Understanding Kerala's food history through its many communities

Updated: Apr 19, 2020, 08:42 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

Understanding Kerala's food history through its many communities

Pic courtesy/Eating With History: Ancient trade-influenced cuisines of Kerala, Niyogi Books
Pic courtesy/Eating With History: Ancient trade-influenced cuisines of Kerala, Niyogi Books

It was in her ammama's kusinchya—a Portuguese derivative of the word kitchen—that Kochi-based art curator, Tanya Abraham, first fell in love with food. Dressed in the customary chatta and mundu, her grandmother would spend rigorous hours amidst the "stone jars of pickles, the smell of firewood and burning coal" to serve her large and growing family, which lived in the 200-year-old tarawad (family home), in a small town in Kerala. "My ammama believed the family remained nourished from the fires burning in her kitchen. Her food was largely Latin Catholic and had a certain flavour. She would serve an array of cuisines to the large joint family… it piqued my interest for new flavours," Abraham recalls, fondly. "I loved her pada, a pickle made of coconut vinegar, red chilli powder and garlic. We ate it with everything. The steamed appam with coconut milk and ripe Kerala banana, her baffad and vindaloo are special dishes we continue to make at home."

Abraham's grandmother is the inspiration behind a new cookbook, Eating With History: Ancient trade-influenced cuisines of Kerala (Niyogi Books). The 200-pager which, apart from recipes, takes us through personal cooking vignettes of a Latin Catholic household, and the larger trade history in the state and how it influenced the meals prepared today, is an attempt to understand the "highly intricate and interesting food culture of Kerala". "The [book is a] study of the cuisines that mushroomed specifically from the ancient spice trade in Kerala. There are six religion-based communities that rose from it, of which Christians are three [Latin Catholic, Syrian Christians and Anglo Indians]," says Abraham, adding that of these, the Portuguese had the strongest impact on local community and food.

Tanya Abraham
Tanya Abraham

"They were the first 'foreign' colonisers in Kerala. The Arabs never settled in Kerala, but moved with the south west monsoons—they had families with local women and stayed for short periods of time. The Jews migrated to the region and were a closed community with strict religious laws and no intermarriage permitted," she says. The Portuguese arrived for two reasons—spices and Catholicism. They traded vigorously, and spread the faith, in many cases forcefully and with strong determination. "They were seafarers who had other colonies across the globe and when they arrived in Kerala, they brought with them fruits, vegetables and other food items—papaya, tamarind, custard apple, red chilli, are a few. With them also came cooking techniques and influence from their own cuisine," says Abraham, who is also director of the Kashi Art Gallery in Kochi. She explains how the puttu (steamed rice flour and coconut logs), which is popular in Kerala is said to have emerged, because Portuguese sailors needed to find an easy way of preparing a staple. "Steaming was a common and easy technique they implemented with rice powder abundantly found in Kerala, on their journeys by ship."

The British, on the other hand, introduced Scotch—available only to wealthy Indians—and tea. Their own food would evolve in India. "Pork chops were marinated with spices and then grilled, new flavours of soup were made with local spices," writes Abraham in the book.

The Jews, who arrived from Muziris in the Middle East, had a unique cuisine that remained secluded in Kerala—a combination of cultures influenced by Kosher laws, local ingredients and ancestral traditions.

"It is believed that the Malabari Jews came to Kerala at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple [70 AD] and were one of the 12 tribes who had left Israel at the time. Escaping to Kerala via the spice route, they embraced a new life and new ways of living. That is how ancient the history of their cuisine is. The Paradesi Jews from the Mediterranean region came towards the 17th century and their cuisine again is unique to them because of Mediterranean influences," says Abraham.
A thread, however, runs through the food recipes of both these communities, which is distinctly Kerala in flavour. "Kosher law calls for milk and meat never to be mixed, thus coconut milk was used instead. The absence of herbs found in the Mediterranean, called for the use of local flavouring."

None of this happened overnight. The Jews, she says, would also go on to introduce ingredients that would be devoured locally. "They made vinegar from raisins [to make wine]. This was then used by Christians for cooking. I am told Jewish women plied their way on canoes to sell the vinegar (chorka) at the local market," Abraham says.

For the recipes, which have been categorised into vegetable, meat and fish dishes, breads, appams, chutneys, squashes and wines, and sweets and desserts, Abraham traversed Kerala, "knocking on doors of families, requesting for authentic recipes". "Each family may have slight variations in the same recipe, but the foundation tends to remain the same. I chose recipes that supported my research and demonstrated how the various influences produced new recipes—the complex marrying of details that we often are ignorant of. The recipes are also a documentation, a proof of food culture. Not all of this culture is going to remain in the years to come; it was important they revealed how deep and complete the history of food can be."

Chala Curry (Sardine curry)

Origin: Malabari Jew /// Shared by: Ilanit Menachem

1 kg sardines, cleaned
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp coriander powder
½ cup oil
1 sliced onion
5 sliced garlic cloves
Curry leaves (handful)
3 chopped dry red chillies
1 tsp black mustard seeds
3 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp sugar
1/3 cup vinegar
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
Salt to taste
1 ½ cups water

Make a paste of the turmeric and coriander powders, add a little salt and water. Rub the sardines generously inside out with the paste. Heat oil in a deep pan and fry till brown. Add the mustard seeds and when they splutter, add the onions and garlic cloves. Once it turns colour, add the dry chilies. Add the spices, tomato paste, vinegar and water. Bring to a boil. Cook for 5-10 minutes and then add the fried fish. Allow it to simmer till the gravy thickens and coats the fish. Garnish with curry leaves.

Kozhi Roast

Kozhi Roast (Pepper roast chicken)

Origin: Latin Catholic /// Shared by: Annie Burleigh

1 ½ kg whole chicken (remove gizzard, heart and liver and keep aside)
½ tbsp freshly crushed pepper
3 medium, sliced onions
1 ½ tsp corn starch
Salt to taste
2 tbsp oil
2 ½ cups water

In a deep pan, cook the chicken and the removed parts with the sliced onions, pepper and salt. Once done, remove from gravy. Heat oil in a wok and over medium heat, fry the chicken till brown. Thicken the gravy using corn starch. Pour the gravy over the chicken and serve with fried potatoes and carrots.

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