By Lata Gwalani Aug. 10, 2019
Ask any TamBrahm, and they would swear by their kula deivam (family God) that not wrapping up a meal with thayir-sadam (curd rice) and some lemon pickle is enough to get you ostracised.
If you cut us TamBrahms with a knife, curd is as likely to flow as blood. We swear by our thayir, promising that it can cure everything from indigestion (probiotics!) to global warming (so cooling, da).
Why did the TamBrahms become such massive curd nerds? Well, for starters, Tamil Nadu lies to the south of the equator, and gets unbearably hot. Curd is a natural coolant. It also provides some protein to our aggressively vegetarian diets. That’s not all there is to the unassuming goodness of the curd – it is rich in lactic acid, is a probiotic, and it helps maintain a healthy gut. Where do you think the BCCI’s N Srinivasan got the iron guts to pull off so many IPL scams? What do you think gave Dreamgirl Hema Malini the confidence to wield a broomstick outside Parliament with such swag? Thayir, take a bow.
What ties TamBrahms and curd together is our bland nature. This is not a weakness but an endearing quality because you can add it to just about anything, and in a snap, the dish transforms into a creamy delicacy. Ask any TamBrahm, and she would swear by her kula deivam (family God) that not wrapping up a meal with thayir-sadam and some lemon pickle is enough to get you ostracised. And after this, she will offer you a quick snack of curd with crushed pappadams.
The rest of the country cannot fathom the intensity of this love affair. I know this, because when I married into my Sindhi husband’s family, I bore the brunt of curd ridicule. Most Sindhi households, mine being no exception, need curd only on days when aloo paratha is sizzling on the tava doused in ponds of ghee. The rest of the time, “dahi” is simply a nuisance. If it’s dinner, curd’s a no-no. And if you’ve just had milk, then curd is forbidden. So you can imagine my horror when I discovered the “rules of the house”.
I have after all grown up slurping down lip-smacking desserts of pal payasam (rice in condensed milk) and then washing it down with a generous serving of curd. That’s why, at our wedding reception parties, at the end of the multi-cuisine buffet of noodles and pasta and live dosa/uttapam counters, a pot of the omnipresent curd rice sits on a bed of ice. The Tamilians in attendance make a beeline for the magical stuff, sprinkled with pomegranate to make it suitably glamorous for the occasion.
There is only one thing in the world that is more important to the TamBrahm than curd. It is the process of setting the curd. A dedicated vessel is reserved for this, and anyone who messes up with this revered utensil is sure to invite the wrath of the lady of the house — in my case, Amma. Before I left to begin life in my marital home, she gave me this pearl of wisdom, “A home is not a home if there is no thayir or mor.”
Well, there are two types of curd that cohabit in any TamBrahm household. The first is the fresh curd that is set the previous night. The rule of thumb is that this curd has to be pushed into the refrigerator the next day as soon as M S Subbulakshmi’s rendition of the Suprabhatam heralds the break of dawn. Any delay undoubtedly invites the wrath of Amma. The second type is the old curd that is already sitting in the fridge. The sour curd. You may mix the two at your own peril. The sour curd is brought out of the fridge on days when avial or mor kozhambu is on the menu. For the rest of the time, fresh curd is the order of the day. By the way, mor is the watered- down cousin of the curd, and holds the second position on the winners’ stand.
If you have not yet understood our relationship with curd, let me put it succinctly. A generous bowl of fresh curd in the fridge gives us a heightened sense of security. The opposite is also true: Its absence is the poverty index of Tamil Nadu.
How can I ever forget the faux pas that almost cost me my TamBrahm status? It was three months into my marriage, and I had invited my side of the family for a chaat dinner: An impressive spread of chole chaap, pav bhaji, and bhel puri. My family dug in with great relish. But near the close of the meal, I saw a couple of aunts standing around the table, their eyes distraught. Amma was beckoned, and there were murmurs. I caught the word “thayir.” A grief-stricken “aiyyo” was passed around for everyone to add to.
Worse, there was no curd in my super Sindhi fridge. My husband promptly got into action. How could he offend his in-laws? Four big cups of curd were ordered from the grocer across the street. That evening, had the utterly butterly Amul girl not come to my rescue, I would have gone down in history as the “woman who calls people over but does not serve curd”.
But as someone wise once said, “All’s well that ends well… with curd.” One glance at my husband and I could tell the words his lips were silently mouthing, “Dimaag ka dahi.”
Lata Gwalani speaks, writes, reads, and not necessarily in that order, and gets paid for doing so. She has X-ray vision into human psyche, and deduces more than what meets the eye, and is usually wrong. She is wary of people and is highly impressed with Noah for allowing only animals on his ark.