The love which the members of the TamBrahm diaspora harbour towards their staple food thayir saadam is a phenomenon. Most homo sapiens who constitute the global population claim to love a certain food but however, rarely are there cases where the majority of a community attaches a deep emotional significance to their food. While emotions themselves are largely inexplicable, I have made an attempt to try and explain how thayir saadam is significant in the lives of TamBrahms and why there is a large emotional factor when it comes to TamBrahms and thayir saadam.
Note: The factual basis I have used for this study includes interviews, statements and observations.
Thayir is the primary building block of any TamBrahm diet. Almost all TamBrahm families make their own thayir and TamBrahms would put scientists in top research laboratories around the world to shame with the amount of attention to detail and painstaking effort they put into making their thayir.
Firstly, a one liter packet of milk is boiled. Then, if they are patient, they will wait for the milk to cool down on its own or otherwise, they will put the milk in a paathram of water to speed the process up. When the milk reaches the optimum temperature, they will carefully measure out a little bit of the previous day’s thayir and add it to the milk. Then, they will wait with bated breath for the thayir to thoyinjify.
All the people I interviewed conceded that they like their thayir to be perfectly smooth with the consistency of custard(eggless). There are times when the thayir does not set properly because the milk had been too hot or too cold when the thayir was added, or because the curd was added in two separate instalments or because the thoyinjifying responsibility was handed over to a younger and more irresponsible member of the household who simply forgot that they were entrusted with the responsibility.
Improper thayir leads to a hue and cry of ginormous proportions. Every known god will be called upon and everyone in the household will hyperventilate because they cannot imagine surviving the day without thayir. Then, all household members will congregate and a decision will be made. Someone will be dispatched to buy thayir from a store. But the thing is, thanks to the thriftiness ingrained in Tambrahm genes, only the most minimal quantity of thayir will be bought and that minimal quantity will be rationed with stellar precision which will make every member in the household annoyed. There will be finger-pointing and huge debates on who the root cause of the crisis was and there is almost a 100% guarantee that someone will walk into a bedroom and slam the door shut dramatically during these debates.
I concede that I am digressing a little bit, but it is absolutely essential to understand that thayir is like the life-blood of Tambrahms. Tambrahms CANNOT survive without thayir. Also, it is important to take note of the fact that Tambrahms eat thayir with EVERYTHING. Here, everything includes noodles, pasta, vegetables, fruits, etc. This fact can be highlighted with an excerpt from one of my interviews.
INTERVIEW WITH MRINALI KARTHICK
Me: Mrinali, are you passionate about your thayir?
Mrinali: Yes, I am. I LOVE thayir. Like I eat it with EVERYTHING. I even eat it with Maggi noodles. You remember that movie Ra One, no? Where they show Shah Rukh Khan eat his noodles with thayir? I am like that.
An extremely important observation I have made regarding thayir is that the quality of thayir is something which TamBrahms take pride in. TamBrahms judge other TamBrahms on the consistency of their thayir and the size and shape of their thayir paathrams. It is quite scandalous to have less than 1.5 litres of curd in the house at a time. It is also extremely common to witness closely related TamBrahm women having conversations on how to improve thayir thoyinjifying skills. For example, Ananya Jaishankar said that these conversations are frequent in her family and added to that, her grandmother is someone who is consulted for her thayir making skills. She said that this brings great pride to her grandmother.
Thayir, readers must understand, is not merely food but also a status symbol and a source of street cred. Its significance could probably be elaborated upon much further but that would probably require twenty more pages which is impractical in the context of this study.
HOW THAYIR SAADAM IS SIGNIFICANT IN TAMBRAHM LIVES
Note: In this study, ‘thayir saadam’ is not restricted to only a simple mixture of thayir and saadam but may also include additives such as salt(sea or otherwise) mustard seeds, ginger, carrot and chillies to the aforementioned simple form.
The following highlights how thayir saadam is significant in TamBrahm lives.
1) Untiring excessive consumption of a single food
TamBrahms eat Thayir saadam a minimum of two times a day. Yet, they never tire of it. I was faced with a severe doubt when I first started exploring this point. In my opinion, there has to be more than just an appeal to the taste buds which leads to this excessive consumption. There has to be some emotional factor in play. In an attempt to find out what factors play a role in this unusual consumption, I took the view points of two avid thayir saadam lovers into account.
