Food in Tamil Nadu

Walking through indian markets, the colors and smells of the local spices will most likely be the first thing that pops up. Being of indian heritage and having traveled to India many times, I was extremely excited to be part of the Auroville Practicum this year. Besides capturing instants with my camera, one of the major attractions of my travels is also tasting local foods.

As soon as we reached Auroville, I realized that we would be eating in restaurants at least twice a day. I was going to make the best out of this opportunity and my appetite never wained during the course of the month there. The first week was spent acclimatizing ourselves with the surroundings and visiting sites of Aurovillian units that we would potentially be interested in working for.
Along the way, we also took the opportunity to try as many restaurants as possible. One of our first encounters with local food was at the Mohanaman Centre. The centre is devoted to offering space for children to play sports and engage in cultural activities. The manager there invited us to a typical south indian lunch. All 21 of us sat around the huge casseroles of prepared daals, rice, papads and vegetables eagerly waiting to be served on our individual banana leaves. This was the first time (during this trip at least) the students were faced with the situation of having food in front of them and no utensils. That did not bother us, as we delved into the dish wiping it clean and licking our fingers full or rice and daal.
During the first week we continued to indulge into the southern indian flavors. We ate thalis filled with raita, sambar (southern lentils), subji (assorted vegetables) and many delicious pickles and chutneys to spice up the palate.

Charles trying his hand at a vegetarian thali, Pondicherry.

As you may be aware of by now, Auroville is a vibrant international community. The international aspect of this town fully reflects in the area’s gastronomy. Auroville’s strive towards becoming fully organic offers the community a variety of diverse, clean, fresh and tasty vegetables. Most restaurants offer a fully organic cuisine using vegetables and fruits farmed locally. Auroville being international as it is, offers french cuisine at the Town Hall, organic vegetarian mediterranean (and indian) food at La Terrace, italian food at New Creation and north indian food at Hindus Valley, the Visitors’ Centre, Solar Kitchen, Roma’s and israeli and greek food at Well Café.

We spent the majority of our time alternating between these restaurants. Hindus Valley offers typical north indian food, serving chapatis with subji and daal for lunch everyday. The restaurant is based on the gift economy model, meaning people contribute what they can towards the bill. The Town Hall, right next to the financial services office, offers a mix of indian and french food. The french owner is proud to propose different french dishes everyday and it is one of the nicest terrace of Auroville with a great view of the Matrimandir.

The Terrace is one of my favorites. Owned by a Spaniard Marc, it offers a mix of western organic delights. The palak pasta remains one of the best dishes I ate in Auroville. Right under La Terrace is the Solar Kitchen. This restaurant has a cantine feel to it as many Aurovillians go in and out for a cheap lunch. You go through the line, fill your plate with the chapatis, daals and raita, take your lemon water and eat in a very crowded, noisy, yet familial atmosphere.

Veggie Lasagna and Sandwich at La Terrace.

Auroville is full of surprises. Although very far from Italy, I ate some of the best pizza in my life here in Auroville at New Creation. Ironically, the restaurant is run by a group of frenchmen, but rest assured the chef is fully Italian. There, you can find vegetarian, vegan and sea food pizzas as well as all sorts of traditional and authentic italian pastas. I highly recommend the “unfolded calzone”, otherwise known as… a pizza. One of the most interesting assets of this restaurants is its long outdoor terrace giving it a very summer-like feel, especially when the chef theatrically speaks in italian during his breaks. The Visitors’ Centre was often our go-to for a quick indian meal. Situated right next door to the American and Tibetan Pavilions, we got to know the place so well that some of us no longer looked at the menu before ordering.

Working at Upasana, I often went for lunch to the next door israeli restaurant Well Café. I enjoyed the variety of mediterranean, greek and israeli foods there and found the mint water very refreshing after riding around in the sun all day. Well Café also had a Japanese guest chef and we were invited to a special organic vegetarian sushi night, a bit strange but very interesting. Although we didn’t really enjoy the jam session at Solitude Farm, the food there was remarkable. Once again, organic veggies accompanied with refreshing tea filled our stomachs. Towards the end of the trip, we ate a completely raw vegan dish, served with Kamboucha, a mushroom based drink supposed to revitalize the body and a vegan chocolate mousse for desert:

Not all restaurants were fully organic and healthy however. Many of us liked to sit at the Ritchy Rich café and indulge in a ice cream coffee full of creamy ice cream and a hefty dose of caffeine. We also stumbled across a restaurant called Beach Café on the border of Auroville, just outside the town. This meant the Beach Café was not imposed the alcohol restrictions of Auroville and that you were sure to find someone from our group there every night enjoying an indian meal and a “Strong Beer”. Trust me, it was strong.

Auroville offers a variety of restaurants. Everywhere you go you are offered very fresh and organic vegetables, making you feel rather healthy after a month. For my part, my favorite restaurant was one Martanda and Catherine took us to on the side of the East Coast Road (ECR). There, we ate street indian food: dosas, idlis, paranthas, and half-boiled eggs. I tried nearly everything on the menu that night and found the half-boiled egg experience rather interesting. The half-boiled is just another name for a fried egg, but there is a special way to eat it. As I observed Martanda chow down his food I wanted to try the half-boiled before I left. At that restaurant, the food was served fast, extremely fast. The quickness of the service unconsciously made us eat quicker and more. The half-boiled egg is the perfect example of this. You are served a fried egg and are supposed to put the whole egg in your mouth, wait for the yoke to burst and then just swallow the entire egg without chewing… After the whole experience, some tobacco pan and nice cup of chai is very much appreciated for the digestion process to begin.

Throughout the trip, I found that Pondi street food was the most exciting. You would just stand and wait for sizzling hot, spicy and flavorful food and follow it up with a piping hot chai. However, it is nearly impossible to eat street food and not have stomach ache for a few days, the price you pay for the fun you have… So coming back to Auroville and its organic lifestyle was very soothing, for the stomach and for the soul.

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