Garlic and Onions, and South-Indian Cookery

Okay, so the Garlic and Onion blog a few days back evoked a good deal of interest. So what about Onions and Garlic in Indian cooking? Like South Indian Cuisine for instance. Here’s some comments I received some time back on the subject.

the topic of our discussion:

Saritha Vishwanath from Bangalore, South India writes: 
“Dear Kurma, I would like to share a sambar recipe slightly different from Swathi’s. I am also from South India (Bangalore) and I belong to Smartha Brahmin (Worshipers of Shiva) community. I hope you like this recipe.

To make sambar for 2 people: 1/2 cup toor dal (pressure cooked) + use any vegetables (eggplant, radish, drumsticks, spinach, potato etc). Boil the vegetables with the dal – this gives a different taste to the sambar.

Add 1 tsp tamarind paste. Salt to taste.

To make the sambar masala: 1/2 tsp coriander seeds, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 tsp channa dal, 4-6 red chillies, 1/4 cup fresh grated coconut.

Pour little oil in a pan, fry the above ingredients except coconut until the dal turns lightly brown. Then grind this with the fresh coconut to a paste. When the dal and vegetable is done, boil it, adding water, mix the tamarind paste and the ground masala. Add little salt for taste. Once this is done season with mustard seeds and asafetida. Also can garnish with coriander.”

Sudakaran Sangaran from Malaysia writes:
“The use of onions and garlic in south Indian cuisine is not culturally inherent. I have studied an old cookbook written by a Smartha Brahmin mataji named Smt Meenakshi Ammal. She published her first cookbook Samaithu Par (Cook and See) in 1951 when books of such categories were not favoured by publishers then.

There are 350 traditional vegetarian recipes in the book (she went on to publish another 2 under the same title). Barely even 5% of the recipes include onions and garlic. In fact, in recipes where these items are called for she added the word “optional” in brackets next to these two ingredients. So its obvious from this that traditionally orthodox south Indian cooking eschewed onions and garlic.

Another evidence is during the shraddha ceremony, when charity is given to the brahmin priest who performs the rituals. Apart from a dhoti and cash he is given in charity a complete set of raw uncooked food items such as vegetables, spices, oil, milk, yogurt etc. Onions and garlic are omitted.

The use of onions and garlic is prevalent in the north whose cooking tradition had been heavily influenced by the Moghul Muslims. This then gradually infiltrated into the traditions of the South. All orthodox brahmin households, be they Vaishnava or Smartha do not use these items as they are regarded as “rajasic” or passion inducing food. Haribol!”

Anu from South India writes:
“I am from South India and most households do not use garlic or onion in their regular sambhar. By the way a variation on sambhar is a traditional dish from Karnataka called “Bisi Bele Bath” – (Hot Dhal Rice). It’s a combination of dhal, rice, vegetables and sambhar masala with some additional spices like clove, cinnamon and star anise.”

Any more comments on garlic and onion use in the Subcontinent?

Posted by Kurma on 12/1/11; 4:24:05 PM

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