The caramelised fragrance of ghee slowly wafts through culinary expert Rakesh Raghunathan’s living room in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The sounds of a crack, pop, snap and sizzle follow. Soon, the 34-year-old food writer, cultural raconteur and travel show host appears with a bowl of Hayagreeva Maddi—a creamy concoction of bengal gram cooked in jaggery and flavoured with ghee, coconut and cardamom. He has followed the exact recipe of the dish that is cooked daily at Sri Sode Vadiraja Mutt in Udupi and offered to Lord Hayagreeva.
For the past three years, Rakesh has been gathering recipes from temple kitchens, primarily across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. “Ghee in India has been considered a supreme cooking fat since the age of Aryans. Even Rigveda mentions of frying food and creating sweets with ghee,” says Rakesh, who will be showcasing the recipes at Sanskriti Museum in Delhi on October 28.
Temple prasadam is food offered to the deity at a stipulated time of the day. These were inevitably influenced by the local food culture, says Rakesh. At the Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, you will find prasadams such as paal payasam, unni appams and aviyal (a mix of cooked vegetables and coconut paste tempered with coconut oil).
“Across India, you find prasadams of all flavours—not just sweet, but also sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent,” Rakesh says. Sri Rangathaswamy Temple in Srirangam of Tamil Nadu serves a prasadam every hour. “Sometimes, it’s the usual fare like chapati and dal, kootu (vegetables and lentils) and keerai (greens); other times, the list includes special dishes like selvar appam—a sweet rice fritter—served on special pooja days,” he explains. Though one can find prasadams like puliyodhorai (spicy tamarind rice) in most temples in Tamil Nadu, the flavour and aroma of the dish vary across each region.
With a collection of over 150 temple prasadams in his diary, Rakesh says that in some temples, the recipes are quite guarded. “I interacted with people in these towns and villages to collect the traditional recipes,” he reveals. Most prasadams are still churned out using wood fire, brass urns or with bamboo wicker baskets.
Food and culture are linked, says Rakesh. “The stories behind each prasadam is interesting. Tamil texts like ‘Thiruppavai’ speaks of communal cooking and sharing. Between Shiva and Vishnu temples, the latter offers indulgent prasadams because unlike Shiva, an ascetic, Vishnu indulged in the best things,” says the host of food and travel show ‘Sutralaam Suvaikkalaam’.
While gathering the recipe of akkara vadisal (a mixture of rice, ghee and milk) from Srivilliputhur Andal Temple in Tamil Nadu, Rakesh learnt that the young Andal promised to offer 100 vessels (each the size of a pond) of butter and akkara vadisal to Lord Ranganathar if he marries her. She did marry him, but couldn’t keep her promise, Lord Ramanujar fulfilled it for her. If you can learn about Indian food system and culture, all while guzzling a bowl of hot Hayagreeva Maddi, why not ask for more?