LOOKING for spirituality in food? Or maybe a cultural experience in cuisine? Outrageous as it may sound theresidents of Madras are making a beeline for the city's upmarket Annalakshmi restaurant to fulfil their cravings—both for food and spirituality.
After tasting success in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Coimbatore and Perth, Annalakshmi opened in Madras on April 14, 1995—the Tamil New Year's day. Set up originally to sustain the activities of the Temple of Fine Arts, founded in 1981 by the Malaysia-based sage Swami Shanta-nand Saraswati, the diner has now become a hot favourite of the swamis, offering authentic Indian vegetarian cuisine.
Annalakshmi means the one who bestows food in bounty. And bountiful it is. The restaurant—which can accommodate 80 persons at a given time—epitomises vegetarianism. Utmost care is taken in preparing elaborate meals and serving them. While authenticity in food is kept in mind, it is also ensured that the cultural aspects are not neglected. The entire complex is an art gallery. Besides paintings and sculptures which adorn the place, exotic wood carv-ings from Salem and Mysore, and sandalwood inlay tables form part of the decor. And the visitors can buy these artefacts while savouring the food and listening to the strains of classical instruments.
A normal meal here begins with a herbal wine called Ambrosia, a concoction made from the extracts of select roots and herbs based on the Siddha tradition. Though not intoxicating, this wine has a relaxing effect on the nerves.
At Annalakshmi, there are no employees. Only volunteers. And some eminent volunteers like Sita Dorai, wife of well-known Mridangam player GuruvayoorDorai, dancer Soryakala, veena-player Lakshmi and pediatrician Usha Devi are seen preparing truly exotic food very akin to a homemade meal. A seven-course extravaganza, Sampoorna, occupies the pride of place on the Annalakshmi menu-card. Sampoorna, which means 'complete', starts with Amritha , a drink made by blending fruit and vegetable juices. Following this are hors d'oeuvres called Parambra . Says S. Venkata-raman, manager of the restaurant: "Parambra comprises 15 different crispies and 25 varieties of appams and vadas." And then comes Dhara—soup or rasam. An outstanding range of more than 35 types of rasams are served during the entire meal. Followed by the Pradhan , the main course. It comprises tava and tandoor preparationsand Annam Brahma (rice dishes based on Indian, Malay or Thai recipes). Dishes like mini masala idli, cheese macaroni, gatte ka saag are among the many tempting delights offered.
For dessert one is offered Madhuwanti—comprising a combination of south Indian and north Indian sweets. Besides this are fruit salads, the combination of which the guests decide. And close on its heels is Jwala—coffee, tea or hot chocolate. The final course is Tamborlam—an array of betel leaf preparations. Those tired of choosing can simply ask the staff for their suggestions. Incidentally, the entire sumptuous package costs a modest Rs 250 per head.
And for people who do not have the patience or the perseverance to pick and choose, there is Preethi Bhojan, a meal (thali) with a pre-decided menu priced at Rs 150. Akshaya , or a la carte menu, offers a delectable range of north Indian and south Indian dishes including almond mint oothappam and prafu usuli, a typical Thanjavur Tamil preparation. The calorie-conscious need not worry. S. Ramadas, director of Annalakshmi, recommends the Aroghya section on the menu, special dishes for people who prefer low cholesterol, low salt or salt-free meals.
But if you want a meal fit for a king, Sampoorna is the ahaar for you. So says Annalakshmi, goddess of food.