The Six Tastes Of Tam Brahm Cuisine

Arusuvai Madhuram.

For a while now, I’ve heard this restaurant’s name bandied about by die-hard fans of Tamil Brahmin (Tam Brahm) cuisine in Bengaluru and my curiosity was piqued.

For one thing, this is a cuisine that is very much part of my own culinary heritage. Second, living far from the city of my birth and away from most family members means, I often crave elaborate festive meals, served on traditional banana leaves. And finally, who has the time in this day and age to prepare such a variety of dishes in one’s own home?

What Arusuvai Stands For

Accompaniments rarely found outside Tamil homes
Accompaniments rarely found outside Tamil homes

Yet, first, I wanted to know what lay behind the unique name of this restaurant. Though the full name of this outlet is Arusuvai Arasu Madhuram, most people shorten it to just Arusuvai Madhuram (‘Arasu’ means ‘King’). I knew ‘Madhuram’ means ‘sweet’ or ‘beautiful’. It was, however, ‘Arusuvai’ that grabbed my attention. A little search online and a few conversations with Tamil-speaking people educated me on the etymology of this word: ‘Arusuvai’ stands for the six tastes in Ayurveda, practised by our forefathers. Yes, six in all, including (believe it or not!) what we now call ‘Umami’. These tastes include that of thithippu (sweet), karam (spicy/hot), uppu (salty), kasappu (bitter), pulippu (sour) and thuvarpu (umami – earlier, astringent).

So, armed with my newfound knowledge, I made my way to HSR Layout, a delightful suburb in south-east Bengaluru. This modest, mid-sized restaurant is on the first floor of a building on a busy main road. I arrived there on a Sunday just after 1:30 pm and found about a third of seats occupied, but before I could finish my own meal, the place was jam-packed! As one enters the large dining hall, the first thing one encounters is a small table with offerings of the day’s dishes to the deities, or Naivedyam – a very homely feel, I thought. The dining hall is arranged like the typical marriage halls one sees down South; row after row of simple tables, arranged opposite each other, covered by disposable or recyclable clean white paper sheets, with comfortable chairs for customers.

A Feast Fit for Royalty

Traditional Naivedyam offered to deities
Traditional Naivedyam offered to deities

What got me all excited was to see the huge banana leaf placed before me, and as soon as I’d finished cleaning it with drops of water, the staff started serving the various dishes. First came the sweets, raitas and Dahi Vada in a separate bowl. The menu for these popular weekend Banana Leaf Meals changes every week, and that particular Sunday, there was Vermicelli Kheer, Shakkara Pongal, Pineapple Sweet Pachidi (Raita), Banana Stem Raita cooked in thin buttermilk (that was my idea of Umami!), Potato Peas Spicy Karakari, Broad Beans and Coconut Curry, Ash Gourd Kootu, Keerai Mashiyal (a preparation of Amaranthus leaves), Tamarind Rice and the usual accompaniments of Pickle, Fried Appalam, Fryums and Mor Milagai (Chilli dried in yogurt and fried in hot oil, delicious with Curd Rice).

I had barely started on the Tamarind Rice when I was served Paruppu and aromatic Ghee with Hot Rice. Then came the four main gravy dishes of the day – Vathal Kozhambu, Carrot Sambar, Tomato Rasam, Ash Gourd Mor Kozhambu, and finally, Curd. Everything tasted just perfect and delicious. All this variety, served in pristine hygienic conditions, inclusive of taxes, came in at INR 250.

‘We get a lot of NRIs’.

Life's little extras
Life’s little extras

As I was to observe during my lunch there, the attention to detail had been perfected by the thoughtful management and staff, right from the small bottle of mineral water that is served to each diner to the Beeda or Vethalai and Ice Cream kept on a separate table, to their repeated enquiries about second helpings. The staff are knowledgeable and answered my queries patiently. I also spoke to the Manager, Mr. S. Manish, to ask about the kind of clientele that frequents his establishment. I was told that in nearly 3 years (they turn 3 in December), they have managed to attract a loyal crowd of diners. I was curious to know if only South Indians come to dine here, given that it is not always easy to manage food served on a banana leaf – especially the runny Rasam! Mr. Manish assured me, saying, ‘We get an equal mix of diners from both the North and the South of the country, but it is often the non-resident Indians (NRIs) who take immense delight in the fare that is on offer here’. He said most people treat it like their own home and I must say I felt totally at home there that day!

Did I have my fill of all six tastes that day? Absolutely!