As befits the heartland of the south, Tamil Nadu’s cuisine is typical of south India’s finest, especially the rice-based thali, known throughout the state simply as “meals”. This inexpensive lunchtime feast comprises a pile of rice, often served on a section of banana leaf, accompanied by a papad and a selection of dishes in tiny metal pots. These can vary but usually include the likes of sambhar (a spicy lentil soup) or rasam (a peppery tamarind juice soup), kootu (vegetable curried with more lentils), spicy potato fry, kosumari salad (grated carrot and coconut in lime juice), medu vadai (lentil dumpling), mango or lime pickle, and curd. Often there is a pot of a sweet concoction such as akkaravadisal (made with rice and lentils) thrown in for good measure. These meals are sometimes “limited”(i.e. a fixed amount) but more often “unlimited”, which means they keep coming round dolloping more on your plate (or leaf) until you beg them to stop.
One of the most celebrated types of Tamil cooking is Chettinad cuisine, renowned for its skilful use of aromatic spices such as tamarind, star aniseed, a lichen called kalpasi, fennel seeds, fenugreek and whole red chillies. Chettinad chicken and Chettinad fish are the dishes most commonly found on menus outside India. Another item seen throughout India that originated here is Chicken 65, so called because the combination of spices was said to preserve the meat for 65 days on long commercial sea voyages.