Regional tales of Kerala in recipes
Cookbooks generally belong to “the humble literature of complex civilizations,” anthropologist Arjun Appadurai once observed. But they tell “unusual cultural stories” by situating themselves at one of three typical levels: the vernacular, the national and the regional or “gastroethnic”. Authors writing for foreign or other audiences unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, invariably seeking breadth, wrestle with the problem of how to convey the distinctiveness of this subcontinent’s vast offerings into unique cookbooks. With us, on the other hand, whether in regional languages or in English, the task of spanning the subcontinent seems less urgent. Instead, regionalism reigns – and not just that of linguistic states, but regionalism in increasingly specific concentric formations: the contributions of sub-regions, communities, families and even individuals to the development of the kitchen. There is the challenge of balancing breadth and depth in the portrayal of Indian cuisine, and the positioning of writers along these two axes not only defines the scope of their endeavor, but who their work might speak to. more efficiently.
Walk in Paachakamsecond cookbook by author Sabita Radhakrishna. “Paachakam” means “kitchen”, but the word implies Kerala paachakam, or Kerala Cuisine: The book promises to deliver the heritage cuisine of the state. His first book was Annapurnion “Traditional Tamil Nadu Cuisine” and he created the mold that Paachakam will follow later and develop. Radhakrishna started at home, his mother’s own traditional Mudaliar family recipes, but expanded his scope from there. His concern was not “Tamil-centricity”, but rather the eating habits of all who gathered and settled in Tamil country. That, and the age of their recipes: 50 years old at least, maybe 75 or more. The introductory text to Paachakam does not say so explicitly, but the same logic seems to apply, and this foray into Kerala cuisine is indeed an expansion that began with Annapurni to the next concentric (and contiguous) set of gastroethnic groups. For the “region” according to Radhakrishna is not so much marked by state borders as by the communities that have historically gathered there, and the “heritage” is not ancient or indigenous but simply old enough to be preserved. As an old shopkeeper said when I inquired about the age of a certain statue, not wishing either to exaggerate its value or depreciate it: “venerable.”
As Annapurnithen, Paachakam chooses breadth over depth, offering snippets and glimpses of the venerable community kitchen, but this time in Kerala. Nairs, Syrian Christians, Thiyas, Moplahs (Mappilas), Cochin Jews, Nambuthiris and Poduvals are all represented. Each community receives a brief introduction – too short, some might say, and more superficial than what we have seen for the Tamil Nadu communities represented in Annapurni. Other notable Kerala cookbooks like that of Ammini Ramachandran Cereals, green vegetables and grated coconut (2008) and Tanya Abraham Eat with history (2020) place much greater emphasis on trade that has shaped both communities and their food habits, but this context is largely absent from Paachakam. What exactly should an introduction to community cooking cover in a cookbook like this? Radhakrishna always seems to be looking for the best answer, but this time stuck to the quickest highlights of each group’s cultural history, favorite ingredients, and other miscellaneous details.
Malabar Thiya Naadan roasted or fried chicken (shown here in a leaf roasted variation). (Photo: Deepa S. Reddy)
The centerpiece of this cookbook is decidedly not the storytelling. PaachakamThe quirky cultural tales of are told through its array of recipes, both known and uncommon, interspersed with evocative illustrations by Nupur Panemanglor. Both transport us to a landscape studded with coconut palms and domed with jackfruit, water teeming with fish and trees garlanded with sprigs of emerald pepper. These ingredients bring common points to the recipes as much as they distinguish them: the use of fresh coconut here or simply oil there or its absence entirely makes the difference between a Kannur Thiya kozhi (chicken) biryani or Mappila fish and Thalassery biryanis. Jackfruit is special throughout, but a common thread for Nairs more than others perhaps. appams are universal, but each community has its point of view: Nairs steam kumbiliappams (jackfruit cakes), Syrian Christians fry the achappams and steam vattayappams who claim universal adulation, and the Moplahs have the pudding kinathappam at Iftar during Ramadan. Forms cross communities, but ingredients and methods create specializations.
