Lip-smacking culinary !

As the fresh slices of fish crack in the puddle of coconut oil, absorbing the racy taste of spices, the acidic taste of tamarind and citrus element of curry leaves, the aroma maps the place. The distinctive smell of a platter served at a Syrian christian family is an irresistible invitation, given the assorted dishes in their menu.

“There is not a single day when we don’t have non-vegetarian food,” says Sumita Verghese, 58, a malayali christian from Kottayam who came to Chennai in 1973. “Except for the Lentin season, of course,” she adds, while fervently mixing the ingredients for fish curry in an earthen pot. Sumita’s aunt, Aleyamma, is quick to add the significance of these clay pots– “The earthern pots apart from being a healthier option also helps retain the taste of the fish, unlike the metallic vessels which may undergo some reaction with the ingredients.”

The kitchen is alive and functioning right in the morning. It is surprising how, even today, despite the tight schedule, the conventional appams with either mutton or chicken stew is served for breakfast. An alternative would be eggs in their myriad forms – scrambled, poached or roasted. The lunch is another grand event. Kodampulli itta Fish curry (Fish curry using gambooge, a tamarind variety), Fish Molee (Fried fish cooked in coconut milk), Karimeen (Black Pearl spot that is kippered and fried) or Meen Peera (Crispy Nethili/Kozhuva or Anchovies fried in coconut oil) and Beef olathiyathu (Dry Beef)find their way to the dining table almost everyday. Along with this are the flavoursome accompaniments – Moru Kari, which has vegetables mixed in curd and Moru Kachiyathu, yellow seasoned buttermilk that doesn’t include vegetables. The only few dishes in the menu that are palatable by the vegetarian folks are thoran, a mix of vegetables with coconut and Mezhukupuratti wherein the vegetables are blanched in salt, turmeric and chilli powder and topped with oil. Must be easier to remember this way – Mezhuku refers to oil and puratti is smear in English.

“One of the striking features among Malayali christians is the style they cook the pork,” Sumita says, halting to taste her fish curry which now has now taken a deep brown viscous form. “It is only cooked as a dry dish, called Pork olathiyathu, unlike among the Goan christians who make gravies out of it,” she continues. The intake of pork among the families has reduced considering the health issues. Also, it is generally not preferred during marriage functions as people in a few regions, towards the South of Kerala consider it against their religion to consume it. “It is believed that when the Satan was being pushed away by the God, he landed on pork,” says Aleyamma animatedly, recounting an incident from the past when a group of guests walked away from the marriage dining hall on being served pork.

Taste a morsel of fish from the freshly made Meen pattichadu, and you would bow to the oceans for providing you with these little aquatic creatures. A signature dish among the Syrian christians, this dish teases the taste buds with its hot and tangy taste. Gambooge is added along with water and the soft pieces of fish are added slowly into it towards the end. The dish is then left to simmer to get the desired consistency. The result is a plate of fiery red moist piece of fish, which adds a whole new taste to rice or tapioca.

What about spices? “Oh it is to be taken by default,” says Aleyamma. Their dishes are mostly spicy and ‘ginger, turmeric, garlic, chilli and  curry leaves are a must in most.’ Meanwhile, Sumathi brings a small green chilli, kanthari mulagu, which she says, is used extensively. The bird’s eye chilli, as it is known in English, shouldn’t be taken for its stunted growth. The piquant taste can almost make the hair stand up!

While it is gooseberry wine now, it was toddy then. Paani and Pazham, banana slices immersed in a sugary syrup of toddy, they say, is the standard conclusive dish in any Syrian Christian wedding. The absence of cakes, which have only gained popularity recently, was then filled by achappam, kozhalappam, Avalos unda and churuttu, all made using rice flour.

“In comparison to others, we have westernized our style of cooking,” Sumita says. “All the traditional ones are time consuming dishes. No one takes pains to make them now,” she adds. According to her, it is just a matter of few years before dishes like pidi become extinct. It is prepared by soaking the rice, powdering it and subsequently making small balls out of it. “It is famously called as dumplings,” she says, parallel setting the table for lunch.

The green leafs are spread. Before the steam wears off and the oil bubbles on the beef roast cease rattling, take a bite – a taste of mystique reveling in the rich tradition of malayali Christians.

The article was preciously published in The New Indian Express. Check out –


Kolli Sheds Calories

The change in the socio economic needs among the Malayalis, the local tribe of Kolli, Tamil Nadu, has brought a shift in the indigenous agriculture. As a sign, food crops are being replaced by cash crops. While it serves as a quick money minting method, the question of food security remains blotted.

Dhanpal, a villager from Sellipatti, was offered one lakh by the Government under the Indra Awaz Yojna scheme that provides housing for rural people. However, this amount was insufficient for construction and he ended up taking a loan of 2.5 lakhs from others.

Unable to repay, his paddy fields were taken away.

He worked for four months in the fields of Erode and Salem, and brought home 40% of the produce – which should last his family until the next harvest.

This story pertains to most of the farmers in Kolli.

Dhanpal made meager profits through pig rearing and started poultry for self consumption. He raised goats and sold its milk to Aavin Milk Corporation in exchange for rice and pulses.

Saroja, the Kaveriamman women’s self help group representative said, “Only kids until the age of three consume milk here. No one travels 3 km to the milk corporative society just to fetch a litre of milk from the corporation.”

The papaya fruit which grows in Dhanpal’s garden is neither sold, nor eaten. “We are bored of it,” he sighs. The Guava, orange, bananas and Jackfruits which are grown in house gardens are never consumed by the villagers. Instead they are sold to middlemen at a marginal price.

The intake of proteins among villagers has decreased over the past 10 years with the shift in cultivation from Ragi to Tapioca. “Tapioca provides for immediate income, but not for sufficient nutrients,” said Kateshwari, a nutritionist working with M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF)

Probably not a direct result of shift in cultivation, but “monthly health check camps conducted in Primary Health Centres showed that most children are underweight, the women are anaemic and majority of them suffer from Calcium and Iodine deficiency,” she said.

Malayali women take less than 50 grams of meat a month. “As per the tradition, a woman eats only after her whole family is done eating. There are times when we do not get enough,” said Senthamarai from Alavadi village.

Fish, a major source of Vitamin A and proteins, has never been a part of their diet. As an MSSRF initiative, several varieties of fishes were released in the community pond and steps are being taken to educate women on how to cook fish.

As a quick fix to the problem, the agriculture department introduced rice varieties from the plains. According to Balakumar, an agricultural scientist working with MSSRF, this was a failed plan since those “did not suit the soil here and hence gave low yield.”

“The rising expenses, increasing population, deforestation and lack of interest among the young to learn the indigenous agroforestry system are a threat to food security of Kolli,” he added.