There is more to Tirunelveli, where a 6,000 MW nuclear power plant is coming up, than its famous wheat halwa, parotta, sodhi (a coconut milk based dish), adai and rasam. The region offers something for everyone -- from a five-year-old toddler to adults, a top caterer from the district said.
"Each town in the district has its own cooking style. But the food will not be spicy but flavourful and can be eaten by all, whether it is a five-year-old child or adults," S. Murugesan, who is anchoring the Tirunelveli food festival at the 74-cover Spice Jar restaurant in The Residency Hotel here, told IANS.
"The water from the Tamarabarani river also contributes to the food taste. The wheat halwa made in Tirunelveli gets its distinct taste only because of Tamarabarani river water," a resident of the district told IANS.
One of the big districts of Tamil Nadu, Tirunelveli is around 650 km from here and is famous for temples, Courtrallam waterfalls and now for the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP).
"The rasam made by people in Tirunelveli tastes distinctly different. We add a lesser quantity of lentils than people of other regions. The flavour will also be different," Murugesan added.
"My father ran a catering business and I took over from him. Today I get around 600-700 catering orders a year in Tirunelveli district. Earlier only three or four catering people would go to a home to cook for a function. The women in the household used to cut the vegetables. But now, all the work gets done by the catering personnel," Murugesan mused about the changing times.
By this time, Sankar, the waiter, had brought on the nattu kozhi charu -- a thin rasam like chicken soup -- and the kozhi sukka (masala chicken fry).
The soup's aroma was good and so was the taste and flavour.
"People are now exposed to cuisines of different regions within the state as they go out for studies and employment. In earlier days, guests at a wedding or family function would not complain about the taste. But now it is not so and we have to change our style," Murugesan explained.
The hot chicken fry was great. The spice levels were gentle and surely not to be missed.
Instrumental versions of old Tamil movie songs playing in the background soothed strained nerves.
"We brought two specialists from Tirunelveli. They were available only this time of the year as it is Aadi (monsoon festival) month in the Tamil calendar and no functions would be held at homes," Rohit Jha, Food and Beverages Manager at the 112-key hotel, told IANS.
With the chicken fry on the plate getting depleted fast it was time to spice up the discussion with the question about how the Residency benefited by the liquor ban on hotels located 500 metres from a highway.
"Our hotel did not get any major spike in business owing to some other hotels getting affected by the liquor ban order by the Supreme Court. Perhaps a 10 per cent increase in our business could be said due to the apex court's order that have affected some other hotels," Jha said.
He did agree that some of the hotels hit by the liquor ban order have downsized staff.
"It is going to be difficult for such properties to get back good and experienced people once the state government denotifies certain roads as highways as per the apex court's latest order," Jha added.
It was time for the main course and Sankar served tasters' portions of mutton biryani, steamed rice and senkottai veral meen (fish) kuzhambu.
The biryani was mild and the flavourful. The kayatharu chicken kurma and the senkottai meen kuzhambu were good and went well with ponni steamed rice.
On the vegetarian side, the small-sized soft adai (a batter made with various dalls and some rice) was the starter.
It also went surprisingly well with several accompaniments, the best being kalyana avial (a mixed vegetable mildly seasoned with ground coconut and spices), sepan kizhangu kurma (a southern root vegetable) and cluster beans curry.
The main course had a curry leaf rice and steamed rice to be mixed with 4-5 options like buttermilk kuzhambu, mapillai sodhi (a coconut milk-based dish) and the like.
While these really went easy on the stomach, the paanagam (a refreshing, jaggery-based drink) with a dash of lemon juice was a great substitute for water.
For the sweet tooth, the menu had nellai halwa, surtru mittai, ulundhu kali, apart from pal payasam.
What: Tirunelveli Food Festival
Where: The Residency Hotel, G.N.Chetty Road, T. Nagar, Chennai
When: Aug 4-13
Cost: Rs.800 per person, lunch and dinner buffet, including taxes