Chennai, May 10 : Forty-four-year-old Sridevi Balasubramanian -- popularly known as Shri Bala in the hospitality circuit -- juggles effortlessly between the worlds of numbers and commercial kitchens.
"Accounting is my profession, which provides my livelihood.
Cooking is my passion, providing me self-satisfaction," Bala, who is now anchoring the Tamizhaga Ula -- Tamil Nadu Tour -- at the The Park hotel here, told IANS.
She is a consultant for an intellectual property rights (IPR) firm here and also anchors food festivals across cities.
The Tamizhaga Ula is themed on the five types of land -- Mullai (cropland), Marutham (forest), Neithal (coastal), Kurunchi (mountain) and Palai (desert) -- as mentioned in ancient Tamil literature.
Under each category there are dishes (starters to desserts) cooked with ingredients that are available in those topographies, Bala said.
The starters, Kumbakonam Morekali (traditional rice flour and buttermilk) and Vadachennai eral karamani pakoda (spiced prawn deep fried with black eye pea), arrived at the table.
To give an idea as to the type of land they come from, names of localities/towns are prefixed to the dishes, Bala said.
The Morekali, a traditional dish not available in restaurants, tasted nice, while the prawn fry was crunchy with the right spice levels.
Meanwhile, Bala noted with a smile that the only thing common between her two different professions was cooking.
"In accounting, one can cook the books and in the other one cooks food," Bala said.
"During my school days, I learnt cooking from my uncle P.S. Sankaran. He was the son of Meenakshi Ammal, the cookbook pioneer in the state."
"Hailing from a Tamil Brahmin family, the stipulation of cooking and tasting meat at the catering technology institute put an end to my dreams of becoming a qualified chef," Bala mused.
But destiny had a different command menu.
Bala quit her job as Chief Financial Officer of the IPR firm.
At home, she cooked dishes and posted their pictures on Facebook. That got her in touch with Chef Ashish Bhasin of Trident BKC, Mumbai.
"He allowed me to anchor a South Indian food festival at his hotel in 2016 after I passed a test held at Trident Hotel, Chennai," she said.
"Today I cook and taste non-veg dishes.
A chef should taste the food before sending it out for guests," Bala added, serving Kovai maravalli keerai bhajji (assorted vegetable pakoda in a tapioca and keerai/greens batter) which was very nice.
Soon the taster's portions of main course started to arrive.
For vegetarians, the millet-based Trichy thinai idiyappam (millet string hoppers) and the Rameswaram kurakkan appam matched well with Thanjavur ezhu curry koottu (seven assorted country vegetables in coconut gravy with spices) and Cuddalore masal vada kuzhumbu (vada cooked in tangy gravy).
The mild and flavourful Thuthukudi vazhaithandu biryani (banana stem dum cooked with jeera samba rice and bay leaves) goes well with the Cuddalore masal vada kuzhumbu.
Bala's interest is the cuisine of the Sangam era -- 300 BC to 300 AD -- and the cuisines of the Chera, Chola, Pandya and Vijayanagar kingdoms.
"I have read books and had discussions with archaeologists.
What is available from the ancient literature are the ingredients that were available in those days and not the recipes," she said.
The non-vegetarians can have a mix and match of Banana stem biryani with the mildly spicy Pallipayalam kozhi (country chicken cooked with home ground spices and coconut).
The meat eaters can also mix Kumari kuzhambu (Kanyakumari style seer fish curry) or Sivagangai kari kuzhambu (lamb curry) or the country chicken curry with plain steamed rice or just go for the Dindigul mutton dum biryani made with jeera samba rice.
Queried whether she could cook with the ingredients that existed in a bygone era, Bala said: "Yes.
But it would taste rustic."
For the sweet tooth Thanjavur serki bath is recommended.
What: Tamizhaga Ula food festival
Where: 601 restaurant at The Park Hotel
When: May 4-13 for lunch and dinner
Cost for two: Rs.1,700 plus taxes
(Venkatachari Jagannathan's visit was at the invitation of The Park.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)