A South Indian Meal

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*Pl enjoy this good collection of explanations by Paramacharya of
Kanchi…Many have samskrit base..

To the awe and amazement of his devotees, Paramacharya often discussed about down-to-earth laukika matters with keen interest, deep understanding and knowledge. In this lecture, he explains the origin and meaning of the names of common Indian dishes and their connection to spirituality. In these explanations, I have mostly used the translated words of what Paramacharya actually spoke, extracted from the Tamil publication titled Sollin Selvar
(The Expert of Words), Sri Kanchi Munivar by Sri Ra. Ganapathy.

*A South Indian Meal*

A typical South Indian meal is served in three main courses: sambar sAdam,
rasam sAdam and more (buttermilk) sAdam. Sambar is also known as kuzhambu in
Tamil, a term that literally translates to ‘get confused’. Paramacharya
explains how these three courses are related to the three gunas of
spirituality: the confusion of sambar is tamo guna, the clarified and
rarified flow of rasam is rajo guna and the all-white buttermilk is satva
guna. Our meal reminds us of our spiritual path from confused inaction to a
clear flow of action and finally to the realized bliss of unity.

*SAdam* *

*Cooked rice, the main dish of a South Indian meal is called sAdam. That
which has sat is sAdam, in the same way we call those who are full of sat,
sadhus. We can give another explanation for the term: that which is born out
of prasannam is prasAdam. What we offer to Swami (God) as nivedanam is given
back to us as parasAdam. Since we should not add the root ‘pra’ to the rice
we cook for ourselves, we call it sAdam.


Rasam means juice, which is also the name of filtered ruchi. We say ‘it was
full of rasa’ when a speech or song was tasteful. Vaishnavas, because of
their Tamil abhimAnam, refer to rasam as saatthamudhu. It does not mean the
amudhu (amrita) mixed with sAdam. It was actually saatramudhu (saaru or
rasam + amudhu), which became saatthamudhu.

Vaishnavas also have a term thirukkann amudhu that refers to our pAyasam.
What is that thirukkann? If rudrAksham means Rudra’s eye, does ‘thirukkann’
mean Lakshmi’s eye? Or does the term refer to some vastu (article) added to
pAyasam? No such things. Thiru kannal amudhu has become thirukkann amudhu.
Kannal means sugercane, the base crop of suger and jaggery used in pAyasam.

I was talking about rasam. If something is an extraction of juice, then
would it not be clear, diluted and free of sediments? Such is the nature of
our rasam, which is clear and dilute. The other one, served earlier to rasam
in a meal, is the kuzhambu. Kuzhambu contains dissolved tamarind and cut
vegetable pieces, so it looks unclear, its ingredients not easily seen.

*Buttermilk as our dessert**

*A western meal normally ends with a dessert. In a South Indian meal,
desserts such as pAyasam are served after the rasam sAdam. Any sweets that
were served at the beginning are also taken at this time. After that we take
buttermilk rice as our final course. Paramacharya explains that since sweets
are harmful to teeth, our sour and salty buttermilk actually strengthens our
teeth, and this has been observed and praised by an American dietician. We
gargle warm salt water when we get toothache. The buttermilk is the reason
for our having strong teeth until the end of our life, unlike the westerners
who resort to dentures quite early in their life.

*Vegetable curry*

Although cut vegetable pieces are used in sambar, kootoo and pacchadi, in
curry they are fried to such an extent that they become dark in color (the
term curry also means blackness or darkness in Tamil). May be this is the
origin of the name curry.

*Uppuma (kitchadi*)

If the term uppuma is derived from the fact that we add uppu or salt, then
we also add salt to iddly, dosa and pongal! Actually, it is not uppuma but
ubbuma! The rava used for this dish expands in size to the full vessel where
heated up with water and salt. The action of rava getting expanded is the
reason for the term ubbuma.

