Voices from kitchens
Here are some Malayalis who not just relish food, but research, travel and write about it
We all know Anthony Bourdain, who lived and breathed food, researched cuisines from even the remotest part of the earth, and travelled for food. Legendary writers, including S K Pottekkatt, Madhavikutty, Vaikom Mohammad Basheer and many more, have brought food into their remarkable writings. In ‘Payyan Kathakal’, satirist and writer VKN goes on about Dosa. Madhavikutty’s ‘Balayakala Smaranakal’ mentions various mouth-watering dishes. And we all know about how she connected ghee payasam with a woman’s life.
However, cookbooks were not part of our lives. For Malayalis, food was something that was spread through the word of mouth, not written down. It was Mrs K M Mathew who started writing about recipes and food that made the system popular among Malayali food connoisseurs and homemakers. Now, many studies and write articles about our food culture and spread the knowledge. Here are some contemporary food writers from Kerala.
The vegetarian menu
Seventy-three-year-old Padmini Antharjanam was always interested in cooking. She grew up watching her mother and sisters making food for the entire family and farm workers. And when she got married at the age of 16, she took on the responsibility at her new home. She, along with her mother-in-law, started cooking. For more than 55 years, she has been working tirelessly. “I learnt cooking from experience. Everything is etched in my mind. From the ayurvedic ‘lehyams’, healthy foods given to pregnant women, dishes made of horse gram, to many types of pickles and chutneys, I remember all those dishes that have disappeared from our regular diet,” she says. She wrote books ‘Namboothiri Pachakam’ and ‘Malayali Sadya’ coincidentally. “I never planned to write any books. I love cooking and it has become an integral part of my life, so I thought of writing what I know down for my children. By chance, my daughter-in-law saw me writing everything down, and she thought it should be made available for everyone,” she says. Then she wrote the first book with the help of her son. Now, Padmini is famous. With two books down, she also gives tutorials on her YouTube channel ‘Rasayatra’. Her recipes are all about what she ate and prepared years ago. Food was seasonal, depending on agriculture and availability. From various kinds of dishes made with jackfruit seeds, cucumber, and thakara leaves, to special kinds of rice and jaggery, all these are easy on the stomach. “None of these are overly spicy. All come with mild flavours and with ingredients available at home and regionally. Which is why they are healthy,” she adds. Her books also contain the history of the dishes, sometimes even about why some ingredients are used. Rare dishes, may it be snacks or ‘thorans’, her books open a window to a vast knowledge she has kept for long with her.
Books: ‘Namboothiri Pachakam’, ‘Malayali Sadya’
How to cook it right
Suma Sivadas, popularly known as Suma Teacher, approaches food like science. It could be because she studied Chemistry and Physics and became particular about measuring. “There is always a how and why for cooking a dish,” she says. From a young age, Suma was interested in all things food. Even while studying in school or college, she had to cook at home, as was the norm then. “We all had to do the housework and help out in the kitchen. And after getting married, while working as a teacher, I had to prepare everything by 9am and rush to school. So, cooking was an integral part of my life. And I approached it scientifically and methodically — otherwise, I would never reach school on time or everyone at home will stay hungry,” she quips. According to Suma, ingredients should always be locally produced. “These should be seasonally available. Having something that is not part of our climate and our land is not environmentally sustainable or even healthy,” she reminds. Her cookbooks come with personal anecdotes. How she started writing down recipes and her memories connected to a particular dish are all written in quintessential teacher’s language. The natural flow of her language makes her works more than recipe books. “It’s probably because I am a teacher and I love to speak,” she says. After writing several books, each following a particular theme, she has now started a YouTube channel. “It happened during the lockdown period. The generation now doesn’t know much about cooking. They depend on YouTube tutorials. So, I thought I would teach everyone how to cook Malayali cuisine using the platform,” says the teacher.
