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Tamil cuisine (தமிழ் உணவு) is one of the oldest vegetarian culinary heritages in the world. Traditionally, vegetarian dishes predominate the menu, including a variety of sweets and savories. It was developed over many centuries by Tamils who live in the region of present day Tamil Nadu in Southern India, India and Tamils of Sri Lanka. It is characterized by the use of rice, legumes and lentils, its distinct aroma

Thaali Meals served in Chennai
Thaali Meals served in Chennai


and flavour achieved by the blending of spices including curry leaves, tamarind, coriander, ginger, garlic, chili, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, coconut and rosewater. The word "curry" is actually derived from the Tamil word 'kari' which meant "sauce".

Rice and legumes play an important role in Tamil cuisine, and to quote Yamuna Devi, author of Lord Krishna's Cuisine, (Penguin Group): "in no other cuisine are rice and legumes used with such creativity" as in Tamil cuisine. Lentils are also consumed extensively, either accompanying rice preparations, or in the form of independent dishes. Vegetables and dairy products are essential accompaniments.

On special occasions, traditional Tamil dishes are prepared in almost the same way as they were centuries ago—preparations that call for elaborate and leisurely cooking, and served in traditional style and ambience. The traditional way of eating a meal involves being seated on the floor, having the food served on a banana leaf, and using clean fingers of the right hand to transfer the food to the mouth. After the meal, the fingers are washed, and the banana leaf becomes food for cows. This was a very environment friendly way of life.

Because of modernization, cosmopolitan culture and the break-up of the joint family system, compromises and adaptations are being made, and a movement towards a simpler cuisine can be sensed. Urbanization has introduced Western-style seating arrangements at traditional events with tables, chairs, plates and cutlery becoming the norm, and food being served buffet-style.

Despite changes in practices and their cultural implications, Tamil cuisine retains its basic character in the use of ingredients, and its aroma and flavour remain unchanged.



Over a period of time, each geographical area where Tamils have lived has developed its own distinct variant of the common dishes in addition to dishes native to itself.

The Chettinad region comprising of Karaikudi and adjoining areas is known for both traditional vegetarian dishes like appam, uthappam, paal paniyaram and non-vegetarian dishes made primarily using chicken. Chettinad cuisine has gained popularity in non-Tamil speaking areas as

Rice Idli and Vada with Sambar and Chutny
Rice Idli and Vada with Sambar and Chutny


well. Madurai and the other southern districts of Tamil Nadu are known for non-vegetarian food made of chevon, chicken and fish. Parota made with maida or all-purpose flour, and loosely similar to the north Indian wheat flour-based Paratha, is served at food outlets in Tamil Nadu, especially in districts like Virudhunagar, Madurai and the adjoining areas. Parota is not commonly prepared at home as it is a laborious and time-consuming process.

The western Kongu region has specialities like Santhakai/Sandhavai (a noodle like item of rice), oputtu (a sweet tasting pizza-like dish that is dry outside with a sweet stuffing), and kola urundai (meat balls). Ceylon Tamil cuisine, not only bears similarities to Tamil Nadu- and Kerala cuisine but also has many unique vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. It features dishes such as puttu (steamed rice cake) and Idiyappam or Sevai, (known in other parts of the world as string hoppers), which is particularly very popular.

Typical Tamil feast - Virundhu Sappadu


Tamil culture is known for its hospitality. ‘Virundhu’ in Tamil means ‘Feast’, when guests (Friends, Relatives) are invited during happy ceremonial occasions to share food, love and laughter. ‘Sappadu’ means a full course meal, which can be either Lunch or Dinner.

During Virundhu Sappadu, guests sit on a coir mat which is rolled out on the floor and a full course meal is served in the traditional

Ghee Pongal
Ghee Pongal


way, on a ‘Banana Leaf’ which is spread in front of the guests, with the tip pointed left. The host will ensure that the menu includes as many variety of dishes as possible and guests are served as many helpings as requested. The dishes are served in a particular sequence, and each dish is placed on a particular spot of the banana leaf. Guests are expected to begin and end eating the meal together and do not leave in middle of a meal. One look at the leaf after the food is served and guests will know the community, the status, the exact wealth of the family, and from which part of Tamil Nadu they originate.

Food is generally classified into six tastes - sweet, sour, salt, bitter, pungent and astringent ('arusuvai unavu') and Tamil cuisine recommends that you include all of these six tastes in each main meal you eat. Each taste has a balancing ability and including some of each provides complete nutrition, minimizes cravings and balances the appetite and digestion.

