Kongunadu Cuisine: The Lesser-Known Food Culture Of Tamil Nadu
Image Credit: Junior Kuppanna

If fluffy idlis and soft dosas is what comes to mind when you imagine South Indian cooking, you’re probably fair in assuming that these are the dishes that really define the region which is perceived to be largely vegetarian. However, on looking closer, one would be able to notice the finer details that classify each state from the other, giving the food its distinctive identity and taste. The way coastal cuisines across various states in India differs from what is typically eaten in the interiors of a region, sub-cultures that draw influences from other communities, have also inspired the tastes of food in more ways than one.

In the case of Kongunadu food – a micro-cuisine from the state of Tamil Nadu, it is often times  clubbed with its popular counterpart – Chettinadu cuisine; for both cuisines have a lot of things that might feel similar – the liberal usage of spices, meat-heavy dishes and flavours that overlap. Tamizh food that originates from the Kongunadu belt – covering districts like Coimbatore, Erode, Salem, Dindigul and Tirupur – is predominantly heavy on flavour but easy on spice, a marked difference from Chettinadu cuisine. “Kongu literally translates to ‘border’, and because a lot of these places share borders with Kerala and Karnataka, culinary influences drawn from these states feature prominently in Kongunadu dishes,” says Balachandar Ramachandran – the director of Junior Kuppanna, a chain of restaurants that offers authentic Kongunadu cuisine.

Pichupotta Chicken (left), Mutton Brain Fry (right)

To illustrate this better, dishes from the region witness a wide use of ingredients like peanuts, dry ginger, fresh turmeric, sesame seeds and coconut – all of which are signature ingredients used in regional kitchens of the neighbouring states. While Chettinadu recipes use plenty of red chillies and whole spices to add robustness to curries and other preparations, Kongunadu food is an amalgamation of food from Kerala, Karnataka and largely Tamil Nadu. “When people try Chettinadu cuisine, they find it to be very spicy but Kongunadu food has a balance of spices and flavours. This food has developed in small pockets and people have been content to contain it within their region,” Balachandar elaborates, when asked about why the micro-cuisine doesn’t have as much recognition or awareness. He also adds that chances are that most people living in Tamil Nadu are as oblivious to this sub-culture, given how these recipes have not been given their due.

In a bid to understand where Kongunadu samaiyal stemmed from, Balachandar mentions that the food is mainly identified as ghar ka khaana. He says that eateries that came up during the post-Independence period in the Kongu belt, mainly represented the entirety of a district that they were situated in. Additionally, with the onset of the bench kadai that propped up in the early 1900s – small, family-run businesses facilitated the growth in popularity of the food as the idea was to step out for a meal that one wouldn’t typically make at home. “A husband-wife duo would usually have a couple of tables and benches set up outside their homes , invite people and serve whatever was freshly cooked for the day. Ingredients that were sourced locally is what went into the food, which is testament to the usage of the GI tagged turmeric from Erode, widely in recipes.”

Kola Urundai (left), Pallipalayam Chicken (right)

The commercialisation of Kongunadu cuisine which came about in the late 80’s, allowed for streetside stalls and small eateries to showcase the best of the cuisine that diners could enjoy. These no-fuss eateries with barebone décor and rows of people eating at the same table was known as a ‘mess’ – a concept that allowed access to people from all walks of life to experience a meal without the frills that a restaurant would offer. Balachandar points out that most restaurants that offer the cuisine have a variety of meat-based dishes as the idea of eating out was mostly associated with enjoying food that one would normally avoid cooking at home. “In the old days, exposure to different foods was very limited. As food businesses started developing, air-conditioning became a basic necessity and décor became a madate. Along with having traditional dishes on the menu, we’ve also had to accommodate dishes from other cuisines to offer some variety but this has put regional cuisine on the back-burner. The mess gives the diner a raw, authentic experience which is refreshing for the over-exposed urban individual and gives them a reason to connect to their roots,” Bala says.

