Forgotten Food: The Eenthu Panna tree's seeds contain the story of a cuisine, culture and its custodians
In addition to being the star ingredient in heirloom dishes like the ‘eenthu pidi’ made by the Mappila Muslims, the seeds of the Cycas circinalis (popularly referred to as the eenthu panna) tree are a living testimony to the age-old reliance of indigenous communities on wild edibles and the unrecorded wealth of ethnobotanical information they possess.
This is the first in a three-part series that chronicles the history of lesser-known regional Indian ingredients and dishes, and highlights their importance in micro cuisines — #ForgottenFood.
“Back in the day we never had machines to pulverise or powder things, so when we did make eenthu pidi, it was a perevaadi.” Ummi Abdulla uses the Malayalam term — ‘perevaadi’ — meaning elaborate programme to describe the act of making a dish that teeters on the brink of an almost-forgotten culinary landscape. “My maternal grandfather used to bring the eenthu home during some aarattu or festival…” In an abrupt, stream-of-conscious style, she shifts focus to her sister, whose marital home was in Nandi. “She had an eenthu tree there — she is no more, but the tree remains. Her daughter, however, still makes eenthu powder for me.”
The ensuing narrative, of the 84-year-old gatekeeping matriarch of Kerala’s Mappila cuisine and author of several pioneering cookbooks, is replete with vivid imagery. Abdulla adopts a reverential tone when outlining the process that converts the seeds of the eenthu tree into a versatile flour, giving a burst of life to an elusive ingredient of mythical proportions.
“Ëenthu is like areca nut. It cannot be prepared unless it’s completely dry and this is difficult as it’s usually plucked in the rainy season. We usually cut it into two pieces and dry it over a fire adippe. It is then soaked in water and ground to a fine powder with a traditional stone or cement uralu and olakka.”
Stout but stately, the eenthu panna tree is just as dramatic in appearance as the heirloom preparation that elicits endless paeans and expressions of distaste alike, due to its pronounced taste, in the north Malabar region. Commonly referred to as the Queen Sago Palm or Sago Palm, the Cycas circinalis is an evergreen palm-like tree that grows up to 25 ft. in height and is endemic to the Indian subcontinent.
Its thick, corky trunk erupts into a flamboyant crown formation of long, bright green, feathery leaves that are up to 270 cm long. Etymologically, the name circinalis is a derivative of the Latin word for coiled, suggestive of the leaf unfurling as it grows.
Of the nine species of cycads recognised within India, six are endemic and the species Cycas circinalis — endemic to south India — is a nutraceutical plant for several indigenous communities in the Western Ghats. In his article for the Cycad Newsletter, R Singh refers to it as “the variety restricted to the Western Ghats and hills of the southern peninsula, as far north-east as Madras, in the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.” The vernacular names by which it is referred to, such as Mund isalu (Kannada), eenthu panna (Malayalam), madana kama raja (Tamil) and Malabari supari (Marathi) are testimony to its pervasive presence in these regions.
According to John Donaldson in Cycads: Status Suvey and Conservation Action Plan, “The cycads (family Cycadaceae) are one of the world’s most threatened plant groups. Originating 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period, cycads are the oldest extant group of seed plants.”
Illustrations of the “Todda Panna or Mouta Panna” were recorded in the pioneering Dutch botanical text Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, Continents Regni Malabarici apud Indos celeberrimi omnis generis Plantas rariores, 1678-16 (commonly referred to as the Hortus Malabaricus).Commissioned by Hendrik van Rheede, the Governor of Dutch Malabar at the time, it outlined the flora in the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Goa and offered the first definitive insight into South Asia’s tropical botany. These went on to serve as the basis of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’ descriptions of the Cycas circinalis L.
The eenthu panna’s distinctive seeds lend their form to a variety of recipes that are vanishing from the tables of communities such as the Mappilas. Homemaker Nurul Hidaya remembers how her marital branch of the Arinhal Karuvantevalappil family, originally from the small village of Punaad in the Kannur district, would grind powdered eenthu podi with a pinch of turmeric and salt over the ammi kalle slab.
