The two-storied house had huge Venetian glass windows, which overlooked the divine Ganges. The bedrooms were built in such a way that when the drapes were pulled, one looked out at the holy river. A huge terrace attached to the house had an aesthetically constructed temple and a priest, who performed puja there twice a day. Next to it were curved steps that led down to the ghat, which lay on the river bank. One could take these steps that led down to the river and sit there for hours watching the river flow and let time stand still.
Malayalam actress Prabha Dutt had accompanied me on the trip along with Princess Madhu Verma’s staff. Sipping tea in mud pots, we stood motionless looking at the Ganges flow, frozen in time, spellbound by the magic of nature, the beautiful place and the house. We quickly got dressed to walk down to the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, where the evening aarti ritual took place. Watching the Ganga aarti is an experience not to be missed. As the sun set, aarti began with hymns being chanted and diyas with ghee floating down the river — making the scene an ethereal experience that will be remembered for a lifetime. As we watched the glow of the aarti fire light up the place, we dipped our feet in the river to set our lamps afloat. For many, Ganga is just a river, but for many others, she is their lifeline and a source of divinity.
Having satisfied our souls, we found ourselves at a traditional eatery near the Triveni Ghat called Sri Balaji, which served speciality south Indian food. We entered and sat down at a table, when an old man wearing a spotless white dhoti and kurta walked up to us, asking if we would like to taste a Tamil dish that was served during the Sangam era. Of course, the dish had undergone many changes from the original recipe, as many ingredients that were then not available are accessible now. He made us an offer of the fabulous Raja rajya kathirikai rice as he had come to know that we were from the South and that I was a chef. The dish, he informed us, contained not only rice, but also brinjals and a special spice mix with legumes and sprouts. Back in those days when the recipe was originally created, there were no tomatoes, red chillies or sugar, hence the recipe used black peppercorns, tamarind and jaggery.
Ancient Tamil cuisine includes the cooking done by our ancestors between 3BC and 15BC. Tamil Sangam era works like Kurunthogai, Pathichupathu, etc. widely described the food and food habits of the ancient people. The literature clearly described the food that had been served in laymen’s homes as well as the king’s palace and festive food. There is a mention of a dish made using brinjal, mixed with rice, as a special kind. The rice we were served used the basmati variant, while in the South, ponni or samba variety is used. Millets were used in place of rice back in the olden days.
The aroma and the taste of the dish transported us to another world, where time stood still. I have never forgotten the taste of it. This is one such recipe that cannot be found on any search engine. Sharing this recipe with you all ahead of Deepavali.
Raja rajya kathirikai sadam
Prep time: 15 min
Cook time: 25 min
Calories per serve: 300 cal
Cuisine: South Indian heritage
Ponni/samba raw rice: 1 cup
Purple brinjals: 4
Ginger: ¼ cup (julienned)
Tamarind paste: 1 tsp
Tomato puree: ½ cup
White chickpeas: 1 tbsp
Black gram: 1 tbsp
Red kidney beans: 1 tbsp
Pepper corns: 1 tsp
Cumin: 1 tsp
Sesame seeds: 1tsp
Coriander seeds: 1 tsp
Green chillies: 2
Red chillies: 3
Fenugreek seeds: 1/4 tsp
Shallots: ¼ cup (peeled)
Asafoetida: 1 tsp
Dry copra: 1 tbsp (grated)
Curry leaves: 1 cupful
Coriander leaves: 1 cup (finely chopped)
Cow ghee: 1 tbsp
Sesame oil: 1 tbsp
Mustard seeds: 1 tsp
Urad dal: 1 tsp
Chana dal: 1 tsp
Pink salt/rock salt: As required
- Soak white chickpeas, black gram and red kidney beans overnight.
- Cook them with a pinch of salt and turmeric in a pressure cooker till soft.
- Soak rice in water for a short while. Drain the water and cook the rice adding two cups of boiling water, a little salt and ¼ tsp ghee.
- Cut brinjal into cubes or length-wise. Also chop shallots and slit green chillies length-wise and set aside.
- In a heavy bottom pan, heat a teaspoon of oil and add in red chillies, copra, cumin seeds, peppercorns, asafoetida, coriander seeds, chana dal, urad dal and fenugreek seeds on medium heat. Fry for 2-3 minutes and grind it to a smooth paste in a blender using water.
- Into the same pan, pour the remaining oil and ghee. Add in the chopped brinjal along with salt and turmeric. Set aside once cooked.
- Now splutter mustard seeds, curry leaves, red chillies and a pinch of asafoetida. Sauté the shallots and julienne ginger in it for two minutes.
- Add in the cooked legumes and saute for a minute.
- Now add the tomato puree and cook for two minutes.
- Add in the masala paste and saute till oil separates from the mixture.
- Now add the cooked brinjal to the pan. Check for seasoning and add salt if required.
- Add in the rice, left over ghee, and stir.
- Turn off the flame and add freshly chopped coriander leaves on top.
- Serve the dish with a side of plain yogurt and poppadoms or potato wafers.
- Buy ready-to-use spice powders in small quantities, as they lose flavour fast
- Use seasonal local grown vegetables and fruits rather than frozen ones, for better flavour and taste
- A dish with freshly ground masala always tastes better. Try to grind your spices freshly for special occasions
— Chef Ramaa Shanker is the author of ‘Festive Offerings to the Gods: Divine Soul Recipes’