Indian Food: A Historical Companion by K. T. Achaya
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Liked only two sections in the book: the description of pre-aryan food habits and the section on regional cuisines. Wanted to try and reproduce an extract on Kerala food for my blog. I hope all foodies find this to be a delight and that the keralites find it as nostalgic as I did. So here goes:
Five distinct groups live in the state of Kerala, and each has a distinctive food list. Let us take the ancient community of Syrian Christians first.
The rice appam, a pancake also called vella-appam, is common to all Keralites, eaten with a meat stew by Syrians, and with an aviyal of vegetables by Nampoothiris and Nairs. Syrians favour the kal-appam, baked on a stone griddle rather than a clay one. The kuzhal-appam, as its name implies, is a fried crisp curled up like a tube, and is typical of Syrians. There are two other Syrian appams, very different in character, and both sweet. The acch-appam is a deep-fried rose-cookie made of rice, the name coming from the frame (accha) needed to make it; this is dipped in batter, drained, and then immersed in hot oil. The nai-appam, called athirasam in Tamil Nadu, is a deep-fried, chewy, dark doughnut, fashioned from toddy-fermented rice and jaggery. There are two other breakfast items common to all Keralites. The idiappam is a dish of cooked rice noodles, eaten with sweetened coconut milk or with a meat or chicken curry.
The puttu consists of rice grits and coconut shreds, which are alternately layered in a bamboo tube. The latter is then affixed to the snout of a vessel in which water is boiled. The mass is pushed through after it has been steamed. Being rather dry, puttu is commonly eaten with bananas, or with a spicy dry chana. Another rice-coconut combination uses fried rice, and is called avalose, a Syrian speciality. It can be moulded into an unda (ball) with sugar syrup. The churutta (literally cigar) is rice-based again, and has a crisp, translucent outer case, filled with rice grits and sweet, thickened palmyra juice (called pani}. The unni-appam, eaten by all Keralites, consists of a mash of ripe jackfruit, roasted rice flour and jaggery, folded in the form of a triangle in a vazhana leaf and steamed. Jackfruit cooked with jaggery and cardamom constitutes chakka-varattiyathu.
The Syrians eat beef, and eracchi-olathiyathu (fried meat) is a wedding special, a dry dish of beef chunks and coconut pieces fried in its own fat. To make eracchi-thoran, cubed beef is first boiled with vinegar and salt, then shredded on a grinding stone, lightly fried with spices, a coconut-masala mixture added, and the whole briefly steamed. Kappa-kari has pieces of tapioca in the beef, and is finished by frying in oil. Most curries, including meat, always have a lot of coconut milk. Meen-vevicchadhu (cooked fish) is cooked differently in different areas even by Syrians. Both in Kottayam and Trichur, river fish is used; this is cooked in Kottayam with the sour kokum fruit rind, called kodampuli, and is very red in colour with added chillies and even colouring matter; in Trichur, tender mango as the souring agent and coconut milk are used. Meen-pattichadhu uses very small fish like oil sardines, or even prawns, with coconut grattings. For Christmas there may be a wild duck, cooked as mappas, or roasted with stuffing.
Wild boar cooked with a strong masala, or pickled in oil, is also a Syrian speciality. For pouring on dry dishes, buttermilk mixed with turmeric and spices is used, called kachiya-moru. Some sweet items have been mentioned earlier. A wedding special is thayirum-pazhakku pani, in which sweet palmyra juice is thickened by boiling down and poured on ripe bananas mashed together, and eaten with curd Another deep-fried savoury snack there is pakku-vadai, a version of pakoda.
The Muslims of Kerala are called Moplah, a corruption of mahapilla or mapillai, meaning bridegroom or a person held in high esteem. They are descendants of Arab traders who married local Kerala women, later expanding their ranks by conversion. Though the Kerala usage of rice, coconut and jaggery is evident, there is Arab influence to be seen in the biriyanis and the ground wheat-and-meat porridge aleesa, elsewhere called harisa.