Firstly, I interviewed my mother who was brought up in an orthodox Tambrahm household. Orthodox here includes maximum aachaaram, no onion and garlic and strict anti-theetu rules.
INTERVIEW WITH MOTHER (AKA REVATHI RAGUNATHAN)
Me: Amma, would you say that thayir saadam played an integral role in your childhood?
Mother: Yes, yes it did.
Me: How many times did you eat it in a day?
Mother: Morning I was given pazhedu (Old rice left in water overnight and mixed with buttermilk and pickle. As buttermilk is a form of curd, I took this into consideration as a twisted form of thayir saadam). Lunch again thayir saadam. On rare occasions, tiffin also thayir saadam. And dinner also thayir saadam.
Me: That is almost four times a day. Did you not get tired of it?
Mother: No. You can never get tired of it. Can you eat pizza three times a day? No. Can you eat pasta three times a day? No. But you can eat thayir saadam three times a day. I rest my case.
I was not satisfied with what I got out of my mother because I felt that what she told me was, on a certain level, superficial and defensive. Therefore, I asked Aditi Shankar for her opinion. The following was her statement.
“I think that thayir saadam is comforting. It is rooted to our childhood. I feel like thayir saadam is that one thing which remains constant even when everything else changes. If you take maybe rasam saadam, it changes depending on who makes it and the type, and people may add too much salt or something. But thayir saadam doesn’t, right? It’s constant no matter what. And it’s the only thing I can eat three times a day because of that. And because it is so light to eat. You can’t eat like pizza three times a day but you can eat thayir saadam three times a day. Even if I go abroad, I will depend on thayir saadam to survive. And I also love thayir saadam and manga. Thayir saadam and pickle is the best combination on the planet, right? And it is so important because it is healthy. Before my board exams, I would eat thayir saadam because it is so healthy.
I think that thayir saadam is very positive. And it makes me feel positive because even I can make it if I have thayir and saadam.”
I was extremely impressed by Aditi’s analysis. She should have probably stopped with this but she continued on a new and um, eccentric tangent.
“Thayir saadam is also very versatile. You can eat it in a bowl. You can eat it in a plate. Hey, do you make thayir in your house? We do in ours too. You know how you make it right? You put old thayir in milk. But have you ever wondered how the first thayir came into existence? Like where did they get the old thayir to make it from? It’s not like whether the chicken came first or the egg came first because there is no possibility that the thayir came first. So how did it happen…” *she strokes her non-existent beard*
What I inferred from Aditi’s statement is that while there are quantifiable factors such as taste quotient and health quotient which lead Tambrahms to consume thayir saadam several times a day, I was correct in my hunch that there might also be unquantifiable emotional quotient in play.
2) NO MEAL IS COMPLETE WITHOUT THAYIR SAADAM
Most Tambrahms do not feel like they have eaten a complete meal until they eat thayir saadam. On the rare occasions that Tambrahm families go to restaurants for a meal, their order would sound like,”Two aappams, three dosais, one gobi Manchurian, one paneer tikka and three thayir saadams. Get pickle also.” Almost all the people I interviewed spontaneously told me that they need to eat thayir saadam to feel like they have eaten a complete meal. Samrakshitha said, “Thayir Saadam gives me happiness. No meal is complete without thayir saadam because it brings magic to my life.”
It is interesting to note that Samrakshitha used the word ‘magic’. Magic, again, is something which is not tangible or quantifiable. Thus, there is yet again an emotional factor which leads to a feeling of incompleteness to a meal without thayir saadam.
3) IRRATIONAL PROPAGATION OF THAYIR SAADAM
The compulsion to propagate thayir saadam and all of its virtues is ingrained in many Tambrahms, especially in the ones from the older generations. The significant role which thayir saadam plays in Tambrahm lives makes Tambrahms take thayir saadam very seriously. Older Tambrahms sometimes take it so seriously that they believe they are almost duty-bound to make everyone else take thayir saadam seriously. This is especially noticeable when they deal with younger Tambrahms. Unfortunately, the thayir saadam love quotient is also used by mamas and maamis as a scale to measure your worthiness as a respectable member of society. I have first-hand felt this pressure to be loyal to thayir saadam.
