ThiruvathiraIts the Malayalam month of Dhanu. Dhanu is the month of the mild, beautiful winter of Kerala. And, the month of Thiruvathira. It is the festival or fast women observe for the well-being of their husbands. Unmarried girls observe this fast for getting good husbands.
The concept behind Thiruvathira is the goddess Parvathy's attempts to get Siva as husband. Kamadeva, the god of amour, was trying to awaken love between Siva and Parvathy, when he was caught red-handed and was burnt down in the flames arising out of the third eye of the angry god. According to the Thiruvathira legend, the women in the world decided to commit suicide lamenting on the death of Kama. They prayed to Siva for one whole night to bring him back. Siva, pleased at last, decided to grant Kama life - only that he would remain without body.
So, the laments turned into celebrations. The ropes with which the women had threatened to hang themselves turned into swings of celebration. Thus was born the festival of Thiruvathira.
The diet on Thiruvathira included some special dishes, like muthirappuzhukku and koovappayasam. Ettangadi is another special dish. The fasting women do not eat rice, but only tubers, pulses and fruits.
Though it is termed a fast, Thiruvathira means over-eating in fact !
The recipees and more details I will add later.
Vazhuthananga chammanthiIndira of Mahanandi, has written about onion chutney or Ulli Pachadi. My father has a special recipe for vazhuthananga chammanthi. Vazhuthananga is nothing but brinjal. And, chammanthi is what we term chutneys in Malayalam. Well, not exactly. There is a difference. While chutney is the more watery accompaniment for iddalies and dosas (and only occasionally for rice), chammanthi is the thick paste, ground without adding water. Chutney is invariably seasoned with mustard seeds, dry red chillies and curry leaves (in the southern districts, with onions as well). But, chammanthi has no seasoning, except for a dash of coconut oil sometimes. My father would saute chopped vazhuthananga pieces in a little oil, but the original recipee called for grilling over live coals, in the purely local way. When the wood stove gave way to cooking gas, he resolutely tried out the pan. But I improvised it to grilling over the gas flame ! After the vazhuthananga pieces are sauted well, he would saute small onions (chuvannulli) and a couple of red chillies, with a small lump of tamarind. Then, all ingredients were mashed together. The mashing too, became modernised with the advent of the mixie. Earlier, it was a mortar-and-pestle-affair. But, using a mixie can be tricky, as the mixture needs to be rough, not a smooth paste, which would rob it of all the punch. And came a final dash of coconut oil. Whhew ! No need for anything more with the rice.
Local foodsOur friend Reghu is an enthusiastic foodie. Yesterday all the three of us were chatting after dinner. Naturally, the topic turned to food. Reghu described 'Asthram,' a special dish made during some festivals in his native place, Punalur, in Kollam district. Its main ingredient is kachil, he said. Kachil (kaachil, or kaavuthu, as we in the northern parts of Kerala call it), is a tuber associated with the Thiruvathira festival. Searching google, I discovered that its botanical name is Dioscorea alata. In Hindi it is called Chupari Aloo. Usually available by December, this tuber with a distinctive, mild flavour is a must for the fast observed by women on Thiruvathira Day in the Malayalam month of Dhanu. (More on Thiruvathira later)Well, Reghu said that this dish, 'Asthram,' is made with kachil in the main. There will also be some other tubers as well. Coconut paste was added to the boiled vegetables, with a dash of buttermilk. The dish will be of a loose consistency. When inspired, Reghu will go on talking about food. Yesterday he was in such a mood. Then he described the payasam with mangoes, made in a temple in Tamil Nadu. His mother hails from Tamil Nadu. Or, her native village is now part of Tamil Nadu, after the formation of States on linguistic basis. He remembers that huge quantities of mango payasam were prepared during that festival, and distributed to all the assembled devotees. "The taste of that payasam could never be created at home, however you try," he said. His wife, hailing from Alappuzha district, would make an avial with semi-ripe cashew fruits (kashumanga or parangi manga) and muringakkaya. Slices of raw cashew nuts are also added. I described the watery avial made in our part of Thrissur district. It is of a pouring consistency, nothing like the dry avial made for sadya-s. The vegetables are allowed to cook till soft, the coconut is ground to a smooth paste and liberal quantities of water and buttermilk are added. As a final