Vysial Street Telugu Speaking Mercantile Community’s Old Food Custom – Part I

Coimbatore has been know for its tasty food. A number of homemakers, cooks etc., made excellent food. Many of them became food vendors. They used to make at home and deliver at houses of their clients. The people of Vysial Street were known for their unique food. These merchants had migrated into the Tamil speaking regions of the peninsula long ago. They used to live in clusters all over the Madras Presidency. Most of them used to live in a neighbourhood and were attached to their community deity Vasavi Kannika Parameswari. It was a normal practice to create a common facility which functioned as a choultry cum community centre. A shrine for prayer was part of the establishment.
The community of merchants used to celebrate all their occasions in the choultry and used to engage priests and cooks who were exclusive for them. They were pure vegetarians and used to shun garlic. Members of the community were involved in mercantile activities. Grocery shops, jewellery shops and local banking were practiced by them. Their food was quite unique and some of the items are made by the people who live in Tamilnadu and not elsewhere. They had assimilated some methods and procedures which have made their food interesting in every which way.
The food made by the mercantile community is yet to reach the mainstream society. In spite of being available it is found in very small quantities in the neighbourhood of Vysial street. Let us look at this food from the past which has become part of the heritage food walks. The women of the household were adept in cookery and each one of them had their own recipes. These recipes were small variants but yet were interesting. The women used to come from different parts of the south and they brought along their food specialities with them. They lived as joint families and some families had four generations of people. Some of the households had over 20 members staying under one roof. The grand mothers in law, mothers in law, co sisters and sisters in law shared their best and trusted methods with each other. Some of the households created their own signature recipes and even the employed cooks had to cook in that tradition. Of course nice items from the cook were would eventually get added into the menu of the household.
The people mostly ate idli, dosa, chutney and sambar for breakfast. A number of chutneys like the ‘Venchi Rubbina Chutney’ were served with ‘Pachi Biyyam Dosa’ at the time of the ‘Ananthavratam Festival’ and ‘Obattu’ was also made. Childless couples who used to part take the complete ‘Kalasam Thankai’ used to be blessed with kids quickly. ‘Thaaligala Paravannam’ was kind of a thick spagatti kind of thing which was soaked in a sweet coconut cum jaggery solution which was thick. This item was usually offered to Goddess Lalitha on special occasions.
Ganesh Chathurti saw many types of food. The ‘Peddha Idli’, ‘Undial’ stuffed with ‘thenkai poornam’, ‘Jillidi Kai’ (Kozhukattai), Undrallu which is made with the same kozhukattai dough. The ‘Jillidi Kai’ was filled to two kinds of fillings. One was not supposed to taste the food before offering it to God. It was a taboo to even take a deep breath and enjoy the fragrance while the food was made.
They used to buy new ingredients for such occasions. Some of the households had separate sets of vessels too for mass cooking or for festival cooking. Several of the households used dung patties and firewood for a long time. They shifted to the gas stove only recently. Of course it was prayer cooking only.
People could enter the kitchen only after a bath. Only the ones who had bathed could serve or eat food. Food was served on plantain leaves or plates. The plates belonged to individuals and its was exclusive. One could not eat in the plate of another. Guests were served on plantain leaves or silver plates. Only silver plates could be used by everyone for it was a noble metal. Food was served by the lady of the household and people used to sit on the floor and eat the same. Self service was not allowed for food could not be served with the left hand. The women of the household used to sprinkle water and clean up the dining area before serving food. Later mats or wooden planks used to be placed on the ground for people to sit down. The plates or leaves would be placed along with tumblers. Water used to be poured out of small pitchers or jars. One had to drink water without placing the lip on the top end of the tumbler. Heavy duty sounds while relishing the food was best avoided.
The ladies used to change into fresh clothes while serving the food and the people getting served would have to wash their feet and hands properly before having a meal. Hygiene was very important. It was best to avoid spilling for food waste was considered to be a sin. The wealthier people drinking water in silver containers. Items like curds were also kept in silver containers. Tumblers, davaras and plates were also made of silver. The plates had a tiny piece of pure gold embedded on them for it was considered to be auspicious and healthy to eat in that kind of a plate. God was thanked before taking the meal. During hot summer months, the lady of the house used to fan while the husband relished his meal.
Every meal was offered to God. Newly cooked rice was first offered to the crow everyday and one would eat only after the crow was served fresh food. Some food was regularly offered to the poor. A number of people had got impoverished under the colonial rule and quite a few had to beg for existence.
Therefore households used to make a bit of extra food and give it to beggars or wandering mendicants everyday. The household would always have something which was eatable and would never be without any food ever. Some of the big households used to receive guests everyday and therefore used to make some more regularly. They used to love to serve unexpected guests. Old rice was soaked in water and kept separately. Or they used to soak it ‘chaaru’ (rasam). This used to be eaten in the morning and was known as ‘Saddhannam’ but some people did not follow it. The exposure and habits spawned interesting innovations too.
—Rajesh Govindarajulu

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