Idli, courtesy Wikipedia

Samaithupp Paar is a cookbook that hardly needs any introduction to South Indians. Written by Meenakshi Ammal several decades ago, it became a bestseller and later was translated into English as Cook and See. Based on this, I have often wondered why a book titled Cook and Sing should not be done based on Carnatic songs that contain recipes for, or carry mention of, various dishes.

I am not anywhere near writing such a book but each time I come across references to dishes I make a note of them and recently when Sangita Kalanidhi Dr S Sowmya asked me to put together an online quiz, I dedicated a round to just food in Carnatic music. And no, it had no questions related to the canteens. I am giving below a small selection of such references –

Andal in her Thirupavai describes arguably the best Pongal. The verse, Koodarai Vellum is the 27th in the set and after having observed all the austerities during the previous days of Margazhi, Andal sings of Pongal, made by boiling rice and milk, in a covered vessel, with so much of ghee that when the dish is eaten, it trickles down the elbows. In his PoompavaiPathikam composed at Mylapore, Gnanasambanda sings of Pongal with lashings of ghee, made by straight-waisted women, during the month of Thai (January).

Annamacharya in the 15/16th centuries mentions many food items in his compositions. Of these, Entamatramuna mentions the nippatu – crispy deep-fried rice crackers. How it turns out depends on the quality of batter says the composer and he says the same is true of Lord Venkateswara at Tirumala. Those who worship Devi say this is a Goddess, while the Kapalika-s claim this is Adi Bhairava. The Vaishnavite-s say He is Vishnu. Purandara Dasa gives us the recipe for making payasam in his Ramanama Payasake right from first principles – the making of the vermicelli. But a lesser-known song of his goes to greater detail and that is Naivedya KolloNarayanaswami. It describes a veritable feast and those interested to know what is on offer can go to writer Manmathan Ullathil’s blog – he has made a study of several other Purandara Dasa kritis that mention dishes. 

Of course, when it comes to a feast who better than a king to prepare the bill of fare? In his Pallaki Seva Prabandha, King Shahji of Thanjavur, writing in the 17th century offers dinner to Lord Tyagesa – sherbets of high quality, Pongal, more kuzhambu, rice fritters, poori-s fried in ghee, dosa-s and idli-s, pickles, shelled and roasted lentils, sweets, fruits, mixed rice of various kinds, payasam, thirattupaal, honey, curd rice, puliogare, thick sour cream, spiced buttermilk, water from the Ganges and paan made with camphor. Cannot believe it? Just read his Aragimpavayya in raga Nadanamakriya. 

Could this be the first song that mentions dosa-s? Apparently not. For Purandara Dasa speaks of Lord Venkateswara in his Daniye Noditheno as feasting on boiled rice, and on dosa-s. The sale of Prasadam-s at Tirupati is also not something new for Kanakadasa who was a contemporary of Purandara Dasa and therefore of the 16th century, in his Bandevayya GovindaShetty derides the Lord for commercializing everything and he includes appam, atirasam, and other sweets on sale. But by the far the sweet most closely associated with the shrine is the laddu. There is a theory that Muttuswami Dikshitar in his song Shanka Chakra Gada Panim in Purnachandrika mentions this dish in the line Amritasara Bhakshanam. Apte’s Sanskrit Dictionary does acknowledge that Amritasara is a sweetmeat,but it need not necessarily be the laddu and as far as we know, the laddu in its present form at Tirumala is a 20th century creation. But yes, as Kanakadasa attests, the place was famous for sweets from much earlier. However, Dikshitar does mention sesame rice or ellu sadam in his song DivakaraTanujam, set in raga Yadukula Kamboji. Dedicated as the composition is to Saturn, the song includes the deity’s favourite dish and it is common practice to see it being offered at temples on Saturdays.

Like Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa also gives us a recipe – for self-realization, in his Adigeyanu Madabekanna. I go by Prof William Jackson’s translation and it starts off right from the washing of the vessel and the cleaning of the ingredients and the heating of the medium – these being respectively the truth, arrogance and the body. It is most interesting that almost 400 years later, Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi at Tiruvannamalai created a similar song on the making of the appalam. Translated into English by Prof K Swaminathan, it is structured as a straightforward recipe for appalams and at the same time an exposition on the pathway to realization. 

There are surely many more examples of this kind. We need to cook and sing.

This article appeared in The Hindu’s Friday Review on Oct 16, 2020 and can be read here