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Eating Norms In Chennai During 1970’s

By Brave Flower & Soul Sword-

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
― Virginia WoolfA Room of One’s Own

Back in the 1970’s, before the apartments came up, Madras (now known as Chennai) used to house big multi-storeyed houses. These big houses were divided into smaller portions with private kitchen and baths and were let out for rental to the middle-income groups. These portions used to share the courtyard, terrace and the main door among them. The neighbours were really close and were more like an extended family. Borrowing food from neighbours was a very common sight. Most of the households shared their food with their neighbours. If a household cooked a dish that was a neighbours favourite, they would send a person to call that neighbour to join them for lunch or dinner.



In the mornings the women of the household served the Tiffin(breakfast) that consisted of either Idli, Dosa, Vada or Pongal with side dishes like sambhar and chutney. The texture of the batter used for making idly and dosa keeps changing (due to fermentation) unless stored in the refrigerator, which most houses didn’t have. So the ingenious mothers of the household during olden times had devised a method to use the batter. The Idly used to be made with the fresh batter so that they come out fluffy, while dosas were made in the evenings which make them crisp and gives the golden colour. The leftover batter was used to make onion uthappam the next day as they were a form of soft and thick pancakes.


The mothers prepared lunch and sent it to the family members at work or school through women who worked as lunch carriers. Each lady took carriers from a maximum of 5 houses. A part of the lunch was packed and given to the women(the lunch carriers). They then mixed the food (their share) with other dishes accordingly and sold it to rickshaw drivers at a low price. They were usually seen on the roads in the early afternoons. By late afternoon they collected the empty carriers from the family members and returned them to the respective households. Some children came home for lunch during the recess.


After the children got back home, in the evening they had their choice of drink (health drinks like Horlicks, Bournvita, filter coffee) before going out to play. The men of the house bought fruits, vegetables or seafood on their way back home in the evening. In many households, food was served on the banana leaf or Mandara leaf. Mandara leaf is leaves from Mandara tree stitched very close together to form a plate in which even water doesn’t seep through. Food had on these leaves is known to be very tasty as their flavour mixes with the food. Cutlery was not used and food was consumed using their hands. This used to allow them to feel the texture of food, keep them from burning their tongue and even help in digestion.

Throughout the day peddlers used to frequent the streets selling different kinds of candy like coconut biscuit, butter biscuit, coconut candy, cotton candy,soan papdi, popsicle, ice gola and kulfi.

For every birthday, the birthday child got special treatment. On waking up they got their favourite chocolate from their parents. The child’s favourite dishes were prepared throughout the day and the customary, traditional sweet porridge dish called ‘Payasam’ was made for him/her.

Nila Soru (Moonlight Dinner)

night sky.jpg

On the full moon days (Pournami) all the children used to gather on the moonlit terrace or courtyard. The moonlight was so bright that it would easily light up the entire place and children used to play with the shadows that fell on the floor. Then the mother brought Kalandha Sadham( rice mixed with curry in a large pot) while all the children sat around her in a circle. Then she rolled rice balls out of her hand and gave one to each child. Plates were not used in this and the children used to use their palms to hold the riceballs and eat them. This (handing out rice balls to each kid in the circle) continued till the large pot is empty. This old tradition is called as Nila Soru (Nila-moon, Soru-food).Even the eldest kids in the building used to come for their share though they were no longer seen as children; as they wanted to still feel the joy of being fed by their mother. On Chitra Pournami (annual festival on a certain full moon day) people pack dinner and take it to the beach and sit in the sands and enjoy Nila Soru.

Food in those days was associated with a form of expressing love. People did not eat hastily or skip meals. They always had allocated time for eating with their family and they always ate full meals three times a day. They had never heard of dieting and even if they did, it was due to doctor’s advice (diabetes or hypertension). Food was a medium of healthy socialising and it created a warm atmosphere in their personal life. It also induced care and sharing qualities in young children. Everyone had homemade meals most of the time and led a healthy lifestyle. Since they used leaves as plates it was eco-friendly too. There was no eating for the sake of it or eating on the move, like how we do today.  Nowadays we eat on banana leaves only during occasions and most of the cultures mentioned above are rarely practised. If we look closely, we can see that nothing much has changed and it is not too late to restart them again wherever or whoever we are. A little more love and a little more healthy food won’t hurt, will it?

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

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