Eating With History

Like Tanya Abraham’s childhood home, Kerala is an eclectic mix of cultures. Here, Hindus intermix with Muslims, Jews and adherents of more than one Christian tradition. The marks of Portuguese and British cultural influence are still visible. And nothing illustrates this mixture of traditions better than the mingling of flavors and the interactions of people in the household kitchen.
Eating With History

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March 02, 2024 02:13 EDT

I grew up in a small town in Kerala, in a big tarawad that housed not only our large family but also the town happenings. It was a wondrous home, which has, for generations, been the backbone of our family; like a melting pot of various condiments that provided a variety of flavours to those who lived in it. There was politics and the freedom movement. There were rooms, which housed nationalists and businessmen, foreign visitors and missionaries. It remained an open house, with a family, which decreased in size as members left for business or higher education, and increased as distant relatives visited and stayed for months. There were so many people at a given time that it never seemed a home to one single family alone. Instead it housed an eclectic energy that came from the lives of the many who walked in and out its doors. To keep the home alive, at its core, remained my grandmother’s kitchen. We called it kusinchya, a Portuguese derivative of the word ‘kitchen’, and it was from ammama’s kusinchya that the main artery ran to nourish the soul of the household. Between stone jars of pickles, the smell of firewood and burning coal, and the chatter of servants stood my grandmother in her customary chatta and mundu, the traditional attire prescribed to Kerala Catholic women. What started as virgin white every morning yellowed as the hours in the kitchen clocked by, the smell of masala clinging generously to the cotton of her clothing. There was so much cooking all at once that it was strange that never was a recipe book ever visible with her, except a copy of the first edition of Mrs. Beaton’s cookbook, gifted to her by an English acquaintance, which was once in a while read through. And she never followed anyone’s cooking instructions either. She had an uncanny knack of producing flavours even before the pot was on the fire. Throwing in ingredients from her well-stocked kitchen, everyday saw an exciting array of dishes at the unnumuri, the dining room that sat on either side of the courtyard of the two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old house. I used to often wonder if her entourage of servants was ever a sufficient hand to support her in fulfilling the needs of the family. Whilst one wanted a fiery fish curry with rice for lunch, the other preferred pork and chicken, with vegetables to accompany. Her husband and the head of the household, my grandfather whom I fondly remember, had a simple palate who preferred dishes less spiced, and was often satisfied with a bowl of clear soup or kanji and fish roe curry. Between him, her unmarried brothers-in-law, four sons, their wives and a battalion of grandchildren, Mrs. Annie Burleigh, as she was known outside the family, had a grand task to fulfill every day. Whenever I stopped by the kusinchya to satisfy my curious young mind, she would, over a steaming vessel, narrate stories of how as a young bride she cooked for my great-grandfather (her father-in-law) whom she revered greatly, a stalling figure in town during British reign. And how recipes for sandwiches and pies were conjured up as foreign visitors met with him at the tarawad gardens. When few Keralites used handcrafted wooden trays with lace tray cloth, she had them specially made to display culinary culture. She trained her kin to be courteous and relish foods from other lands, which were first introduced from the ships that docked at Cochin Harbour. Later, she would make her own version of corned beef and smoked ham, which began to be customarily served with a punch made from local arrack. On her travels she would bring home with her recipes that would soon be the highlight of an evening family gathering. Ammama had an uncanny knack to accentuate anything and everything to do with food—she never for once allowed recipes or ideas slip away. Instead, she would build upon them and present them in a manner, which brought her much applaud and praise. To make eating an occasion, she often reminded us of the importance of wise dining. It was she who taught me to use cutlery and chew my food slowly to allow the flavours to coat my tongue. Her skills never cease[d] to amaze me, like when she formed cutlets with one palm, throwing them in hot fat in a continuous rhythm whilst stirring curry with the other, simultaneously monitoring the cooking for at least forty people at any given time.

When Christmas drew near, everything changed in the kusinchya, including the ingredients on the shelves. Pork was salted, fresh fruit preserved in sugar syrup. Halwa, cakes, and wines from varied fruits were churned out incessantly, wrapped in decorative paper and sent cycling to neighbouring homes. These were homes, which used to send us gifts of festivity, during Jewish festivals or Bakr-id, for example. Fort Cochin’s wondrous amalgamation of cultures brought to our doorstep foods from various backgrounds, recipes of generations that were prepared by the ladies of households. Each one stood evidently different from the other, as flavours shifted dramatically, and their arrival was always looked forward to in great earnest. Two days after the grand family Christmas celebration at home, the family opened its doors to guests for its eagerly looked forward to Christmas party. The lawns were decorated in white and blue lights, crockery hired and bearers wore starched white uniforms. The kusinchya that day always took upon a new look.

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Eating With History: Ancient Trade-Influenced Cuisines of Kerala, Tanya Abraham, Niyogi Books, 2020.]

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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