A Typical Telugu Brahmin Meal

(Picture (is not mine): This is how the meal I wrote about in this post looks like)

Ranjit, my husband, both looks forward to and gets flustered when we attend Brahmin weddings and it is time for meals. There are so many guidelines to follow and he is always confused about them. The one question that he asks repeatedly is, "Can I eat now?" and I explain patiently why he cannot.

My memories of every family gathering are dominated by the lunches and dinners I have had with my cousins, aunts and uncles. I was trained thoroughly to eat the right way, serve, and to a tiny extent, cook, and I learnt them enthusiastically. My previous post made me think of writing about the 'rules' of eating that I grew up learning and following. So here goes.

Unlike the general myth that a typical Brahmin meal is simple, it is very rich. You will have to see the spread to believe it. Traditionally, the meal is served on banana leaves, and is to be had sitting on the floor. Men and children eat first, and women later but this is not practiced much these days.

The meal typically starts with a sweet dish served on the bottom right of the leaf. The serving is tiny, most of the times just a spoonful. That is because it is served again towards the end. Then comes a few spoonfuls of spiced rice (tamarind rice/lemon rice/coconut rice/etc), a small serving of pickle, two curries (usually one boiled, fried lightly in little oil and garnished with coconut and the other invariably some curried form of brinjal), dal with mild flavors and very little seasoning, a fried vegetable suitably rationed (beats me how the tasty items are served less and the less tasty ones in abundance). The side dishes are all served on the upper side of the leaf, away from the person patiently waiting to start his meal. Then come appadams (or papad), salt served in the left corner away from everything else on the leaf and finally it is time for rice. The steaming hot rice in brought in a big plate (not in a vessel) and is served, again appropriately rationed. The sambar is next to be served and then ghee makes its appearance. The completely nutritious meal suddenly changes its colors with ghee. Spoon fulls are served generously on the sweet dish, dal, rice and sambar. People usually ask for additional servings completely undoing the healthy aspect of the food, but I don't blame them. The temptation of adding ghee is the most difficult to resist.

By this time, Ranjit would have asked me some 20 times if he can eat the food, but no, we can't eat yet. We wait for the eldest man in the group to start the holy ritual of chants and circle the right palm with water around his banana leaf symbolizing offering the food to the Gods which turns it into naivedyam (food offered to Gods). The elder then tastes a small portion and the rest of the group almost pounces to start with their favorite item. Rasam is served next and a second round of all the items make appearance. Finally it is time for curd rice which marks the end of the meal.

The water that is served needs to be away from the food, the person himself should not touch the banana leaf except with his right hand. There are a lot of liquids that will be served (like rasam, payasam, sambar, curd) and none should leak out of the leaf. The salt should not be served directly into rice or any other side dishes. The spoons with which the food items are being served should not touch the leaf or the food in it. Curds, pickle, and ghee should be kept away from the rest of the items in the kitchen. Every time a person touches the vessel with curd, he/she should wash his/her hand with a little water. This is to avoid any kind of contaminated contact between the food that perishes in a few hours and food that lasts longer. Eating curds at the end of the meal is a must and will attract uncomfortable stares if avoided. Once done, the leaf needs to be folded with the open end facing away from the person eating the food.The entire group waits until the eldest finish their meal and everyone gets up at the same time to wash their hands.

Any violation of the above guidelines, even if it is because of ignorance is glared upon. It's not a relaxing experience to eat amidst all this, especially if you happen to be someone not very familiar with the process, but the tasty food makes up for it. What goes unnoticed, even by me at times, is the underlying philosophy of respecting elders, maintaining cleanliness, and eating healthy.

God! How I crave for such meals!