INDIAN FOOD SYSTEM (More precisely, South Indian but more or less applicable to all Indian meal systems) The following are rough translations of the words of Kanchi Paramacharya extracted from the Tamil publication titled Sollin Selvar (The Expert of Words), Sri Kanchi Munivar by Sri Ra. Ganapathy. The different Indian delicacies are explained as follows.
SAMBHAR: 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: 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. 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: 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.
UPPUMA: 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.
LADDU: 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.
PAYASAM: 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.
TAMBULAM: 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 mouth, 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.