  • Sweet (Milk, butter, sweet cream, wheat, ghee (clarified butter), rice, honey)
  • Sour (Limes and lemons, citrus fruits, yogurt, mango, tamarind)
  • Salty (Salt or pickles)
  • Bitter (Bitter gourd, greens of many kinds, turmeric, fenugreek)
  • Pungent (Chili peppers, ginger, black pepper, clove, mustard)
  • Astringent (Beans, lentils (dhals), turmeric, vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage, cilantro)

The top half of the banana leaf is reserved for accessories, the lower half for the rice. In some communities, the rice will be served only after the guest has been seated. The lower right portion of the leaf may have a scoop of warm sweet milky rice Payasam, Kesari, Sweet Pongal or any Dessert items. While the top left includes a pinch of salt, a dash of pickle and a thimbleful of salad, or a smidgen of chutney. In the middle of the leaf there may be an odd number of fried items like small circles of chips either banana, yam or potato, thin crisp papads or frilly wafers Appalams and vadai.

The top right hand corner is reserved for the heavy artillery, the Curry, hot, sweet, or sour and the dry items. If it is a vegetarian meal, the vegetables are carefully chosen, between the country ones-gourds, drumsticks, brinjals-and the 'English' ones, which could be carrot, cabbage, and cauliflower. (If it is a non-vegetarian meal, a separate leaf is provided for the fried meats, chicken, fish, crab, and so on.) But again, the variations are presented carefully, one dry one next to a gravied one.

There may be side attractions such as Poli, Poori, Chappati, few of the famed rice preparations such as Ghee Pongalor Puliodarai particularly if the family comes from Thanjavur, known as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu.

After having worked through the preliminaries, the long haul starts with the rice, which is generously doused with Ghee along with steam cooked lentils, Sambar the highly spiced lentil-based dish follows and this is succeeded by More-Kulambu(yoghurt and spices with coconut), Puli-Kulambu( spciy sour curry with vegetables and tamarind) and Rasam.

With every course the leaf is carefully replenished, the guest's protests being totally ignored. After a final round of rice with curds or buttermilk or both, it concludes with a small banana a few betel leaves and nuts.

The beetel leaf chewing is a traditional habit said to aid digestion and in olden days it was reserved for couples only. In today's world no such restrictions are imposed. The beetel leaf is packed into a little 'package' with edible calcium paste layered on top and a pinch of coarsely powdered beetel nuts or a half beetel nut.

Commonly consumed items
Rice, the major staple food of most of the Tamil people. Lunch or Dinner is usually a Meal of steamed rice, served with accompanying items, which typically include Sambar, Dry Curry, Rasam, Kootu and Thayir (Curd) or Moru (Buttermilk).

Tiffin or Light meals, which is often served for breakfast or as an evening snack, usually include one or more dishes like Idli's, Pongal, Dosai, Chapati, Sevai, Vada which is of 2 kinds - (methuvadai and paruppuvadai) Vadai .

Coffee is the most popular beverage. Another popular beverage is strongly brewed tea found in the thousands of small tea stalls across the state of Tamil Nadu and adjoining areas.

Dosai, crepes made from a fermented batter of rice and urad dal (gram), and is accompanied by Sambar; also see Masala dosai

  • Idli, steamed rice-cakes, prepared from a fermented batter of rice and urad dal (gram), and side-dishes are usually different kinds of chutney or sambhar
  • Upma/Uppittu, prepared from semolina (rava), onion, green chillies, and certain spices
  • Sambar, a thick stew of lentils with vegetables and seasoned with exotic spices
  • Rasam, lentil soup with pepper, coriander and cumin seeds
  • Thayir sadam, steamed rice with curd
  • Sevai or Idiyappam, Rice noodles made out of steamed rice cakes.
  • South Indian Coffee, also known as Madras Filter Coffee, is a sweet milky coffee popular in Tamil Nadu. It is quite similar to the Cappuccino and Latte varieties of coffee in the United States of America.

Other snack items include murukku, seedai, bajji, mixture, sevu, and pakoda which are typically savory items.

Koozh - Porridge. They also have Koozh which is poor man's breakfast and lunch but its considered rich man's health drink.

Influence abroad
Historically, Tamil cuisine has travelled to Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand via traders (Nagarathar) from Tamil Nadu. Along with Chinese, it has influenced these international cuisines to what they are today. South African Indian cooking is also influenced by Tamil cuisine which was brought by indentured labourers in the late 19th century.

Tamil culinary terminology absorbed in English

  • The word curry is an anglicisation of the Tamil word kari. 
  • The Tamil phrase milagu thanni, meaning pepper soup, literally pepper water, has been adapted in English as Mulligatawny
  • The word Mango is derived from the Tamil word Maanga or Maangaai.
  • The word Rice and the equivalent Tamil word Arisi may have the same roots.



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This entry is from Wikipedia, the leading user-contributed encyclopedia. It may not have been reviewed by professional editors (see full disclaimer)

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