Back in the days, in late 80’s when dollar could buy quite few things in India, a friend of mine in grad school went back to Suratkal to visit his girlfriend. He took her along with her friends out to dinner at a fancy place. While all others were ordering lavish dishes, he called the waiter and whispered to him “could you ask the chef to make me Mosaruanna?”. Of course, the girls were already impressed with credit card, and the power of dollar. On top of it, his confidence in going off the menu, that too, for a simple item like Mosaruanna, impressed them even more. I would like to think that it is one of the cherished moments in the courtship of my friend.
[Long time later, he told me that the story is more prosaic. He was flat broke and thus the credit card. He has upset stomach, and thus the Mosuruanna. But, I like my fiction better.]
When I was told this story, for a moment, I thought Mosaruanna is something fancy. Once I understood it is nothing but your yoghurt rice, I knew its many incarnations. It is perugannam in many Andhra households, daddOjanam in many temples, tairu saadam in Madras.
During IIT Madras days, an imaginative classmate of mine used to rag people into ending every answer with “curd rice power!” In Chennai, tairu saadam can be a complex affair. A deconstruction of such a dish would have reveal the textural contrasts — with addition of fried chana daal; sudden bursts of flavor — with fried mustard seeds, curry leaves, and coriander leaves; variations in four fundamental tastes — salt, heat, tartness and sweet with pomegranate seeds and grapes.
When I first came to US, in Meenakshi temple, they would have free food: tamarind rice and daddojanam. It is simple yoghurt rice, but the way it is made with slightly overcooked rice, or rice soaked in hot milk and yoghurt, where the yoghurt sets in the rice itself overnight. With addition of other unique Indian flavors (asafetida, ghee, curry leaves, ginger), it makes for a satisfying comfort food. When I made it at home, I made the mistake of adding onions when soaking the rice in milk and starter yoghurt. Overnight, it acquired very pungent taste. If you stick to basics (cooked rice, hot milk, starter yoghurt, green chilies, curry leaves, and coriander leaves). The next day, season it with mustard seeds, asafetida in hot ghee, and you are done.
I have a theory of topological transformation of foods, call it neutrological, — that is how the same basic ingredients are transformed across cultures. Under this theory, curd rice is neutrologically equivalent to cheese sandwich. Instead of bread, you have rice. Instead of cheese, you have yoghurt. Under similar transformation, it becomes lebbeh pita in the Middle East — strained yoghurt in a pocket bread. I am amazed how this simple comfort food crosses cultural boundaries.
Recently, I heard that a dotcom millionaire started a grilled cheese sandwich restaurant. It is hailed as a brilliant move, with simple appeal of a comfort food. What if we use the same concept for our curd rice restaurant?
Of course, the ingredients would be very simple. We can go with any simple rice, the rice that can cook close to mash consistency. We can even use broken rice. Good yoghurt is the key for good curd rice. No wonder Kalidasa asked for “maahishaMcha saraschandra chandrikaa dhavaLaM dadhi” (the yoghurt made from buffalo’s milk, as white as autumn moonlight). We may have to settle for less.
In this restaurant, I would have the basic perugannam with yoghurt and rice. I can let people choose different kinds pickles on the side. There would be one with aavakaya, which is your basic Andhra variety. This one would be Mallika’s favorite. I would offer one with fried red chilies. Of course, these red chilies would have seeds removed, soaked in buttermilk and then dried to make for a complex flavor profile, and yet satisfy a genuine Guntur person like my brother, who refused to eat perugannam when he was young, until served with these fried chilies. And, of course, Madhavi’s favorite would be lemon pickle on the side.
How do I top off such a meal? Perhaps in silence? So, I remain.
Yours truly, Rama Kanneganti