Ahara – 9 June, 2019
It is very rare that individual people are able to promote Indian soft power, in any field, as widely and for as long as Ms. Viji Varadarajan has. An expert in South Indian Cuisine, she has authored numerous books in multiple languages, and is constantly teaching foreign students about the diversity the exists within Indian food. Focusing on South Indian cuisine, she aims to create an appreciation for the complexities of South Indian food, in the minds of all those she encounters from outside India.
Ms. Viji Varadarajan was trained to cook through the dual influences of her parental home and her husband’s family’s traditions. She has analysed the dishes from the point of view of nutrition and health and presents recipes that are perfectly balanced – low in fats and cholesterol and yet protein and vitamin rich. These recipes have been handed down and perfected in the kitchens and temples throughout South India. Today’s generation was losing out on an entire culture so she decided to record for posterity the dishes from a Brahmin cuisine.
CSP interviewed Ms. Vardarajan, at her home in Chennai, joined by two of her foreign students – Eri and Akemi. Akemi is a Japanese national, who had previously researched Indian cuisine. She has now settled in India for the last 20 years. Eri, also from Japan, runs an Indian restaurant in her hometown in Japan.
Ms. Viji Varadarajan
Indian cuisine has always been appreciated at the global level, but have you found that this appreciation has increased recently? And if so, why?
Indian food has always been popular in places like Britain. However, the Indian food taken there is mainly North Indian food, more specifically Punjabi food.
But recently a lot of people in Europe who have come to know the greatness of Yoga, and Ayurveda – and as the world goes on and on the meat produce has also become expensive for them – so they have to turn to vegetarian food. Basically what was sent there was non vegetarian food Punjabi food, so when they turn to vegetarian food it turns to the focus of south Indian vegetarian
Recently I would say, yes, it has gained popularity, in many places because when you go to learn yoga from a yoga teacher they generally ask you to eat vegetarian food and not have any other habits. So a lot of people I know of, have started vegetarian in a big way. And I have been promoting Tamil Brahmin cuisine for over 22 years now. I’ve written books, and taken it abroad – its won awards – and I’ve tried to carry Thayir Sadam to the world stage.
So to some extent yes, people have found the difference between north Indian and South Indian food. Of course it’s just a drop in the ocean, but still Indian cuisine is gaining a lot of popularity and I would say its increasing everyday.
You have spoken about the role that Vegetarianism has played in promoting Indian cuisine globally. Do you think that when our food is taken abroad that our ingredients are being used in the right way?
We have a lot of native vegetables in the south that you don’t find anywhere else. Like, the amount of spinach – you get all kinds of spinach in the south – each a different variety and with different flavours. And the spices are mild. So when you cook with these mild spices of the south the vegetable flavor stands out and the spice does not drown out the vegetable flavor. Unless you add a ginger or a garlic and you fry it in oil and then you add the vegetable, because then you only get the flavor of ginger and garlic.
Whereas generally in South Indian Cuisine using the same spices for a different vegetable you get the flavor of that vegetable. So its really unique that way, our vegetables. Our vegetables are unique and our spices are unique because they’re based on the ayurvedic principle of being healthy for the system. For example, we use all the ayurvedic ingredients in our Sambar powder – like fenugreek, mustard, a particular kind of turmeric. We don’t use cinnamon, clove or cardamom, which is supposed to give heat to the body, which they use for garam masala in the north. So there is a marked difference between the spices used in the north and the south.
Of the innumerable students you have trained, how many would you say are foreign students?
All of them. I don’t generally train Indian people because Indians have seen a mustard, they have seen a fenugreek, they don’t need to learn from me. I do specialized training for foreigners because they are passionate about knowing our spices. I’m looking for that passion. My students immerse themselves totally in the cuisine, they share their progress with me and they even start restaurants sometimes. Maybe they do other cuisines as well, but they give as much importance to the cuisine I’ve taught them. So that is what I concentrate on. Their passion for the food and my passion for teaching them.
Would you say that there is a region or a country that
seems to have a greater affinity towards Indian cuisine? Where do most of your
students come from?
Most of my students are Japanese or French. I have a French cookbook which was translated and co-authored by a French expat.
How did you become interested in Indian cuisine?
I first came to India over 20 years ago. When I first came I stayed only in large hotels and so I wasn’t able to truly experience real Indian food. But one time on this trip I ventured out and tried the food from a small restaurant, and immediately fell in love with it.
