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Tales from a Simmering Chatti

Dr. Krishnaja A.P.

The preparation of food has always fascinated me: a space to experiment creatively, a
way to unwind. Food itself, with its flavours and aromas, takes me through the bylanes of
nostalgia. The floodgates of memory open up and images rush past as if on a reel.

My earliest childhood memories are intrinsically linked with food. As a little girl coming
home for lunch from school, if I did not find my favourite aunt whom we fondly called
Pacha Aunty waiting, I would run through the narrow lanes that led to her friend`s place
to fetch her home. It was impossible to think of having lunch without her feeding me. The
piping hot rasam and rice, with a little dash of ghee, would taste heavenly, when she fed
me. Incidentally, I still haven’t figured out why we called her ‘Pacha’ (which means
‘green’ in Malayalam) Aunty, when her name is Vasantha.

Also linked to my childhood memories is the aroma of sambar bubbling in an earthern

pot on a wood stove. We served it to a large group of another aunt’s colleagues,
conducting a nutrition survey in the South, who’d camped at our place. That was the first
time in 1959 we ever saw a “sardarji uncle” with long hair. All of us children would
surround him in the evenings when he would sit and dry his hair after a bath! And one
morning, when I was late for school, another member of the group, a beautiful, tall lady
named Parvati came to my rescue, offered to drop me off and speak to the nuns. I had a
story of a pain in the right side of my stomach ready, having first ascertained that the
appendix is on the right side, to make my story more authentic. But with Parvati by my
side, my little fingers firmly entwined in hers, I didn’t fear facing the nuns at all. To me,
she was courage and confidence personified. Years later, when I dish out sambar, the
story of Paravti is narrated to my daughters, who listen intently, and with glee.

Simple things like tomatos, cut and served with a sprinkling of sugar, and papayas bring
back vivid memories of lazy summers in Podanur. My brother (who is now no more)
would tie a knife to the end of a long pole to get papayas from an unusually tall papaya
tree. Later, he used to peel, cut and serve this to all of us, constantly extolling the virtue
of papayas- not that we were much impressed. I was not a very health conscious teenager
in those days!

My native place Calicut is famous for its paper thin, crisp, hot banana chips sold
straight from iron kadais at roadside shops and of course, the delicacy- ‘Calicut halwa’.
Some of the varieties of halwa include karutha halwa, black in colour because of jaggery
or palm sugar, velutha halwa, white in colour due to refined sugar, coloured ones and
jackfruit and banana halwas. The combination of a mouthful of hot, crisp chips and a
piece of soft, sweet halwa is truly irresistible. Apart from these delicacies, every tea
stall worth its name also stocks nendrapazham-large sized yellow bananas-the raw
material for chips or banana halwas or simply nendrapazham porichathu (banana fritters),
i.e. ripe banana slices fried in batter.

Malabar biryanis are a must-eat when visiting Calicut. The mutton is cooked tender, the
rice flaky and delicately spiced with the right portions of condiments, and the taste- long
lingering. Biryanis may be of mutton, chicken, prawn or fish. In seafood, mussels are a
favorite and a must try. The malabar biryani, fried prawns, mussels and bitter gourd fry
we had at Paragon restaurant in downtown Calicut, on my last visit there in 2000, is still
fresh in my memory. Do stop at this restaurant for a bite if you happen to visit Calicut.

To truly understand Malabari cuisine, you have to know the history of this place and how
it changed the chemistry of the region’s cuisine. For more than 2000 years, traders from
foreign shores, whether the Arabs, Chinese, African, Portuguese, Dutch and English,
have visited Kerala. One of the world’s earliest fusion cuisines can probably be found
here. The ancient Tamil kingdoms and the Central Asian mulsims coming via North
India influenced ancient Malabari cooking as well. Thus, the cuisine has been influenced
by all those who landed here in search of spices and you find a blend of different dishes
adapted to local tastes. The enchanting array of seafood and meat delicacies is a
wonderful reminder of these foreign influences. Due to their abundance, coconuts and
spices like black pepper, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon play a huge role in our food,
and rice and tapioca are the other staples.

The unique flavours of the north Malabar cuisine can be discerned from some of the age-
old, conventional recipes that are handed down from generation to generation. These
range from recipes to prepare arikadukka (stuffed mussels cooked in its shell, with a
concoction of rice flour, fennel, shallots and coconut and then fried), puzhukku (sardines
or mackerels with raw bananas or tapioca) to kalathappam (a delicacy made of rice flour,
jaggery, fried shallots and coconut flakes, and baked in a traditional oven).

A personal favourite, mussels are the hot favourite of many a gourmet too. A popular
mussel preparation is the earlier mentioned arikadukka, which is served by both wayside
eateries and high-end restaurants. All you need to do to find this delicacy is follow your
nose! Mussels are also served up in tasty and spicy curries, as are prawns, shrimp, crab,
clams, and oysters.

When I shifted base to Bombay in 1973, food again came in the form of new discoveries,
flavours, aromas and colours. My uncle introduced me to a whole lot of different cuisines
and so did restaurant visits and friends from different regions.

Ajwain palak pakoras and Punjabi samosas take me back to the laburnum grove in front
of the library of the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. Punjabi kadhi, rajma
and steamed basmati rice often remind me of my Ludhiana days and the hot summer
afternoons when the temperature touches 400C and the office hours are from 7 a.m to 1
p.m. Makkai roti, saag, shalgam pickle and lassi remind me of the two months that I
stayed as a guest with the Sikh Desi family, acclimatising to the north.

These days, every one in my family relishes fried Bombay duck (which isn’t a duck at all,
but a fish). The Bombay duck (Harpadon nehereus) is native to the waters between
Bombay and Kutch in the Arabian sea. It is also found in the Bay of Bengal and China
sea. I was not an avid fan of this delicacy. I’d read about it first, way back in 1972, while
preparing for the ICAR competitive exams, and my imagination had run wild. In fact, it
opened the doors of my future career, as the one essay I had written perfectly was on the
Bombay Duck. But my initial disappointment with this slippery, watery, white fish turned
to great admiration as time went on. It was a cultivated taste. First, my uncle and later,
my husband introduced me to the delights of this fish, which is called a duck, and I in my
turn, have introduced it to many.

Food is indeed, inseparably linked with all my memories. I hope the food I cook means
the same to my daughters.


Cover page-Steaming hot fish curry, prepared in a traditional chatti

Page 1-Our Christmas lunch for 2009: fish curry, steamed rice and crisp banana

Photos by my daughter Rohini C Nair, on SonyEricsson W350i cell phone, 1.3


Chatti-an earthenware pot used for cooking

Rasam-a spicy and tangy, thin watery concotion, made with boiled tomatoes, tamarind or
lemon, a touch of lentils, pepper and other spices. There can be many variations to the
Ghee-clarified butter
Sambar-lentils cooked with vegetables and roasted spices, especially coriander and
Halwa-a sweet with a slightly sticky, soft consistency, cut and served in cubes or
diamond shapes
Ajwain-an uncommon spice, except in certain areas of Asia.Tastes like thyme or
caraway, only stronger.
Pakoras-gramflour based deep-fried snack, with a variety of vegetable fillings
Samosas-a deep-fried snack made with wheat or refined flour, triangular shaped, also
with a variety of vegetable or meat fillings
Kadhi-a gramflour and curd based gravy-like accompaniment
Rajma-kidney beans
Makai roti-flat Indian bread made with corn
Saag-a type of leafy vegetable