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That said, a staple chicken kuzhambu or thakkali kuzhambu that is evocative of Kongunadu home-cooking is something that is often made at home-maker Chithra Selvan’s house – where these accompaniments play a multi-purpose role of being eaten with spongy dosas for breakfast or with rice and pickles for lunch. A characteristic that really stands out with Kongu cuisine is also the usage of freshly ground masala blends for practically all kinds of dishes – the pichupotta (shredded) chicken, thala (goat head) kari, nenchu (mutton ribs) kari and even a vegetable-based kuzhambu. These spice blends – made with a host of aromatics like baby shallots, garlic and curry leaves, combined with earthy spices like fresh turmeric, coriander seeds and bay leaves, give the food a signature nuttiness as well as flavour, making it the perfect medium to enhance the taste of meats.

Mess Style Seating

“Being land-locked and not always having access to the best quality seafood meant that we mostly ate chicken and mutton in everything from kozhambus to biryanis. Breakfast always had egg dosas paired with chutney – so I’ve always identified egg dosas to be a very Kongu-style breakfast. You’d also find this to be a common offering in thattu vandi kadais (street carts); either this or the muttai kalakki,” Chithra says. Besides this, Balachandar also shares that Kongunadu cuisine also prides itself in having a host of parottas – or flaky flatbreads that offset these spice-rich curries. From the Ceylon parotta to the bun parotta – a fascinating flaky parotta that resembles a dinner roll, veech parotta and the kothu parotta – the Kongus do not shy away from the amazing textures each of these breads bring to the plate, quite literally! He also talks about an interesting anecdote on the origins of the Pallipalayam chicken fry – a classic Kongu staple – which came about when the founder of Junior Kuppanna – Thiru Kuppusamy, named the dish requested by someone who participated in a village cock fight, to be made with the nattu kozhi (village bird) in what was originally, an oil-free preparation.

Like most regional cuisines that also have dishes which might be considered acquired tastes, Kongu cooking is testament to an effective and brilliant method of nose-to-tail cooking. Besides using the ribs, shank and meat of the goat, Kongu dishes also utilise the tripe, blood, brain and head in recipes that are considered delicacies in these districts. One of them, the raththa poriyal – a stir fry preparation of coagulated goat blood with fresh grated coconut and curry leaves, is a house favourite at the Selvan’s. “For every special occasion or benchmark that our family members have, we sacrifice a goat at the temple my family has been visiting for four generations. Once the rituals are complete, the goat would then be transferred to the kitchen, where a feast was prepared with every part of the slaughtered animal,” Chithra quips.

“The kudal fry, made with goat’s tripe as well as the poriyal are great examples of dishes that one would be averse to usually; but the preparation style and the usage of spices really plays well with the textures and gamey taste of these parts – which someone may not find palatable when they first come across these delicacies,” adds Chithra. This sub-set of Tamizh cuisine echoes similarities between Kashmiri and North Eastern cooking where the concept is more commonly practiced and accepted. Where long-grain basmati rice is the star grain of any biryani dish, Kongu-style biryanis use a short grain variety of rice called the seeraga samba – which has a specific aroma and flavour that distinguishes the biryani. Chithra also says that even though most ingredients are similar across the various Kongu recipes, it’s the proportions that really give something a signature flavour. “The nenchu kari would use plenty of browned onions whereas the Pallipalayam chicken uses raw shallots and fresh coconut, which is milder in taste.”

Balachandar truly believes that Kongunadu cuisine is growing fast in its popularity that he thinks was long overdue and hopes that the food truly speaks of the diversity within the state. In Chithra’s case, she hopes that dishes like the kola urundai (mutton meatballs), nalli fry, muttai dosai and the mutton kuzhambu have a global appeal if presented correctly and authentically. “The finer details really lie in the amount of time someone spends cooking the masalas fully, treating the meat delicately – without overcooking it and creating something that is individualistic yet represents the region at its best,” she signs off.

All Image Credits: Junior Kuppanna