the country has a hallmark dish, so discovering India’s culinary scene is much like a saga that one must embark on. When it comes to Tamil Nadu, each of its 38 districts boast their culinary riches through a multitude of flavours and cooking techniques .
While studying in Kerala, my father, after a tiring day of studying aerodynamics, would rush to Saravana Bhavan with his friends to cap the day off with some masala dosai and filter coffee. Now I do the same in Delhi as a college student. I can’t help but observe how eating cultures and cuisines travel with their own box of memories. Tamil Nadu’s food history traces back to some of the oldest stories from Tamil literature. In the Purananooru, it is said that the regions were segregated into five categories: Marutham, the agricultural region, Kurunji, the mountain region, Mullai, the forest region, Palai, the drought region and Neithal, the seaside. These segregations have come to influence the diversification in the region’s cuisines today. The food eaten across the area has been informed by the staple ingredients sourced here for years and years, leading to a diverse culinary culture.
Whenever you find yourself travelling along the coastal towns, or even the bustling metros, of Tamil Nadu here, is what you can keep an eye out for.
Tirunelveli’s world-famous sweet is a translucent halwa bedazzled with roasted cashews and almonds. A simple concoction of wheat milk, sugar and ghee yields a lip-smacking dessert that is surprisingly difficult to recreate at home. This unique halwa is to be tasted only from the famous Iruttukadai Halwa Shop, which is open for only three hours after dusk. The legend goes that the secret to its deliciousness is the water of the Thamirabarani river. While a dollop of hot halwa straight out of the kadai onto a leaf glistening with ghee is an experience in itself, it is also worth carrying some back as a souvenir.
In the Thoothukudi district, Kovilpatti’s famed peanut-and-jaggery candy is a nutritious snack made with the highest-quality peanuts and a mixture of two kinds of jaggery syrup—one is regular jaggery and the other is Theni jaggery. According to locals, it is so unique that the makers have now applied for a GI (geographical identification) tag for the sweet.
If the aroma of deep-frying batter hits your nostrils while you’re on the Madurai-Trichy highway, take a detour to Manapparai, a small town nearby, to grab some of the most delicious murukkus as a road-trip snack. The secret behind the unique Manapparai murukku is that they fry it in two batches to enhance its flavour. The uniqueness of this crunchy, salted and lightly spiced goodness is again credited to the water of town, which is usually sourced from its salty wells.
Coimbatore is known not just for its textiles but also for its really good bakeries. One of the famous goodies you get at these outlets is a coconut bun—a sweet warm bun made of sugar and coconut, which would earlier be eaten along with tea by textile mill workers ages ago. However, now it’s become a teatime treat for everyone in Coimbatore. An old bakery called KR Bakes has quite a reputation for its coconut buns.
Thoothukudi, also known as the ‘pearl city’ thanks to its fishing harbour and bustling port, is probably not where you would expect to find such a dainty delicacy. In European countries, almonds are the main ingredient for macaroons but what sets Thoothukudi’s macaroons—shaped like a hat—apart is the fact that they’re made with cashew nuts. The old-established bakeries pride themselves on these macaroons as something that would not taste the same elsewhere.
Handcrafted chocolates are easy to love, and Ooty’s artisanal-chocolate industry easily ranks high with luxury, melt-in-the-mouth bites. The hill station’s chilly weather has been a perfect companion to the chocolate-making craft since the mid-20th century array of dark, white and fruity compounds. When in Ooty, grab a box of nutty and cakey chocolates from any street store to pair with a Nilgiri cuppa, or head to Moddy’s or King Star Chocolates for pralines, orange bonbons and delectable fudge.
This is one delicacy that’s found in every single restaurant in Chennai—a city famous for its idli shops and messes. Besides porotta and thengai-mangai-pattani sundal, one iconic dish is the vadacurry, which does not have a long history to itself but is something that could have been created out of leftover masal vadai.
As Anthony Bourdain said, “Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feelings, ethnic feelings, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, and your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” That is what Tamil Nadu cuisine is made of and that’s how diverse Tamil Nadu cuisine is.