*Iddly* *
The term iduthal (in Tamil) refers to keeping something set and untouched.
We call the cremation ground idukaadu (in Tamil). There we keep the mrita
sarira (mortal body) set on the burning pyre and then come away. The term
iduthal also refers to refining gold with fire. The (Tamil) term idu
marunthu has a similar connotation: a drug given once without any repetition
of dosage. In the same way, we keep the iddly wet flour on the oven and do
nothing to it until it is cooked by steam.

(This is rice noodles cooked in steam). Brahmins call it seva while others
call it idiyaappam. But unlike an appam which is a cake, this dish is in
strands. The term appam is derived from the Sanskrit ApUpam meaning cake.
The flour of that cake is called ApUpayam. This word is the origin of the
Tamil word appam.

*Appalaam (papad)*

The grammatical Tamil term is appalam. This dish is also made by kneading
(urad dhal) flour, making globules out of it and then flattening them. So it
is also a kind of appam. Because of its taste a ‘la’ is added as a particle
of endearment!

ladanam (in Sanskrit) means to play, to throw. ladakam is the sports goods
used to play with. Since the ball games are the most popular, ladakam came
to mean a ball. The dish laddu is like a ball, and this term is a shortened
form of laddukam, which derived from ladakam.

Laddu is also known as kunjaa laadu. This should actually be gunjaa laadu, because the Sanskrit term gunjA refers to the gunjA-berry, used as a measure of weight, specially for gold. Since a laddu is a packed ball of gunjA like berries cooked out of flour and sugar, it got this name.

The singer of mUka panca sati on Ambal Kamakshi describes her as Matangi and
in that description praises her as ‘gunjA bhUsha’, that is, wearing chains
and bangles made of gunjA-berries of gold.

*Pori vilangaa laddu*

Made of jaggery, rice flour and dried ginger without any ghee added to it,this laddu is as hard as a wood apple, though very tasty, and hence got its name from that fruit and the original pori (puffed rice) flour used to make it.

*Indian Dishes of Turkish Origin*

*Our *halwa* is a dish that came from the Turkish invasion. bahU kalam (long
ago) before that we had a dish called paishtikam, made of flour, ghee and sugar. But then the Arabian term halwa has stuck in usage for such preparation.

sUji is another name from the Turkish. It has become sojji now. It is mostly
referred to these days as kesari. In Sanskrit, kesaram means mane, so kesari
is a lion with kesaram. It was a practice to add the title ‘kesari’ to
people who are on the top in any field.. Thus we have Veera Kesari, Hari
Kesari as titles of kings in Tamilnadu. The German Keisar, Roman Caesar and
the Russian Czar — all these titles came from only from this term kesari.

What is the color the lion? A sort of brownish red, right? A shade that is
not orange nor red. That is the kesar varnam. The powder of that stone is
called kesari powder, which became the name of the dish to which it is added
for color.

A Tamil pundit told me that the name vada(i) could have originated from the
Sanskrit mAshApUpam, which is an appam made of mAsham or the urad dhal. He
also said that in ancient Tamilnadu, vada and appam were prepared like
chapati, baking the flour cake using dry heat.

*Dadhya araadhana*

Someone asked me about the meaning of this term. He was under the impression
that dadhi was curd, so dadhiyaaradhana( i) was the curd rice offered to
Perumal. Actually, the correct term is tadeeya AradhanA, meaning the
samaaradhana( i) (grand dinner) hosted to the bhagavatas of Perumal. It got
shortened in the habitual Vaishnava way..

Vaishnavas offer the nivedanam of pongal with other things to Perumal in
their dhanur mAsa ushad kala puja (early morning puja of the Dhanur month).
They call it tiruppakshi. The original term was actually tiruppalli ezhuchi,
the term used to wake of Perumal. It became ‘tiruppazhuchi’ , then
‘tiruppazhachi’ and finally ‘tiruppakshi’ today, using the Sanskrit kshakara
akshram, in the habitual Vaishnava way. It is only vegetarian offering,
nothing to do with pakshi (bird)!

