Many rave about the Indian vegetarian meals; from dosas and idlis to palak paneer and aloo gobi the list of vegetarian dishes is endless. Of course, there is also the vegetarian rice-and-curry lunch.
A Tamil vegetarian rice-and-curry meal might look simple yet extravagant – an oxymoron if you will, with all those small containers containing dishes with different colors and textures. And you may wonder how to finish all of it.
How to Eat the Vegetarian Rice-and-Curry Lunch
Well, there is a method to the madness.
First things first, the traditional way of serving a vegetarian lunch is on a fresh banana leaf and one sits on the floor. But these days a stainless steel plate set or just the ordinary plate is used.
In Sri Lanka, a Tamil vegetarian rice-and-curry lunch will have a yellow lentil curry (the yellow comes from the type of lentil used plus the coconut milk and turmeric powder), a spicy curry, a mildly spicy sauté (such as sauteed potatoes), a green (it can be a simple dish such as mashed or semi-mashed spinach, or a collard sauté). There might be a dish with bitter taste too, such as bitter gourd fry.
Then there are the auxiliary items – ghee (in some places in North Sri Lanka they will use sesame aka gingelly oil), pickles, yogurt and papadam, which is a thin and crispy flat bread made from black gram.
Here is a vegetarian lunch I had made sometime back.
From left to right, you can see green beans sauté, dhal, a spicy eggplant curry, a yellow cucumber curry and a green (spinach) dish. There is yogurt, and fried papadam and chilies.
One adds yogurt usually in the second serving and then completes the meal with rasam, which is a spicy, watery concoction with crushed garlic, dried red chilies, black pepper and coriander. Sometimes tomatoes are added. It is considered a digestive aid.
Of course, there is a dessert to complete the meal.
Sometimes, the dessert is ‘payasam’ which is a pudding with vermicelli/sago, sugar, milk and cashew nuts. It is also served in the same banana leaf/plate which was used to consume the lunch proper.
Vegetarian Rice-and-Curry Lunch in Tamil Nadu
In Tamil Nadu, the chefs, whether at home or at restaurants, take it to the next level, but with some differences.
For starters, take a look at this photo of my lunch at the Madura Dine-in vegetarian restaurant in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). There are altogether ten small containers – the two with white contents are the dessert and yogurt/curd. The one on the top at the far left is the pickle.
The rest are a mixture of various dishes.
There is no dhal curry. During my trip to India many years ago, I went for lunch at a number of restaurants and it surprised – even disappointed – me to find out the omission of the dhal curry.
But our guide told me that one has to ask for it. And when I asked for it, I got dhal, though it came not as a curry but as a semi-fry. And it came with warm ghee.
So, that’s that – one starts the lunch with dhal and ghee.
Not quite – some start with a sweet. There is a theory that the sweet cleanses the palate.
And then they delve into the meal.
After dhal, they start with sambar which is a curry made up of lentils and vegetables.
Then there is kootu which can be described as sambar minus the lentils. The kootu tends to be more spicy than sambar. There are other types of curries added to the meal.
Then comes rasam, followed by, surprise surprise, a sweet.
The meal is completed with yogurt.
I am sure there are some other variations too to this order.