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Digesting India: A Memoir À La Carte

This Scandinavian-born author, who lived in Bangalore for over three decades, explores India's diverse food landscape and reflects on his travel-writing career. He delves into the richness of Indian cuisine, the significance of historical research, and the complexity of regional food cultures. His memoir combines food, travel, and existential philosophy, emphasizing the importance of the insider-outsider perspective gained through travel. Through his experiences, he highlights the endless culinary philosophies and the diversity of Indian culture reflected in its foods.
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Digesting India: A Memoir À La Carte © Amazon.in / amazon.in

June 25, 2023 07:44 EDT
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South by Southwest, A Passage through Kerala

You know you’re in Kerala when you step off the train, walk right into the nearest shack and are served smoothly soothing and slightly sweetish appams accompanying a sublime fish curry—for breakfast. Now that’s what I call a hospitable attitude! But actually, fish curry is considered a completely normal thing to eat the first thing you do as you open your eyes. And my eyes do open wide and water a bit…because, typically for Kerala, the fiery curry is packed with flavours ranging from chillies, coconut, coriander, cumin, curry leaves, garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, pepper, tamarind, turmeric and many others I can’t tell apart, yet without being too spicy to enjoy for breakfast.

A breakfaster’s self-combustion is prevented by those delicately plump and spongy palm-sap fermented rice flour batter pancakes called appams, that are sweeter than their dosa relatives, and which have curiously cushioned centres encircled by lacy edges. Appams, also anglicised as hoppers (which presumably is how the colonials pronounced the word), are sheer food artistry, ‘perhaps the most beautiful of Indian breads’ to quote food expert Pushpesh Pant. The appams are cooked in a special wok-shaped cast-iron appachatti—an implement that accounts for the appam’s unique structural features. Widely consumed since time immemorial, they seem to have special links to Kerala’s ancient Christians, with varieties such as pesahappam or ‘INRI-appam’ prepared exclusively for the pesaha that commemorates the crucifixion (it is even embellished with a palm leaf cross). Hence these are said to have originated in the Christian community, which blended ancestral Syrian influences with adopted Indian habits—an intercourse that gave birth to the omnipresent appam.

This shack has no name that I can make out, the owner speaks only Malayalam, but what a fishy welcome! Still peckish, I order fried fish with the delicate scent of coconut oil and go on munching until it’s almost lunchtime: A perfect start on a day of sightseeing which immediately makes me forget the long train ride to Kozhikode.

It is a historically known fact that people travelled from afar to shop for spices here—the ancient Greeks and Romans, the medieval Arabs and Chinese, and later, the who’s who of colonials whether Portuguese or English, French or Dutch, all came and sampled Kerala’s flavourful pantry. Therefore, I dream of culinary fireworks as I follow evocative street signs: Sweet Meat Street is where the city’s trademark dry fruit halwa has been on sale for over 600 years and where I also buy chunky pepper-and-jaggery coated banana chips. The Silk Street is the more or less official ‘Food Street’ lined with scores of enticing eateries—including The Chinese Factory, which isn’t as old as one might wish but a modern pan-Asian fusion diner where Japanese teriyaki squids effortlessly rub their rubbery shoulders with pepper-grilled paneer and chicken fried rice. Halwa Bazaar needs no explanation because that’s where the good stuff is made. Finally I arrive at the narrow, winding, cacophonic Big Bazaar where truckloads of spices are being unloaded into impossibly tiny shops. Everywhere a melange of piquant scents hangs heavy in the air. Not for nothing is Kozhikode known as ‘City of Spices’ and prowling through Big Bazaar it gets quite easy to imagine what things may have looked like 500 years ago when foreigners traded Portuguese silver, Italian velvet, English woollen fabrics and whatever else Europe produced, for spices.

Coincidentally, one of my favourite English writers, novelist Somerset Maugham, loitered on the city’s beach in the 1930s—at a time when a tourist handbook describes the town thus: ‘Facing the sea are the houses of the European residents and the custom house, and also the club. There is a great appearance of neatness and comfort in the houses even of the very poor in Calicut; and the whole place is rendered very picturesque by the fine trees and groves of cocoa-nut palms in which it is embowered.’

The ‘beach’ isn’t particularly conducive to swimming but it’s rather a quiet neighbourhood where I stay at the Beach Hotel, something of a landmark that was originally built as the British club back in 1890. Luckily it hasn’t been significantly modernised since the town’s name was Calicut and it oozes antiquity out of every creaky floorboard. I had requested the suite where Maugham plotted his novel The Razor’s Edge sometime in 1938, but the staff didn’t seem sure of who Maugham was. ‘Your mom? What’s her name?’ In any case, the 75-sq-m room I move into is bigger than my compact flat in Bengaluru. Then again, Maugham was a bigger writer than I’ll ever be. So I am not complaining, especially since the ex-club retains the most exciting bar in town.

The only kitchen to have survived long enough to have served Maugham, at least in theory, is the French Bakery in Kooriyal Lane. Set up in 1932, when there was only one Frenchman left in town (a watchman assigned to guard a colonial shed), it was nevertheless beloved by other colonials.

Unfortunately, it retains none of its 1930s’ character—it looks like any other canteen that does bakes and snacks, with nothing strikingly Parisian about it. Whatever they serve, however, like fish fried in sweetish coconut oil, would approximate what Maugham sampled of Kerala cookery during his sojourn. And being a hardcore Francophile (Maugham had migrated from Britain to the south of France in 1928), he’d obviously have gyrated towards this bakery to pick up some ‘hot cross buns’ whenever he felt peckish.

Extracted from Digesting India: A Travel Writer’s Sub-continental Adventures with the Tummy: A Memoir À La Carte by Zac O’Yeah.  Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2023.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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