Books: ‘Nammude Nadan Currykal’, ‘Veetil Oru Sadya’, ‘Ethnic Kerala Dishes’, ‘Thalum Thakarem’
Changes through ages
Nimi Sunilkumar is famous around the world for her cookbooks. Her first attempt — ‘The Lip Smacking Dishes of Kerala’ — has even won international awards. However, she came into the world of food by chance. Nimi, interested in cooking, tried out new dishes and even collected food recipes from magazines during her school days. She soon left it behind and pursued engineering and got married during the last semester. After getting married, she also reconnected with her passion — food. “It was a game between my husband and me. I will cook new dishes, experiment etc and he will try to find if there is any fault with it. So, I keep perfecting my skill,” she says. One day, her husband noticed her passion and suggested why she doesn’t write a book, as a joke. And the rest is history. Now, after completing two books, both internationally famous, she is researching for her third. The Munnar-based writer has also noticed how food changes and transforms through ages. “As Munnar has a large Tamil population, the preparation of many dishes is slightly different here. Also. tea is an integral part of Munnar’s life, may be due to the climate and then the tea plantations. That is what inspired me to write my second book ‘4’O clock Temptations of Kerala’,” she says. Her books offer detailed recipes for cooking Malayali cuisine. “I learnt everything by trial and error,” she says.
Books: ‘Lip Smacking Dishes Of Kerala’ — won 3rd Best Local Cuisine Book in the World award in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards -- and ‘4’O Clock Temptations of Kerala’
A history of food
Deepa Gopalakrishnan is a student of history. Not just any history, it’s the history of food that tickles her brain. That is why she decided to research the sociopolitical meanings of Malayali cuisines and went on to write the ‘Kerala Bhakshana Charitram’ with Suma Teacher. “Our food, when we research and trace its history, always has a lot to tell. Sometimes, it even encompasses the story of a civilisation,” she says. Caste, class, climate and geography among many more factors affect the food culture of a place. “For Kerala, we had many foreign influences. For example, the appam we now consume actually came from the Jewish community. Before that, we had different kinds of appam available here. Those came from the Buddhist community. The puttu, one of the beloved breakfasts of Malayalis, can be traced to the Portuguese. Kerala didn’t have a steaming mechanism for puttu. That is a contribution of the Portuguese. Similarly, tea, the Chinese drink, came to Kerala when Arabic merchants started visiting us for trade,” she says. Deepa says caste and class are also some deciding factors in food. “Coffee now has an upper-class image and it is deeply connected to the Tamil Brahmin community. Coffee came to India via Arabic merchants,” she says. Meat and fish were very integral to our culture. “As we have a large coastal area, fish and salt are an important part of our cuisine. The beef was consumed by various lower caste communities. Mutton came to Kerala due to Arabic influence,” she says. In the book, she pens down the history and roots of each dish in detail along with recipes by Suma Teacher.
Book: Kerala Bhakshana Charitram (with Suma Sivadas)
Foreign route of Fort Kochi food
Tanya Abraham is a known figure in Kerala, especially Fort Kochi. The art curator and author has always been intrigued by the variety of foods that the city has and the variety of foods she witnessed in her grandmother’s kitchen. “The idea of food is not just about the flavour but layers of cultural identities and communal traditions,” she says. “Food and cuisines are very layered. Once we begin to decipher them, we unearth numerous details.” As part of the research for writing her book ‘Eating With History: Ancient Trade-Influenced Cuisines of Kerala’, she visited old families in Kerala. “There is a sense of identity attached to each dish, a sense of belonging. And, then, there is the sense of hospitality attached to food. I witnessed both as I visited old families in Kerala,” she adds. She grew up in a joint family in Fort Kochi. According to her, the days were filled with food exchanges and her grandmother experimenting with new flavours in the kitchen. As she researched through the lanes of Kochi, she found how strong Arabic influence is in the cuisine. “Specific ingredients like dates, mutton etc make it very distinct. Plus, the matriarchal system in the Mappila tradition has raised food to a different calibre altogether. There is power in the kitchen,” she feels. According to her, the Portuguese had a strong influence on our food. “Mainly because of Catholicism and their presence for over a century in Kerala. Trade brought numerous ingredients from various parts of the world, plus the alliance/marriage of Casados or Portuguese male citizens with native women meant the marriage of different food traditions, which resulted in new flavours.”
Book: ‘Eating With History: Ancient Trade-Influenced Cuisines of Kerala’