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Soul Food: Amma Pillai's Flavourful ‘Brinji’ Recipe & The Hypnotic Thimithi Festival in Mauritius

This blog post comes from a draft of a book I started writing a long time ago but hasn’t come to fruition. The idea was inspired by my many soulful adventures in India and then a wonderful trip to Mauritius. I have always been so in awe of the incredible diversity of regional cuisines in India and fascinated by how its rich culinary traditions persevere but also transform when transported to new lands by diaspora communities- as is the case with the Tamil community in Mauritius. The book, still in the dreaming phases and now more likely to be shared as a set of blogs, would explore the food, spirituality, culture and lives of the Tamil people in India, Sri Lanka and the diaspora. Be sure to scroll to the end for a delicious recipe of vegetable ‘Brinji’ I first discovered at Thimithi Festival in Mauritius!

This Soul Food book seeks to pay homage to the two things that continue to inspire and indulge my senses and spirit and continually draw me back with an insatiable appetite for the East. Both these things are ‘otherworldly’ and arouse a sense of the sacred. They are the result of a tireless accumulation of ritual human endeavour, perfected over centuries. The two things this book weaves together in a sacred union are food and spirituality- my two lifelong loves.

I have always been in awe at the mass of people who are catered for by temples, ashrams, churches and mosques in the East and how divine and bursting with flavour this food is- contrary to the caricature of bland and unpalatable food one might expect to find in a church soup kitchen in the West. In fact, if you look at some of the best Indian cookbooks, for example by Madhur Jaffrey, the food from holy places is featured proudly. In the book I wanted to embark on an odyssey, not only to explore the tantalizingly delicious recipes of these holy places but also to learn more about the people who cook this food, about their personal life stories and spiritual journeys, the things that inspire them and the blessings and hardships that have made them who they are today (the inquisitive social scientist in me) … who are the hands and souls that mold this soul food?

My travels to Mauritius in 2015 happened to lead me into the temples and homes of the warm and hospitable Tamil community in the relatively quieter Southern coast of the island. I was so fascinated and in awe of this culturally rich and vibrant community that it inspired me to research further their history, life stories and incredible food for my book. I met Amma Pillai (‘Mother Pillai’ as she is known in the Tamil community) at the Thimithi Festival held at the Terracine Mariamen Kovil in the South of Mauritius. She was wearing an exquisite bright purple and orange sari embellished with intricate gold spiral patterns. She moved gracefully around the temple after the prays and fire walking ceremony on the 10th day of Thimithi, with a silver plate in hand with the offerings of pieces of apple, pear and a rice lamp Arisi Maavuvilakku (a rice and ghee mixture which is a special offering to Amman) made of rice and ghee. She smiled lovingly, holding the plate up and urging me to take some of the sweet rice. Her face, gentle and warm, immediately putting you at ease. Later on she invited me to cook Brinji and some other incredible dishes (some of the very best food I have ever had the privilege of eating). It was an experience and connection that I will always treasure.

Amma Pillai was born in the North of Mauritius near the village of Pamplemousses on 6 November 1955. In 1978 she left Mauritius to live in India in Chennai where she studied the Tamil language. It was in Chennai where she met her husband Sivaramen, who is also a Mauritian from the South of the island and was studying economics at Madras University. In 1984 they returned back to Mauritius and settled in the South in Souillac. She misses Chennai a lot, the food, the temples and watching the fantastic movies and being able to speak Tamil every day.

Amma took up another job as a Tamil teacher in a primary school in Souillac. Soulliac is a charming village on the Southern coast of Mauritius. Amma Pillai’s house is just off one of the small side streets inland from the coast. The streets are lined with exotic fruit trees, the beautiful bright green leaves of banana trees shading the streets and the towering mango trees releasing a sweet, delightful fragrance. Her house is a stone’s throw away from the Sivasoopramahen Kovil, an apt reminder of the centrality of religion to the lived reality of the community who have settled in this scenic part of the island.

Amma Pillai is passionate about her Tamil heritage: “preserving the language is very important to me because it is also the preservation of our culture and identity”. A similar loss of the distinct Tamil cuisine is also a feature of modern Mauritian society. She explained that there are few authentically Tamil recipes that have survived in the form they originated in from Tamil Nadu in India. The only authentic recipes that have survived largely intact are the cakes like ‘Adhirasam’. Amma explained: “The challenge is that in all the Tamil houses many families use the ready-made Masala that you can buy, in all of the curries. So, you don’t get the different and distinct flavours of each curry”. The style of cooking in Mauritius has amalgamated with the Tamil recipes to create something of a hybrid cuisine- the Creole Mauritian food- with influences from African, Indian, and French cuisine.

Amma Pillai is a member of the women’s association at both the Terracine Mariamman Kovil (dedicated to the goddess Mariamman) and the Siva Soopramanien Kovil (dedicated to Murugan). The role of the women’s association at the temples includes cooking the flavoursome and delicious delights that are served during festivals and coordinating the cultural programme which includes singing, dancing and the enactment of religious dramas on festivals such as Diwali.

The Thimithi Festival is centred upon the dramatic ritual of fire walking. Thimithi is dedicated to the goddess Draupadi Amman. The festival commemorates the battle of the Pandavas and Kauravas, immortalised in the Mahabharata. The heroine is the Goddess Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandava brothers and a revered village goddess, believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali. She is worshipped as someone who endured many misfortunes but managed to hold on to Hindu principles and to her pure soul and dharma. The significance behind fire walking is to demonstrate purity and bhakti (devotion) to the goddess. If the devotee manages to walk on fire and emerge without burns, this symbolises the success of fasting and assures their purity is akin to that of the goddess Amman. Amma Pillai explained that devotees use Thimithi as a chance to show a commitment to Draupadi Amman, who in return grants devotees blessings such as curing illness or granting good fortune.