It was in her grandmother’s kitchen in a small town in Kerala that author Tanya Abraham first took an interest in food and recipes. Called 'Kusinchya', a Portuguese derivative of the word kitchen, it nourished the soul of the household through its array of steaming dishes and jars of pickles flavoured by the smell of firewood and burning coal.
In her book Eating with History: Ancient Trade-Influenced Cuisines of Kerala, the author charts the culinary journey of growing up in a society influenced by multiple cuisines and belonging to parents of two different Christian communities. The book consists of a little over 100 recipes, and most of these were handed down in families with influences from the Paradesi and Malabari sects, Syrian Christians, Muslims, Anglo-Indians, Latin Catholics, among others. While some of the Latin and Syrian recipes are from her family recipe books, the rest were scouted and sourced.
The book isn’t overtly pictorial, and the dishes take precedence, thereby ensuring that the focus is only on food. The recipes are narrated in a concise manner, making them easy to follow and try. In a conversation with Firstpost, the author delves deep into the history and heritage of food, as well as traverses the many influences of Kerala cuisine.
How did the book happen?
Growing up in a multi-cultural society, I was intrigued by cultural differences that existed within close quarters. My interest in heritage, culture and food led me to research on the cuisines that stemmed from Kerala’s famed spice trade. Some of the communities live(d) next to each other, and yet their food was strikingly different. This sparked my curiosity.
How long did the research take?
It took me three years. It was not that easy because there was very little documentation in the field. Also, to find authentic and undiluted recipes called for finding the right families and those willing to share them.
What surprising facts about Kerala cuisine did you encounter while bringing this book out?
When I started my research, I was aware that different cuisines had emerged from the spice trade, and that history had played a crucial role in creating them. This was sort of the periphery of things. Delving deep, it was surprising to know that various factors contribute to creating a cuisine. Religion, cooking techniques, family traditions, new ingredients...a tiny change creates a completely new flavour. It was intriguing to know that Kerala has such a deep food culture, so unique to it alone. And each family would add its special touch that shifted things a little bit. The evolution of food culture is not within the local alone, but it moves across shores. Thus, it also becomes the extension of a culture of a different country.
To think that Paradesi Jews (who never married outside their community and kept to strict religious laws) have the same sweet meat as the Mappilas (Arab descendants) called Muttamalla. It is popular as a Mappila sweet, never as a Jewish sweet. It thus tells us that communities may have exchanged certain food items, either because of the proximity of residences, or traditions from another land.
Again, the Vindhaloo, a Portuguese dish, varies between the Latin Catholics and the Kerala Anglo-Indians, both connected to Portuguese rule in Kerala. The secular ambience and the unity between communities is truly intriguing, with flavours merging or remaining distinctly different.
What does the Kerala cuisine consist of today? How have its vast influences shaped it?
The communities the book has traced specifically concern those influenced by foreign trade. Kerala food has certain dishes synonymous with the state — the Sadya, for example. Syrian Christian and Mappila food are popularly known, but not the cuisines of the Jews, Latins, or the Kerala Anglo-Indians.
You give an eclectic collection of recipes, like the nutmeg caramel custard. What are some of the dishes that are unique to the region?
I would say Latino Meen polichathu for its simple flavour, the Ethaka appam is a favourite, influenced by the Portuguese who steamed or baked much of their goods (use of coconut milk, rice powder and steamed). Pada is a unique pickle made with garlic and mustard, again influenced by the Portuguese. Jewish pasthel is unique to Kerala Jews.
You have talked about innovative ingredients and recipes, but did these travellers also bring with them different ways of making the dishes?
The Mappila community has techniques like those in Arabia — using coal kernels for cooking. The Jews do not mix milk and meat, this is because of religion. Thus, coconut milk, (which is) easily found in Kerala, was used and a new curry was thus created. All the recipes are unique because either ingredients were brought into the state, or religion called for a certain cooking procedure.
You talk about growing up in your grandmother’s kitchen as a child...is that the inspiration for the book?
In many ways yes. I saw how it fed so many people, it really was the soul of the house. I also saw how — through food — connected the various communities were through friends, in a heterogenous town like Fort Cochin.
Are our heritage and cultures linked through food? What can we learn about it through the changes in Kerala's cuisine?
Food is a wonderful expression of who we are as people. It defines our identities, traditions and customs. It tells who we are, the flavours that came from generations of cooking. Food is culture and India can be proud of a rich food cultural heritage.
As far as Kerala cuisines are concerned, not only did the existing cuisine undergo change, but it (literally) sprouted new cuisines. The ships plying across oceans to gather spices from Kerala brought with them food-cultures and religions, which resulted in new types of cuisines. Many of these are highly complex, with layers of techniques and several ingredients. The same ingredients, when married differently, gives rise to new flavours. The marrying depends on customs and traditions. This shows how new cultural aspects of heritage are formed, and explains that our history is intricately locked in food.
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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2020 09:07:07 IST