Radhakrishna thus alerts us to the overlaps in culinary practices between communities and to the multiple contenders for common dishes such as “sambar.” A communal approach to culinary organization can be appealing and even sometimes appropriate, but it ultimately remains flawed, all the more so in an age of intermarriage, migration and the general amalgamation of various cultural practices into our daily foods. . Dishes like thoran, Rasam, sambar are easily cross-regional. Others like payasam (a tender coconut pudding actually) are made on the coast of Karnataka as much as in parts of Tamil Nadu. Many recipes are impossible to accurately separate “with so much fusion,” Radhakrishna admits, adding a “Classic Favorites” section. The classic onam sadya is the great unifier, visually and conceptually – an empty banana leaf visual opens the book, the same leaf with a numbered guide for dish placement follows the recipes as an invitation to feast, and a folded leaf, the sign of a finished meal, closes the book. It’s Vijayan Kannampilly’s Essential Kerala Cookbook (2003) and not Paachakamhowever, it tells us how, through the work of reformers like Sree Narayana Guru, the classical Namputhiri-Nair form of the feast, onam sadyalost its caste exclusivity and became the very epitome of Malayali cuisine: a grand and elaborate vegetarian feast that everyone claims as their own.
If Sree Narayana Guru challenged late 19th century orthodoxies by claiming vegetarianism for all, Radhakrishna follows 21st century compulsions by placing non-vegetarianism more at the center of community cooking. This is an obvious objective; Paachakam is an openly non-vegetarian cookbook. A more unspoken but equally understandable goal is to make Kerala recipes intelligible to non-South Indian cooks, but Paachakam tackles language and translation clumsily at best. The book contains a Malayalam-English-Hindi glossary, but Hindi names for common spices and vegetables nonetheless interrupt each recipe. At the same time, the index of named recipes in Malayali is much less useful than an index of all names and ingredients would have been, especially for the non-Malayali speaker. The problem is not that Radhakrishna retains local names (“muringayilai“, for example, remains thankfully just “drumstick leaves”), but provides inconsistent material to help learn them.
The best regional cookbooks are confident exhortations to leave our safe corners, learn new vocabularies, and grow in those other concentric layers of our Indian selves. Paachakam is a beautifully crafted book with intriguing recipes, but with barely defined socio-historical context and failing language supports, the windows it creates on Kerala’s heritage dishes can only open so wide.
A mahashai recipe
Cochin Jewish meal of ‘mahashais’ served with Cochin ‘dosa’ and All Blazes (layered vegetables). (Photo: Deepa S. Reddy)
Mahashaior onion “leaves” stuffed with minced meat: a Jewish Cochini recipe adapted from Paachakam.
4-5 large onions
Coconut oil for frying
For the stuffing
6-8 garlic cloves
1 inch of ginger
1 dry red pepper
1 green chilli
1 bunch of coriander leaves
Half a pound ground lamb, beef or chicken
1 tablespoon basmati rice or other fragrant rice
1 teaspoon of turmeric
1 teaspoon red chilli powder
1 teaspoon of salt
Half a cup of malt or fruit vinegar
1 teaspoon powdered jaggery
Clean the onions, remove the paper skin and cut off the top and bottom. Make a vertical incision down the length of one side, cutting only one to two layers. Gently work with your fingers to loosen the onion leaves, remove them from the rest of the onion. Repeat the process for an additional layer, then for the other onions. Reserve the hollow onion “leaves”. Reserve unused onions for another use.
Finely chop the garlic, ginger, red and green peppers and coriander leaves. Mix well with the minced meat and the rest of the ingredients for the stuffing.
Divide the stuffing into small balls and fill the onion skins. Don’t overcrowd – rice needs room to expand while cooking. Heat the coconut oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet and gently sauté the stuffed onion skins until lightly browned. Transfer to a baking dish. Mix the vinegar and jaggery together and pour over the mahashais. Cover lightly with foil and bake in preheated 325 degree Fahrenheit/170 degree Celsius oven for about 30 minutes.
Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist and researcher at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She blogs about food and culture at Paticheri.com.
Paachakam—Heritage Cuisine Of Kerala: By Sabita Radhakrishna, Roli Books, 200 pages, ₹1,495.
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