After going back to Japan, people began to ask me how to cook Indian food – and I began to notice the differences between Indian curry and Japanese curry.
What are some of the similarities between Indian
cuisine and Japanese cuisine that you have found?
One of the similarities I found was that the type of food served at home is similar between the two countries, because they both are not heavily spiced, and are not incredibly intricate dishes which require much time. And so in both forms of home food, we can taste the ingredients itself. But the food served at restaurants is totally different from anything in Japanese cuisine.
What inspired you to start your own Indian restaurant
I’ve been interested in Indian cuisine for twenty years now. In India there are so many different forms of foods and cuisines, and I wanted Japanese people to become aware of the diversity of Indian food. That’s why I started my restaurant.
In your restaurant, what are some of the dishes that
the local people seem to like the most?
Japanese people generally prefer something non vegetarian, like a chicken or fish curry. I combine such a curry with a dal, and a vegetable dish and make it like a combo meal. This is usually very popular in my restaurant.
Have you had to change some of the Indian recepies to adapt to the tastes of the people in Japan?
I’ve had to add less pepper, and make it less spicy.
What made you name your restaurant Ammikaal?
The name was actually given to me by a few Tamil students that lived in my city. The reason I chose it was because the Ammikaal is essential to South Indian cooking. That was the first reason. The second is that I wanted my restaurant to be place where many different cultures could mix and get along. There are around 400 foreign students studying at the university in my city but not many of the local people know about this, and so I wanted my restaurant to act as a point of contact between all these different people.
Is the clientele in your restaurant old or young?
The main customers are between the ages of 20 to 60, with the oldest customers being around 80 and the youngest being around 4.
What were your first impressions of India when you came here and how have they changed over time?
My first visit to India was Pune in 2006, and my first impression was that there were so many people.
And since then actually my main perception of India has not changed. Because India has been my dream country since before I even came here. So while I experienced new things, it’s not that my perception changed but rather that my understanding of India became deeper day by day.
You said that India was your dream country, why was
I had been doing research into ancient Indian food in Australia before I had even come to India for the first time. So I really wanted to come and see the real India.
What about food, clothes and other things like the climate? How have you adapted?
I’m not sure whether or not you know my background. I did my Masters in Gastronomy (Food anthropology) at the University of Adelaide and my thesis was related to ancient Indian food. Now I write about Indian cuisine and culture for Japanese magazines regularly. Food is the main reason why I came here so of course, I love all kind of Indian food and it’s my life work. But I can say that I prefer South Indian cuisine because rice is the staple. I’m Japanese so I can’t live without rice. I love wearing Sarees but the climate is too hot for me.
How did you get interested in Kolam design. Do you put it everyday in front of your house. Do you use traditional rice flour powder or do you like using colours too? What kind of patterns do you like making?
The street where I stayed after marriage was full of kolam designs every day, and I was simply attracted by its beauty. I started taking pictures of kolams especially during Margazhi but never tried to make a kolam by myself because I thought it is very difficult for me. In 2018, I coordinated an article about Kolam for a Japanese magazine. We visited Dr. Gayathri Shankarnarayan who is a Kolam expert & scholar and learned the basic and history of Kolam from her. We also went to Auroville and met Grace Gitadelilaa who has been doing Kolam workshops called Kolangal DD in D. After that I started putting Kolam every morning at front of my house entrance. I mix rice flour and stone flour as just using rice flour is quite difficult to make smooth lines. I think now most people use the mix or just stone flour. I love Chikku kolam most for putting but I’m interested in community-based kolams, such as Nadu Veetu kolam of Nagarather, Iyengar Padi kolam etc.
I use colors sometimes as one of my kolam teachers, Hema Kannan, asked us to use colors for special kolams. At the time, I made a Japanese traditional pattern called “Asanoha”.
What about the Indian deities? Who are your favourites and what attracts you to them?
My favorite deities are Andal, Murugan and Ammam.
Andal: I’m not sure whether or not we can consider Andal as a deity because she was born as a human. I love Margazhi and Kolam for which Andal has significant roles. I love her works, Thiruppavai and Nachiar Tirumozhi as these also have many gastronomical references. Nachiar Tirumozhi is one of the oldest existing references for Kolam.
Ammam: I don’t know why but I love Ammam temples where I feel very close to my heart. I think I love feeling the strong and passionate energy from lady devotees.
Murugan: Tamil Kadavul Murugan was my favorite serial and he is the most beloved deity by Nagarathers. I’m doing some research on the community.