On Sunday Suku and I hosted a lunch for family and friends. We could have ordered from one of the Indian restaurants which offer fare that passes off as "Indian" in the West, but nowhere near resembles what we ate growing up. I did not have to resort to that travesty and have a spread of greasy paneer, naan and oily half cooked rice. This is because we have our own Bhima in the city. Bhima in Hindu mythology, was the second of the Pandava princes, whose story is retold in the Mahabharata epic. He was known for his culinary expertise. One of the 5 famous Pandava princes, he is said to have masqueraded as the king’s cook, for the one year when they went undercover in the kingdom of Virata, mesmerising His Royal Highness with his mouth watering dishes. The famous South Indian “Avial” (mixed vegetable and coconut dish) has been traced back to him as its originator.
Chandramouli Mama, our own Bhima, is a Brahmin priest in Toronto, who manages a temple and cooks and feeds people. Portly and energetic he can make a meal appear in a jiffy with effortless ease. So much so he is the port of call for us Tam Brahms. Right from first birthdays to eightieth and everything in between he handles all with panache and zeal for his loyal followers. We unabashedly ream off items we want on the menu and he gets caught up in our enthusiasm to suggest even more dishes. The end result is a divine spread and a great draw.
So on the appointed day, Suku and I provided an authentic South Indian vegetarian meal which featured saambar saadam (lentil stew rice), thayir saadam (curd rice), Rasam (spicy lentil soup), potato spicy fry, Paruppu vadai (spicy donuts), payaasam (milky rice pudding), thayir pachadi (raita) and appalam. He threw in pulao, mattar paneer and daalpuri for good measure, but with that distinct South Indian home-made quality to them. But that was not all - homemade pickle with mangos cut into tiny pieces as they do with mangos picked from backyard trees in Chennai and thinly sliced plantain chips were included as accompaniments to this great spread. Baadam cake, laddus and thenkozhal in loot bags topped it all off. Mama is a magician because he can produce prodigious quantities of freshly cooked food in a morning. He probably works through the night. The food always arrives piping hot in stainless steel containers at the appointed time, delivered by his brother and one of the temple patrons. Also Mama never skimps on quantity. I always have to remind him to not go overboard. But he never listens and I always have take-away containers for people to take home their next meal. We had 70 people that day and food was overflowing with several people carrying precious leftovers home.
I remind myself never to take mama for granted. It's like having Bhima in our backyard - warming up this cold city of ours. On Tuesday, the day of Tamilnadu’s biggest festival, Pongal (celebrating the winter harvest), I dropped in at the temple and was offered a steaming hot cup of cardamom tea and chakkara pongal (rice cooked with jaggery, ghee and milk). I did not have to make pongal at home. The day before when I went over to pay him for the food he had provided on Sunday he packed me venn pongal (spicy rice) and uppuma (semolina). No one leaves his temple hungry. It is truly a dharamsala (refuge) animated by one man's energy and generosity of spirit. Although there are several others who cater to South Indian tastes, Toronto would not be the same for me without him!