Fresh out of a food designing course in Italy and an internship in the Netherlands, Akash Muralidaran went back home earlier this year to explore the underlying eating patterns in Chennai. Little did he know that a quick rummage into his attic would lead him to discover a new world of forgotten vegetables unique to South India.
The 25-year-old food designer recently completed a 100-day cooking challenge on Instagram, which saw him discover and cook with some of the lesser-known vegetables native to the South, like country cucumber (thummatikai), spiny gourd (mezhuku-pakal) and purple yam (rasavalli kizhangu). The challenge was a product of grit, wide palates and a copy of Meenakshi Ammal's cookbook relic Samaithu Pear.
"Shortly after my return to India, I chanced upon the 70-year-old cookbook and a few family recipes," recalls Akash. Those were all the ingredients he needed to whip up a challenge with a purpose.
"While skimming through the book, I noticed that there were a number of vegetables I did not recognise. My mother and a few others I spoke to, gave me nostalgic stories of growing these vegetables in their backyard as children. But they had no reason for not cooking with them now.”
Every morning, between 6am and 8am, Akash has been cooking with one vegetable a day for the past three months. The 100-day journey started on March 1 and concluded last week. "Most of the recipes are from Samaithu Pear. Vegetables like the spiny gourd were not featured in the book. For a few such ingredients, I improvised with family recipes;' Akash explains.
While the process involved a lot of planning, Akash describes it as a blind leap of faith. "I took it one day at a time, with a belief that I would find 100 such vegetables. I was aided by a couple of my friends and followers, who pinged me vegetable suggestions," he says, adding that his mother was his partner in the kitchen. "Every weekend, we'd plan the vegetables we were going to be cooking with the following week," he says.
The lockdown, which was implemented shortly after the rolling out of his series, did not make things easier.