The roti is the distinctive podi-patthiri, a flat thin rice chapati made from a boiled mash of rice baked on a thava and dipped in coconut milk. The ari-patthiri is a thicker version made from parboiled rice and flattened out on a cloth or banana leaf to prevent it sticking. Nai-patthiri is a deep-fried puri of raw rice powder with some coconut, fried to a golden brown. All these patthiris are eaten at breakfast with a mutton curry. Steamed puttus, eaten with small bananas, would figure also at the morning repast. A wedding-eve feast could include the nai-choru, rice fried lightly in ghee with onions, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom to taste, and finally boiled to a finish. A wedding dinner would necessarily mean a biriyani of mutton, chicken, fish or prawn which is finally finished by arranging the separately cooked flesh and the cooked rice in layers and baking with live coals above and below. Several flavoured soups are from both rice and wheat, with added coconut or coconut milk, and spices. A whole-wheat porridge with minced mutton cooked in nut milk is called kiskiya. A distinctive and unusual sweet is mutta-mala (egg garlands), with a snow-like pudding called pinnanthappam made from the separated egg whites which have been whisked up with the remaining sugar syrup steamed, and cut into diamond shapes.
The Thiyas are a community that formerly tapped toddy but have now entered many other professions. Appam and stew are the breakfast fare, the stew being varied: fish in coconut sauce with tiny pieces ot mango, mutton in coconut milk or simply a sugared thick coconut milk. A speciality is nai-patthal, in the shape of a starfish. The curd pacchadi may be of pumpkin, and the sweet dessert may be a prathaman, which is mung dhal boiled in coconut milk and flavoured with palm jaggery, cardamom and ginger powder, and laced with fried cashewnuts, raisins and coconut chips.
The Nairs are the Nakar, the original warrior class of Kerala, whose cooking skills are famous all over the south. Breakfast again is either the vella-appam or the bamboo-steamed puttu, eaten with sweetened milk and tiny bananas. Certain vegetable specialities, though eaten by all Keralites, have special Nair associations. The sambhar of tuvar dhal with added vegetables is a regular item. Aviyal is a mix of vegetables like green bananas, drumsticks, various beans and green cashewnuts (this is distinctive to the Nairs) cooked in coconut milk and then tossed with some coconut oil in spiced sour curd. Kalan is the same dish that uses green bananas alone, and olan is a dish of white pumpkin and dried beans cooked in coconut milk and coconut oil. A wedding feast of the Nairs will include several types of pacchadis, pickles, chips and payasams based on milk, coconut milk, rice, dhal and bananas. No meat is served at a wedding, though normally meat is eaten. Such domestic meat and chicken cooking, though spiced, uses a great deal of fresh coconut and coconut milk which tempers the dish to mildness. Small pieces of asfigourd or raw mango cooked with coconut, curds and chilli paste is pullisseri and puli-inji is fried sliced ginger.
The Nampoothiris are the brahmins of Kerala who may have first arrived there about the 3rd century BC. They are strict vegetarians who favour the idli, dosai and puttu for breakfast with a coconut or curd accompaniment, and eat their rice with kootu, kalan and olan. Use of garlic in cooking is avoided. The thoran is usually made from the pods of green payaru (lobia) cut into small bits, stir-fried in oil and finally finished by cooking with a little water. Green bananas, spinach, cabbage and peas can all be made into thoran, and eaten with rice. Aviyal and erisseri, a pumpkin curry, are in use. All Kerala groups eat yellow banana chips fried in coconut oil and lightly salted. The best ones are reputed to be made in Kozhikode, which also boasts of a special sweet halwa made of bananas. The payasam of Kerala uses rice and milk, but the prathamans have milk with fruit or dhal, or with paper-thin shreds of a rice roll, cooked separately and added to the sweetened milk to give palada-prathaman. Chatha pulisseri is a shraddha speciality, a sour buttermilk preparation with pepper, salt and coconut paste, thickened by boiling down.
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