After my very first Model UN when I was in the ninth grade, my mother and I were dropping my teacher off at her place. My mother and my teacher were conversing about the MUN in general and the conversation turned towards lunch.
Teacher: Aah, they were giving all of them all poori and biriyani. But naa vandhu, I told Sushila, “I want thayir saadam, with oorgai!” Nothing beats that, ma.
*mother turns to look at me and grins evilly*
Mother: Really, ma’am?! How wonderful! Krithu LOVES thayir saadam!
Teacher: Kritajnya, how WONDERFUL!
*I drastically rise in my teacher’s estimation*
Two years later, we were going to Hyderabad by train for a MUN. My friends and I had bought pizza for dinner. We open the pizza boxes and almost begin eating when a junior of mine arrives from my teacher’s compartment.
Junior: Eh, Kritajnya. Ma’am is calling you. Go.
Me: What?! Why?
Junior: I don’t know. Just go.
Everyone else: Go, dude. She probably wants to offer you thayir saadam.
*we all laugh because it was the wildest guess ever*
At my teacher’s compartment,
Me: Ma’am, you called?
Teacher (in a serious tone): Ma, I have thayir saadam. Do you want some?
*my blood chills
Me: No, ma’am. We have dinner.
Teacher: What dinner?
Me: We’ve bought pizza.
Teacher: No, ma. It’s okay. I have extra. Take some.
Me: No, ma’am! Really! It’s okay!
Teacher: I insist! Do you have a container? I shall give it to you in that.
Me: I don’t. Really ma’am, it’s okay. I don’t want.
Teacher: Are you sure?
*I drastically fall in my teacher’s estimation*
My teacher felt a great sense of betrayal at my rejection of thayir saadam and everything it stood for. She felt that I had rejected it only to fit in with my peers (which is partially true) and to this day, I can feel her judgement hanging over my head.
What else does this propagation extend to?
Firstly, if there is ever is an article listing the benefits of thayir saadam, the mamas and maamis will go around saying,”Andha magazine-la yenna pottundhaa, theriyuma?” (“Do you know what it said in that magazine?”) and they will use the contents of that article as factual basis for saying that thayir saadam is the best food in the world. They will next sit and discuss the article with each other and pat each other on the back because they believe that Tambrahms recognized the importance of thayir saadam far before the rest of the world did. Then, they will read out the article to the younger generations a million times. There has been many a time when my grandmother has given me thayir saadam and as I would eat it, she would prattle on along the lines of,”Namba habits laam rombha nanaa irukara habits. Paperla vandhu thayir saadam kadaseeya sapdardhu romba nalladhu-nu pottundha. Digestion-ku very helpful. Adhu namba weather-ku body-a nanaa cool-aa aakum. Adhunaala nareeya saapdanum, seriya?” (“Our habits are all good habits. It said in the paper that eating thayir saadam in the end is very good. It makes the body very cool in our weather.It also helps in digestion. So you should eat lots of it, okay?”)
Secondly, mamas and maamis propagate thayir saadam as a miracle cure for every ailment. You state any health problem, either mental or physical, they will say,”Konjum thayir saadam saaptenna, ellame seriya poidum.” (“If you eat some thayir saadam, everything will become alright.”)
Now, I had initially said that thayir saadam propagation is not on a rational basis. I believe that it is irrational because this propagation is also based largely on emotions as opposed to facts. The basis for my belief is derived from the fact that no one I interviewed could actually tell me why thayir saadam is the best food in the world or why it is healthy. They either merely said “It is healthy!” Or they said “It is also supposed to be very healthy, no?!” No one gave a factual basis in terms of the calcium or carbohydrate content of thayir saadam or the health benefits of the lacto bacilli in it. I therefore conclude that thayir saadam propagation is fundamentally based on emotions, and facts from third party sources are only used to try and give relevance to these emotions.
The above are just three ways in which thayir saadam is significant in Tambrahm lives. This too can
be elaborated upon further but it will probably take another hundred pages which would again, be impractical in the context of this study.