The term dhanur mAsam automatically brings up thoughts of Andaal and her
paavai (friends). In the 27th song (of Tiruppaavai) , she describes her wake
up puja and nivedanam with milk and sweet pongal to Bhagavan, which
culminates in her having a joint dinner with her friends. Vaishnavas
celebrate that day as the festival koodaara valli, following the same
sampradhAyam (tradition). The name of this festival is from the phrase
koodaarai vellum seer Govinda, (Govinda who conquers those who don’t reach
Him) which begins the 27th song. It was this ‘koodaarai vellum’ that took on
the vichitra vEsham (strange form) of ‘koodaara valli’.

payas (in Sanskrit) means milk. So pAyasam literally means ‘a delicacy made
of milk’. This term does not refer to the rice and jaggery used to make
pAyasam. They go with the term without saying. Actually pAyasam is to be
made by boiling rice in milk (not water) and adding jaggery. These days we
have dhal pAyasam, ravA pAyasam, sEmia pAyasam and so on, using other things
in the place of rice.

Vaishanavas have a beautiful Tamil term akkaara adisil for pAyasam. The
‘akkaar’ in this term is a corruption of the Sanskrit sharkara. The English
term ‘sugar’ is from the Arabian ‘sukkar’, which in turn is from this
Sanskrit term. The same term also took the forms ‘saccharine’ and ‘jaggery’.
And the name of the dish jangiri is from the term jaggery.

*kanji (porridge*)

Before we become satiated with madhuram (sweetness), let us turn our
attention to a food that is sour. As an alternative to sweetness, our
Acharyal (Adi Sankara) has spoken about sourness in his Soundarya Lahiri.

Poets describe a bird called cakora pakshi that feeds on moon-beams. Sankara
says in Soundarya Lahiri that the cakora pakshi were originally feeding on
the kArunya lAvaNyAmruta (the nectar of compassion and beauty) flowing from
Ambal’s mukha chanran (moon like face). They got satiated with that nectar
and were looking for somthing sour, and spotted the full moon, which being
only a reflection, issued only sour beams!

Acharyal has used the term kAnjika diya, which gives an evidence of his
origin in the Malayala Desam. He said that since the cakora pakshis were
convinced that the nectar from the moon was only sour kanji, they chose to
feed on it as an alternative.

The term kAnjika means relating to kanji, but the word kanji is not found in
Sanskrit. It is a word current only in the Dakshinam (south). There too,
kanji is special in Malayala Desam where even the rich lords used to drink
kanji in the morning. This was the variety came to be known as the
‘Mayalayam Kanji’.

Kanji is good for deham as well as chittam. And less expensive. You just add
a handful of cooked rice rava (broken rice), add buttermilk, salt and dry
ginger, which would be enough for four people.

The buttermilk added must be a bit more sour. The salt too must be a bit
more in quantity. With the slight burning taste of dry ginger, the
combination would be tasty and healthy.


It is customary to have tAmbUlam at the end of a South Indian dinner. In the
North, tAambUlam is popularly known as paan, which is usually a wrap of
betel nut and other allied items in a calcium-laced pair of betel leaves. In
the South, tAmbUlam is usually an elaborate and leisurely after-dinner
activity. People sit around a plate of tAmbUlam items, drop a few cut or
sliced betel nut pieces in their month, take the betel leaves one by one
leisurely, draw a daub of pasty calcium on their back and then stuff them in
their month, chatting happily all the while.

The betel leaf is known by the name vetrilai in Tamil, literally an empty
leaf. Paramacharya once asked the people sitting around him the reason for
calling it an empty leaf. When none could give the answer, he said that the
usually edible plants don’t just stop with leaf; they proceed to blossom,
and bear fruits or vegetables. Even in the case of spinach or lettuce, we
have to cook them before we can take them. Only in the case of the betel
leaf, we take it raw, and this plant just stops with its leaves, hence the
name vetrilai or empty leaf.

* *


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