The resultant mixture would be fashioned into pellet-sized pidi or dumplings and steamed in banana leaves or immersed in boiling water and cooked like pasta. “We would wait to get a big fish like aikoora (seer fish) and marinate it with chilli, turmeric and coriander powder, along with ginger, garlic and onions. This would be boiled and we’d then add a separately ground paste of coconut and fennel along with the pidis.” The outlined recipe is issued with a caveat. “You don’t really see eenthu much in shops these days.”
While the eenthakka podi or eenthu flour may not enjoy the widespread occurrence it did about 30 years ago, it continues to be enlisted in more humble staple preparations across the state. The coarse flour can be steamed with ground coconut in a metal or bamboo cylindrical mould to make puttu; soaked and left to ferment overnight with yeast and salt and given the idli treatment; and even made into a baby porridge when the leached, fine flour is flavoured with salt, sugar or coconut.
The eenthu, however, is not just to be written off as another romantic food that elicits nostalgia. It serves as a reminder of the age-old dependence of communities on wild foods and highlights how a renewed reliance on these is a way of assuring people of nutritional security. Ethno-botanical research in Kerala’s Wayanadu district, highlights 165 edible plants used by the Kattunaikka, Paniya and Kuruma tribes. Of these, the Paniya tribe possesses knowledge regarding 136 taxa of wild edible plants, the Kattunaikkas of 97 taxa and the Kurumas of 42 taxa. Consumption and conservation patterns of these wild edible plants are upheld by these communities in a manner that is congruent with their social values.
Many of these species are not only seen as a means of nutrition and survival to tide these communities over during periods of drought and food scarcity but also comprise a part of their regular dietary intake. Each species is acknowledged as playing a role in maintaining the biodiversity within its ecosystem, and the methods of collection are linked to its biology.
Handling and processing techniques too are usually unrecorded and handed down generations orally. Leaching of the eenthu seeds, for example, is a prerequisite for consumption. Seeds are collected in the months of June through August in Kerala and need to attain a greenish yellow colour before they are pronounced as ripe and ready for harvesting.
The processing commences with the seeds being halved and placed on elevated bamboo platforms for smoking. Dried and smoked seeds can be stored for more than three years, but still need to be leached — either by means of being placed in a bamboo basket or jute sack in running water or to be boiled more than three times in water — before being made into a fine or coarse flour. Some villagers in Tamil Nadu enjoy preparations featuring the young leaves and steamed seed.
Dr P Sujanapal, a scientist at the Kerala Forest Research Institute in Kerala, reminds us that the earlier manner in which foods were standardised “was through a trial-and-error process”. This, he adds, is, “the wisdom of our ancient people who went about eating wild foods in the process of trying to understand their properties. Some are poisonous and others need processing.”
The eenthu panna also serves as an important prototype when it comes to observing the interesting assignment of gender roles in indigenous collection methods and the subsequent management of produce. Kattunaikka women, for example, thoughtfully leave the upper branches of fruit trees unharvested or selectively harvested for birds and other animals.
The eenthu pidi’s “edible heirloom” status can be attributed to the Cycas circinalis’ endemic nature. It is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List; critically endangered in the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; and vulnerable in Kerala by the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (Ravikumar & Ved 2000). Dr Sujanapal reminds us that its regeneration rate is poor and the development of new seedlings is declining. He adds, “In demography, it’s called a declining population. Habitat loss and degradation can be another factor.”
Dr Sujanapal also points out that the Cycas circinalis’ place as a nutraceutical cannot be overlooked. The exploitation of its leaves happens for a variety of reasons ranging from being over harvested to decorate “pandals” — causing the trees to become stunted and unable to reproduce in number — to old specimens being hacked for the extraction of pith that is believed to have medicinal properties.
The legacy of the eenthu is just as much about the sense of ceremony that prevails “at least once a year” for custodians such as Abdulla, who treat the preparation of eenthu pidi as a “function”, as it is about acknowledging the ways of the old that assured many food security in the form of wild edibles. As stated by Dr Sujanapal, the eenthu needs to be seen in the light of invaluable “ethnobotanical information that is passed down from generation to generation”.
Jehan Nizar is an independent features writer and food blogger based in Chennai, India. Her work most often explores food as a point of convergence for history and anthropology and has appeared in national and international publications including The Wire, Firstpost, Whetstone Magazine, PEN America, The Spruce Eats, and Gulf News. She formerly wrote a food column for Asiaville.