WHY IS THAYIR SAADAM SIGNIFICANT IN TAMBRAHM LIVES? WHERE DOES THE EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT TO THAYIR SAADAM START?
From the previous portions of this study, it should be noted that the very significance which thayir saadam has in the lives of Tambrahms is based on emotions. So what leads to this emotional bond being created? The Sanskrit professor in my college, Subasri Ma’am threw clarity on this. “Thayir Saadam has always been there when we were young. It is associated with our childhood. If we go to our grandparents’ house and our grandmother would tell us a story, she would give us thachi mamoo while narrating it. It is things like this which tie thachi mamoo to our lives.”
Sudharshini Murali added another perspective. “You know, we grow up eating thayir saadam. I kind of feel like it is a part of our food identity or even our identity.” She said.
Krithika Swaminathan said, “I love thayir saadam. When I think of thayir saadam, I think of home.”
What I inferred from the above is that Tambrahms love thayir saadam not because it constitutes a part of their cultural identity but because it constitutes a large part of what shaped their personal identities. When Tambrahms look back at their lives, thayir saadam has always been a constant just like their homes and families. And just like they cherish their homes and families in they hearts, they cherish thayir saadam too.
EXTREME PERSPECTIVES WHICH LED TO A CONCLUSION
Nappinnai said in all seriousness,”Thayir saadam is like my heartbeat.” Now when Tambrahms say these things, they are not joking. But how far can Tambrahms take this? Can they make it romantic? Would they let it play an integral role in shaping their futures in terms of their love lives?
I have personally seen mamas and maamis make thayir saadam romantic by quietly sitting in corners of sabhas after a kutcheri and sharing a dabba of thayir saadam and vegetables. Such things make me view the humble thayir saadam with respect because it makes peoples’ lives exciting in new ways even if it has been around in their lives for decades. But as someone who is a part of the younger generation, I was curious to know if people in my age group would let thayir saadam play an important role in determining their future in terms of finding their life partners. Ananya Jaishankar gave me clarity on this issue.
INTERVIEW WITH ANANYA JAISHANKAR
Me: Ananya, are you passionate about your thayir saadam?
Ananya: Oh my God. Yes, I am. I LOVE it. THAYIR SAADAM IS AN EMOTION. IT IS SOMETHING YOU FEEL. *her eyes start tearing up*
Me: Interesting. Are your parents this passionate about thayir saadam?
Ananya: They are, but not to this extent. I told my mother that to marry a guy, I need to watch him eat his thayir saadam. I will give him thayir saadam in an evasilvar dabba (metal box) and watch him eat it.
Me: So will you judge him on the way he eats it?
Ananya: Yes. I will. He needs to eat it passionately. I can’t explain it but whoever I marry needs to love thayir saadam. I’m telling you, Krithu. THAYIR SAADAM IS AN EMOTION.
This interview was a revelation. As per the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, as a person increases the consumption of a commodity (keeping consumption of all other commodities constant), the utility (want satisfying power) derived from the consumption of every additional unit of the commodity goes on declining. But from what I have learnt through my research, this law does not apply in the case of Tambrahms and thayir saadam. Why is that so? Initially, I thought that it was maybe due to the emotional and cultural bonds which Tambrahms have with thayir saadam. But then, I realized, bonds in any form are susceptible to being severed. But on the other hand, I realized, emotions in their purest form, are not something which can be removed from the human heart. Emotions in their purest form are not tangible and cannot be quantified. Maybe that is why the unique relationship between Tambrahms and thayir saaddam cannot be explained satisfactorily on rational or scientific terms. Maybe, thayir saadam does not play a significant role in Tambrahm lives because there is an emotional bond. Maybe, it plays a significant role because thayir saadam itself is an emotion.
1)Thayir: A form of yoghurt which is known as curd in Indian English
2)Thayir saadam: A mixture of thayir and rice
3)Paathram: Vessel or container
4)Thoyinjify: Process of converting boiled milk into thayir with the addition of a small quantity of thayir to the boiled milk
5)Thachi mamoo: Alternate name for thayir saadam
6)Mama: Common name for a TamBrahm man beyond a certain age
7)Maami: Common name for a TamBrahm woman beyond a certain age