touch, a couple of smashed pearl onions will be dropped into the curry, giving it a delicious flavour. R talked of the pulinkari, a stape of his childhood (which he still hates). Our pulinkari seems to be different from that of southern Kerala. Here, this curry has thuvarapparippu (tuvar dal) as the base. To the boiled dal is added any kind of vegetables, whatever available. But pumpkin makes the classic match. Turmeric and chilly powders and salt are added. Once the vegetables and dal are cooked, tamarind water is added and boiled again. Then seasoned with mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves and red chillies. Reghu's pulinkari seems to have coconut paste also. R said that during his childhood, sambar had not yet made inroads into the rural kitchens of Vallluvanadu. It was either Pulinkari or morozhicha koottan (literally, curry into which butter milk (moru) is poured). If there is coconut in the house, then the latter, if not, pulinkari. A wide range of vegetables could be used for both these curries. Chena (elephant foot yam), raw bananas, chembu (taro) or cucumber were the usual veggies for morozhicha koottan. As for pulinkari, almost everything went into it. In that way it was similar to moloshyam. Moloshyam is another common dish of households in Thrissur district. Nothing could be simpler than a moloshyam. Also pronouced as molokooshyam, the name is said to have derived from mulaku dooshyam (which means, chillies are harmful !). True, this curry uses no chillies, not red chillies at least. If you have a hot tooth, green chillies could be added. It is nothing more than thuvarapparippu (tuval dal), cooked with any vegetable, with just salt and a pinch of turmeric powder. A dash of coconut oil and a sprig of curry leaves are added as seasoning. It sounds simple, but making a good moloshyam needs a good hand. Just to think of the aroma of curry leaves and coconut oil arising from the hot curry is.. ah ! delicious !
Food and hunger are complementary. Both exist together. Food has relevance only because of hunger. And, hunger has only one answer - food.
During the Forties, Malayalees experienced hunger, perhaps the worst experience of hunger for a people in the lap of a bountiful land. But, this time, hunger was man-made. A result of the Depression of the 1930s that swept over Europe, resulting in the War. As the Second World War progressed, the British Empire diverted all its food supplies from the colonies to the battlefields. Rationing was introduced for the first time in Kerala. In a short story from that period, the writer Nandanar hints at the ration system. The wife, handing over a glass of milk at night to the husband who has come on leave from his far-off working place, tells that it won't be sweet enough. "This month, there was only half a kilo of sugar.' (Oru Varshakala Rathri).
Hunger was a constant presence in the literature of that period. Karoor Neelakanda Pillai, who wrote continously about the plight of teachers, described a teacher who stole his student's tiffin, unable to withstand the pangs of hunger gnawing at his stomach. In the stories of Nandanar and M.T. Vasudevan Nair also, it is a constant presence. Especially the helpless hunger of children.
Kovilan, another veteran Malayalam writer, while talking of his leaving home to join the British Army, remembers his mother's death. His mother had died of hunger. Of having gone about for days without getting enough to eat. Then, one day, the young boy notices that his father and sister were surviving on a gruel of bajra, while he, the sole breadwinner, was fed with rice. That night he left home, to join the army.
It was hunger that drove generations of Malayalees away from their homeland. Joining the army was a popular option during the war years as it held the promise of food. And, a comparatively good paypack for that time.
Interestingly, it was through these armymen that many food items made its appearance in Kerala. Especially the canned food. S.K. Pottekkad, in his epic work, 'Oru Desathinte Katha,' has described Kunjappu, a young former soldier, displaying tins and tins of canned cheese, sardine in olive oil, butter and other things.
Returning to M.N. Vijayan once again, he has described how people used to fight for the remains of feasts. Rich people often distributed gruel to the poor, to mark occasions. It was known as 'Pattinikkanji.' Literally, the gruel of poverty. Engagements were called 'Paranju Kanji Kudi.'
Enough about hunger. Let me talk about food. It is 2005. And, the hunger of Forties is History.
We call it 'koorkka kizhangu.' I don't know the English name. It seems to be not so popular outside Kerala. I've found that it belongs to the Coleus family. Farm journals refer to it as 'coleus tuber.'
