No buffet in Chennai is complete without curd rice. Chefs can be culinary masters of any art but they had better have this in their arsenal. At the end of a long row of kebabs, or continental delicacies or Schezwan delights, a large bowl of curd rice holds its own. If the restaurant does not serve it, it risks immediate alienation. Chennai loves its ‘Thair Saadam’ – and to the outsider who first sees the fluffy white mass, with dots of black mustard, curry leaves, flecks of ginger and an array of powders, pickles, and fries around it, it may not make much of an impression. North Indians will mistake it for Kheer, a much loved traditional sweet dish with a massive following, but it will flatter to deceive. Curd rice is bland with the overwhelming flavour of yoghurt and squished up rice. The accompaniments are what make for its distinction and its consumption in massive quantities.
The Chief of Pepsi has admitted that it’s her secret weapon! And everyone has their own little touches. Savoured with a sprinkling of grapes. Or showered with pomegranate seeds that are crunched and add a sweetish note. Or with tiny slivers of raw mango, carrot and lime juice squeezed over it. For a lot of students, curd rice is staple and punishment, rolled into one. The easiest dish to cook and pack into tiffin boxes. And sending everyone around scurrying for cover when the lids come off in the afternoon and the rich, full-blooded aroma of the fermented yogurt hits home. Like Durian, it has a very distinctive bouquet and the same effect. You either love it or hate it but you cannot be ambivalent about your preference for curd rice.
From a purely nutritional point, it provides about 250 calories per serving. But the ‘cooling effect’ is what people swear by. In the hot, tropical climate of Chennai where summers can extend for 9 months in a year, everyone is looking for a way to cool off. And curd rice fulfils the essentials qualities of a comfort food. It goes back in time in terms of its origin, setting the base as a well-loved tradition. It’s easily made, easily digestible and goes with a variety of accompaniments. It allows everyone to be inventive in their own way. Families have their own little touches that make it distinctive. And that may be its greatest strength.