At first glance, it looks unpretentious. It doesn't exude the aura that an aloo tikki or dum biryani do. Even when decked up and dressed up like a bride, it doesn't assume lead star status in the line-up. It is like Rahul Dravid, steady, dependable and always playing second fiddle to the other Sehwags Laxmans and Tendulkars in the line-up. It doesn’t lend itself to poetry, give a foodstagrammer an orgasm or find mention in a 100 things to eat before you die bucket list. It has many secret admirers who outwardly pretend that they are most at home with an Italian dish they can barely pronounce and brush it off with varying degrees of embarrassment, like it is below their pretentiousness to acknowledge its existence.
On a bad day, it comes to the rescue of a tummy on a bender and on a good day it can empty a bottle of mango pickle. To an outsider looking in, the fierce and unflinching loyalty this dish maybe confounding, amusing even. Seemingly diminutive, it patiently awaits its turn without shouting out for attention and for that it deserves every accolade that it receives. This is the life and times of curd rice or thayir sadam as it is commonly known to us South Indians, a dish like no other.
Being born into a Tamil Brahmin household, I am authorized to speak with some authority on thayir sadam and the hole it feels in the culinary soul. For starters, no meal ends without a mandatory serving. There is nothing embarrassing about get curd rice pangs even when you're surrounded by food and curd rice isn't on the menu. After a very fancy meal in a costly restaurant where you are made to feel small if you can’t pronounce Gnocchi, the first thing you do after going home is look for any leftover rice and then open the fridge and search for curd. A South Indian fridge without curd is like a Virat Kohli innings without the words teri maa ki.
Just a small helping of curd rice and pickle can wash down a very good meal or make up what has been a forgettable one. A Michelin star rated soufflé can top off a meal and inspire ooh’s and aah’s while all the while one isn’t just digesting the pastry but also the price, but it can't complete it. The beauty of curd rice actually lies in its simplicity and its multi-tasking abilities. Firstly, it can be eaten with almost anything (almost being the operating word). A personal favourite of mine being gobi manchurain as the accompaniment. Secondly, it lends itself to constant never ending improvement. At its most basic, all it requires is some curd, a pinch of salt and some pickle. But grander versions are there for the taking too. Add some coriander, throw in some grapes and pomegranate and you have a meal fit for a king. Of course, sans all the above, you have a dish fit to combat the e.coli bacteria. Thirdly, it is extremely light on the stomach – how many ever servings you choose to heap on yourself.
Curd rice also lends itself to humor. In many homes, it is an unwritten rule that mangoes can be consumed only after a mandatory serving of curd rice. The wait gets a tad frustrating when all the mangoes are cut and kept tantalizingly in front of you. Realizing that the way to the mangoes was through the curd rice, a cousin decided to reverse the food chain at meal time by asking for the curd rice to be served first. Of course, all such grand illusions were put to rest and the mangoes had to wait. So did the curd rice.
There are many factors that make for a good meal. Some good cheers, some eye candy, some good conversation and of course, an enriching spread. While curd rice may not make a chef wax eloquent or cause one’s mouth to water in anticipation, it is an integral part in the hierarchy of needs in many South India homes.
It may not make the world go round, but it sure as hell makes a meal come full circle.