Whatever be the name, koorkka is an all time favourite with me and R. It is a special treat. Really so, as the cleaning is a bit messy. The tubers will be invariably coated with mud. May be a trick of the shop keepers to add to the weight. The tubers have to be washed thoroughly. Then, the skin has to be scrapped off, one by one. It takes time. And leaves a tell-tale brownish stain on the fingers. Using a glove might help.
Koorkka is not itchy, like the chembu family. And, it has a herby, delicious smell, which makes the skinning a little bit pleasurable.
This tuber can be prepared in a multitude of ways. Koorkka upperi, koorkka erisseri, koorkka masalakkari... like that. I like the most simple preparation that preserves the fragrance. Boil or pressure cook the cleaned tubers (large ones could be chopped a bit), with salt. Turmeric powder could be added, if you need. Its ok without haldi. Once done, strain the water used for boiling (to avoid over cooking) and season with shallots and broken red chillies. Fry a little bit in the oil. And, there's nothing to beat it.
Today, for lunch, we had rice, koorkka upperi and a plain rasam.
Right now, I am writing from the office. There's something distinctively thrilling to blog from your work desk. Esepcially if you have some urgent work to do. You are not exactly bunking, yet you get a feeling of bunking. And, moreover, you get a feeling of change, or freshness.
So, it's been a dull day, foodwise. But, these days, we're having something like a three-meal routine. For a change ! So, I suggested wheat dosas for breakfast. With a chutney of small onions. R made the dosas. I peeled the onions. Hot dosas with onion paste makes a nice breakfast, (may be not such a nice smell !)
wheat dosa is my all time favourite. so easy to make. substantial, with a crunchy taste. I am not very good with measurements. I prefer the 'take-a-pinch-of,' 'add-enough-water' school.
So, take some wheat flour, mix with water to get a smooth paste, it should not be too watery. R today put the batter in the mixie, to get rid of the lumps easily. I never thought it before. And, just make dosas, like you make dosas everytime. Put the frying pan on the stove, (we have an old, iron one), sprinkle some gingelly oil (use a big onion to spread the oil, the dosa won't stick) and make thick dosas. I like them crisp. R likes them more limp.
I don't add chillies to the onion paste, only salt and coconut oil. Those who like it hot, can add chillies to the mixer. crushed pepper is also Ok.
And, for lunch, it was just plain butter-and-jam sandwich. I did not want to go out for lunch. And i ate from my desk. Though normally it is not the done thing here.
Well, right now, I don't have a digicam. So, the blog has low chances for having pictures.
Hi everybody out there, as I have said, this green banana leaf is basically a food blog. But, not essentially a cookery blog. For the simple reason that I am not a great cook, as such. All the same, I just simply love food. I love to think food, not only eat. And, I believe food is part of culture. Not just a small part, but food forms the major chunk of what we call culture. Especially in India, that is the case. As we all know, the abhominable custom of 'untouchability' or 'touchability' had a lot to do with food. It was food that was 'contaminated' or 'polluted' by the touch or presence of persons belonging to castes placed in the lower rungs of social hierarchy according to the Hindu scriptures. All sorts of taboos veered around food. Kitchen was the 'sanctum sanctorum' of households. During my parents' youth, which means the period upto Sixties, even the Seventies, nobody belonging to a 'lower' caste was permitted to enter the kitchen. And, nobody was permitted to eat food prepared by persons belonging to 'lower' castes. For Hindus in general, eating food prepared by people belonging to other faiths, like Muslims or Christians, was also a strict no-no. And, eating out was ..... unthinkable. And, all the caste rules were applied much more strictly to women, than men. The country of my birth, Kerala, has changed a lot. So much that all this stuff about 'untouchability' and food taboos might seem like fairy tales for the present generation. Still, just a couple of decades separate these two eras, in the history of my land. While surfing the net about kerala food, I am quite intrigued to see endless websites listing almost homogenous inventories of dishes supposed to be of Kerala origin. But, the food of Kerala is much more than that. And, much of what you now believe to be of Kerala, hardly belongs here. Because, like the name of one popular dish has come to mean in Malayalam, the culture of Kerala is a real 'aviyal,' which means, 'a mixed baggage.' Half the food stuff here came from all over the globe. And, more than half of the cuisine also arrived from different shores. And, we the Malayalees, with our characteristic ease, assimilated all, tucked into the folds of our mundu, and continued bragging about our 'age-old' culture and traditions !