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Bhanu Jayaraman makes rasam
Newton resident Bhanu Jayaraman makes rasam, a staple of new year's celebration in Tamil Nadu, in the southeast of India.    Story
 Recipe: Rasam (lentil soup with pepper and cumin seed)

A new year's feast from Tamil Nadu

Cuisines evolve for many reasons, including geography. In India, the topography in the north made it open to invasions, while the southern peninsula remained more protected by water. The cooking reflects these differences, with the northern style incorporating many foreign influences and the south remaining truer to its roots.

Today, southern Indian food is still made as it was hundreds of years ago, and is typified by the dishes southerners from the state of Tamil Nadu are preparing now for two seasonal festivals. One is the Tamil New Year, which is celebrated tomorrow. The other is Ramanavami, the April 17 holiday to mark the birthday of the Hindu god Rama. In the Boston area, about 2,000 residents come from Tamil Nadu. Many are vegetarians, and their celebrations, like other Indian festivals, will center around food.

The Tamil New Year is believed to be the day when the world was created. Children receive gifts, and families visit the temple, then share a feast at home. ''Two foods are served traditionally on this day," says Bhanu Jayaraman, a Newton resident who came here 17 years ago, ''a cooked mango salad and a neem flower salad." The mango, tempered with mustard seeds and red chilies, is cooked in a sweet syrup. Its flavor -- sweet and sour -- signifies both the good and bad in life. The bitter neem flower salad is prepared similarly. ''We eat the neem salad first, before the meal," says Jayaraman, who works in information systems for Staples. ''It means the bitterness of life has been dealt with and we are now moving forward. We don't believe in sweeping everything under the carpet. Accept reality and move on is the motto."

Although wheat is the staple of the north, rice and legumes rule in the south. ''In no other cuisine are rice and legumes used with such creativity," says Yamuna Devi, author of ''Lord Krishna's Cuisine," (Penguin Group), the first non-Western cookbook to win the International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year Award in 1988. The cuisine is also well-balanced for vegetarians, says Yamuna Devi. ''Compared to the concept of Western vegetarian cuisine, South Indian vegetarian food is higher in fiber, proteins, carbohydrates, and a great combination of nutrients the body needs," she says on the phone from Ashcroft, British Columbia, where she lives.

The basis of Tamil cooking is a combination of simple spices that gives the finished dish a characteristic flavor. To begin, mustard seeds are popped in hot sesame oil, then red chilies, asafetida, and fresh curry leaves are stirred in until the spices release their aromas. Finally, other spices, seasonings, and vegetables are added.

Ramanavami specialties are cool and refreshing, says Pramila Vivek, a longtime Brighton resident who was born in Tamil Nadu. Because Ramanavami is a day of reflection and prayer, a simple meal of rice and lentil soup is eaten with a tart green mango salad. The salad is made with grated raw mango, diced cucumbers, chilies, curry leaves, and freshly grated coconut. Vivek also makes paanagam, a sweet drink with a hint of heat made with water, unrefined sugar called jaggery, ground cardamom powder, and pepper.

Every year Jayaraman, the Newton resident, cooks a traditional three-course meal for the new year celebration, each course eaten with rice. She begins with sambar, a thick soup with a lentil base, followed by rasam, a lighter soup, also made with lentils, and finally rice mixed with cooling yogurt. Each course is accompanied by a couple of vegetable curries, pickles, and the crispy round crackerlike papadums. For dessert, Jayaraman serves a milky rice pudding with raisins and cashews.

Most Tamil dishes are cooked in sesame oil (butter and cream are used in the north). The spices in southern food are beneficial to the body, says Viji Varadarajan, author of ''Samayal,"(Orient Enterprises), a Tamil vegetarian cookbook. The cuisine of her homeland still remains hidden from the world because it is the food of the Brahmins, the traditional priestly class in India, or, as Varadarajan writes ''a non-marketing, reserved lot, who spend their time cooking for only religious events where just the priests and close relatives eat the food."

That is slowly changing, says Rufus Lewis, owner of Udupi Bhavan in Ashland, a vegetarian restaurant. ''People who come to us have traveled to India and know this food," he says, ''or they are adventurous and want to try something new, or they are orthodox Jews looking for a kosher meal. They come in when they see we are a vegetarian restaurant and get introduced to a new cuisine. Then they come back again."

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