Praveen Anand is chef at Dakshin, named by the Miele Guide as one of the top twenty restaurants in Asia. His embrace of traditional South Indian food is significant in a nation that has begun discarding some of its food customs in a headlong rush into modernity.
Vijaysree Venkatraman: Tell us about the idea behind Dakshin.
Praveen Anand: The word dakshin is Sanskrit for “south.” Our goal is to present authentic culinary creations from India’s four southern states: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. The larger goal is to revive the disappearing culinary heritage of these regions.
VV: How did you get interested in food?
PA: My father worked with the Indian Railways and was constantly getting transferred, so I grew up in my grandparents’ home in Hyderabad. My grandfather was a policeman and a yoga expert, the author of books on this ancient practice. Thanks to him, I got into sports and physical activities. He also inculcated in me the habit of reading. K.M. Munshi’s seven-volume mythological series, Krishnavatara, on the life of Lord Krishna—that’s where I started.
My grandmother, who is ninety now, cooked for us all. I would accompany her to the market and carry all the heavy bags. I also tended our backyard vegetable garden. Because my uncles hadn’t married yet, there were no women in the family to help her in the kitchen. So I volunteered to be her assistant. She only gave me simple tasks like peeling garlic or shelling nuts. But being her helper meant I would get a little more than my share of the good food she made—that was my motivation, nothing nobler!
To me, she was like a magician—whatever she touched was perfect. Her cooking was in the traditional Andhra style: hot, with lots of red chilies. We had a separate pantry to store the dazzling variety of mango- and lime-based pickles she made. Food was vegetarian except on weekends, when we would gorge on chicken, mutton, or seafood. Her simple chutneys, dals and rasams, fish curry and mutton khorma—all were wonderful.
I became the family’s official taster. If I declared (even jokingly) that a dish was not up to the mark, no one would touch it. I wielded a lot of power!
VV: And you went to catering school as a young man?
PA: When it was time for college, I gained admission into two programs: aeronautical engineering and hotel management. There was no pressure on me to start earning but I wanted to be independent as soon as possible. Going to catering school meant I would be a professional in three years instead of five. So I came to the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition here in Chennai.