Against the backdrop of lush green paddy fields, men dressed in traditional dhotis and striped shorts with colourful turbans slice meat, crack eggs and cook on makeshift stoves. Chillies, coriander and turmeric are ground fresh on a traditional grinding stone. The YouTubers of the Village Cooking Channel are farmers-turned-chefs from a small village in Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu, in south India. They gained international popularity last year when they won YouTube’s “diamond play button”– a special recognition for crossing 10 million subscribers. Five cousins and their grandfather Periyathambi started the channel in 2018. They have since been making cooking videos in the local language Tamil, but their videos have broken language barriers, and are popular across India. What sets their videos apart are the bucolic locales and fresh produce such as fish, snails and crabs from field bunds and rivers. Outdoor cooking takes place against a backdrop of paddy fields, groves of coconut trees and flowing rivers. Their speciality is meat dishes, made in gargantuan cauldrons, with lots of spices and yogurt. Dishes on the menu include fish fry, mutton curries, raw banana chips, goat intestine fry and mutton biryani. Arul Murugan, a software engineer in Chennai, who watches videos on the channel regularly says: “Most of us who have lived in villages in our childhood miss that life and the rustic food there. This transports me back to my grandparents’ home in the village.” Thanks to social media, south Indian rural cuisine is finally getting its due. But what is south Indian food or Tamil cuisine? “According to ancient Sangam literature, the five traditional landscapes of Kurinji (mountains), Mullai (forests), Marutham (agriculture fields), Neithal (coastal region) and Palai (desert) had distinct cooking methods, recipes and eating cultures,” says Rakesh Raghunathan, food curator and chef. A typical south Indian meal consists of steamed rice, lentils, grains and vegetables, curds, pickles and papads, as well as fish, seafood and meats often served on banana leaves. Idlis (steamed cakes made from rice batter), dosas, or uttapams (pancakes made from rice and lentil flour) are integral foods served with chutneys and curries. Most coastal areas use coconut in their gravies. “Indian food, as it is billed outside India , is the reimagined second-tier fare of north Indian eateries, a blend of Punjabi and Mughlai cuisine modified to suit the local taste,” says anthropologist Tulasi Srinivas in a 2011 paper published by the Association for Asian Studies on exploring Indian culture through food. How Indian food curried favour with British, and vice versa Though south Indian cuisine from the five southern states is diverse and rich, most cuisine seen in Indian restaurants abroad is north Indian, because the first immigrants to countries like the United Kingdom or United States were from north India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. South Indian migration, which happened later, was dominated by the upper castes in white collar jobs, so even the south Indian dishes that were made available represented the cuisine of the affluent classes. “Many Indian restaurants came into existence in Europe and the US, after the two world wars, on the backs of Bengali Muslim migrants working on board British merchant marine and navy ships. They were hyper-exploited, and their pay was many times lower than white sailors. One way to manage that dead end job, was to jump ship in various port cities of the world. They usually opened small eateries, cooking a Bengali version of Mughlai food. Their Bengali-Mughlai menus became the standard of what Indian food was expected to be and still continues to be in many places outside India,” says New York University professor of food studies Krishnendu Ray. New York City is home to the largest Indian-American population with more than 700,000 people, and though it has hundreds of Indian restaurants, there are only a handful of south Indian restaurants like the Saravana Bhavan and Anjappar chains which serve south Indian food. Coriander: India’s national herb? Ranveer Brar plants the idea “A few Indians are now changing the culinary landscape in global cities. But that is usually less than 5-6 per cent of Indian restaurants in any global city – a minority within the larger text of outsider understanding of Indian restaurant food,” says Ray. A case in point is the recently opened Semma in New York. Semma (Tamil for fantastic) serves rustic food from southern Indian states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Chef Vijay Kumar pays tribute to south Indian family recipes and has collaborated with another restaurant group in the city – Unapologetic Foods by Roni Mazumdar and chef Chintan Pandya. “Across the world, south Indian cuisine has been relegated to a subcategory, and we decided that it was time for us to put the spotlight on this underrated cuisine. We have tried to break away from food stereotypes since most people think south Indian cuisine is only about dosas, idlis and sambar, ignoring the nuances of south Indian food,” says Mazumdar. Semma focuses on Chef Kumar’s memories of growing up in a small village in Tamil Nadu. “Many of the items on our menu hark back to my food memories of watching my grandmother cook snails in mud pots with hand-ground spices, over a wood fire, and my mother buying fresh meat from the local butcher, with the intestines being thrown in for free,” says chef Kumar. “To foreigners who think Indian food is all about Basmati rice, naan or chicken tikka masala, this has been a revelation,” says chef Kumar. Semma offers items like, Dindigul goat biryani, which uses local tiny-grained seeraga samba rice named for its resemblance to jeera (cumin) and grown in paddy fields in his village, and Uzhavar Santhai poriyal (a vegetable stir fry his mother made from fresh vegetables). South India has been ruled by various kingdoms and the culinary exchanges have influenced its diverse cuisine across different regions. In Kerala, the arrival of seafaring Arab traders, the Portuguese and British influenced the cuisine. In the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu where the Chettiar trading community travelled to Malaysia and Myanmar for trade, Kavuni arisi or black rice (known as “forbidden rice” in Chinese as in ancient times only the elite could consume it) is used in their desserts. South Indian food has a wider footprint in many Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, through maritime trade and migration. Tamil Muslims migrated from south India to peninsular Malaysia during the 10th century. During the founding of modern Singapore by the British in 1819, many south Indians migrated there. A few restaurants like Kuala Lumpur’s Nadodi are attempting to change south Indian cuisine with their novel interpretations from Banana blossom croquettes to millets upma (a breakfast dish). “Though ideally food should not reflect the social divide, it’s usually the rich who get to dictate what we eat, and rustic and heritage food is generally overlooked and does not get its deserved status. Hopefully that narrative will change in the future,” says Mazumdar.