Monday, June 12, 2006

Banana chips from far-away

RP's banana chips hurled me backwards, towards a distant morning.

A sunny, late August (or was it early September ?) morning when the sky is full of puffy, white clouds and the leaves glisten with the humid green after soaking up the monsoon rains. The sky has just broken clear. The earth is still moist. And the sunlight filters in, yellow and unearthly.

The tile-roofed shed in the backyard of my home bustles with activity. The 'shed' is the multi-purpose space just outside the house, where the coconut husks and fronds for fuel are stored. Two aduppu-s, the permanent stoves made of earth, are also located there for professional cooking on special occasions.

Here takes place the annual ritual of my childhood that ushered in Onam - the making of upperi-s and pickles.

In those days, my parents engaged a professional cook for these tasks, mainly because of the taste. The special dishes for Onam would get the proper taste in the hands of a professional cook, they believed. And it was true also. Not that we were exceptionally rich. Rather, that was the custom in my father's household. For special occasions, professional cooks were hired. Women of the family were not expected to slog off too much over heavy cooking sessions. Rather, they were expected to remain hostesses, graceful and delicate, handling only the mildest routine chores.

So, Appukuttan Elayathu made his appearance on the appointed day. Elayathu was his caste name, and he was a good professional cook, held in high esteem locally. Out of respect for my father, he would deign to cook at our home.

The preparations would start much earlier. Selecting the right bunch of bananas was important. The markets would get flooded with bunches of nenthrakkaya (the banana/ plantain species unique to Kerala). The raw bananas should be matured just enough. A few days more or less would tell upon the taste of the chips. The size of the fruits also mattered. But, the biggest issue was the price.

During Onam season, the price of bananas rocketed skywards. Just like all other vegetables. Mostly, the Government would step in, offering bananas and vegetables at subsidised rates at special markets. These 'Onachantha'-s would be crowded like anything, with people making beelines to make the most out of the subsidised rates.

I don't quite remember the 'good-ole-days,' when the bunches from own land used to arrive for the Onam. And, I didn't belong to a family which celebrated Onam drawing upon the labour of its tenants, through the obnoxious custom of 'Onakkazhcha.' As far as I could remember, they had cultivated their land by themselves. (But, more about that later).

So, the bunches of perfect bananas were ready in the tiny store room. Oil, jaggery, chukku, jeera and all other necessary paraphernalia were also ready. The uruli was brought down and scrubbed to a sheen.

Appukuttan Elayathu, like all the traditional cooks, (dehannakkar), had a rhythm of his own. His hands moved in a mechanical rhythm, as he went about the chores without haste, as if he had all the time in the world left. Lighting the stove, putting the uruli on the fire, pouring oil, adjusting the fire till the oil began to boil and in between, skinning the bananas. Only when the oil was bubbling would be take out his banana-cutter. It was almost a mandoline, but which had provision only for slicing bananas.

Then came the wonderful sight I'd waited for. The discs of bananas flying off the metal blade straight into the bubbling oil, hissing like a 'thalachakram,' and turning yellow right in front of your eyes. A few minutes later, he would take the pot of salt water, waiting for the right moment to sprinkle over the frying chips.

The yellow, crisp discs were collected from the oil, drained and transferred to a 'muram.' I don't know how many of you are familiar with a 'muram,' woven out of bamboo strips, a common household utensil in the olden days. Even these days, muram-s make their appearance at the market, but more for a decorative purpose than any utilitarian one !

Making 'sarkkara upperi,' was a bit more complicated and not as colourful as the yellow ones. The bananas would be cut into thick chunks, fried and kept away. Then the jaggery would melt in the big uruli, till the syrup reached the correct consistency. The fried banana chunks would be poured into the syrup, followed by a finely powdered mixture of jeera and chukku (cumin and dried ginger), which provides the punch of 'sarkkara upperi.' Within a few seconds, the whole syrupy mixture would turn dry, with the jaggery firmly adhering to the chips in an even coating.

The biggest treat was the left-over powder of jaggery and jeera-chukku powder. It would be scrapped from the bottom of the uruli and kept in glass jars. To be licked off as a savoury snack, or even added to coffee.

Appukuttan Elayathu is no more. He had stopped cooking a few years back, as he grew older. My parents started to purchase packets of chips for Onam from the local caterers, as is the common practice these days. Even 'payasam,' is ordered for Onam. You can purchase either 'palada,' or 'pazhaprathaman,' or 'parippu prathaman,' which has that perfect, professional taste.

Well, times they're a'changing.... And, whatever be the changes, the spirit of Onam still lives on.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

So friends, here is the article I was promising you. I had written this for an Onam Supplement of The Hindu, a couple of years ago. In 2004, I think. As is the case with every feature article, especially written for supplements, this one was also cooked up in a fast-food manner. Not that much well-researched, I mean. Just a bunching together of the points that I knew all along. So, here it is...

Eating differently during Onam

After all, Onam is a festival for feasting. No wonder, it was the harvestf estival, which saw the end of the dark, monsoon days of Karkidakam. The month was perilous even for the rich. For ordinary people it meant rainy days without work, without food.

So naturally, Onam became a celebration of food, and of all good things inlife. A good crop and the mild weather lifted up the spirits. Interestingly, almost all the Onam proverbs and sayings centre around eating. In Malayalam, celebrating Onam is ‘Onam Unnuka,’ which meanseating. Then there is the classic sample ‘Kaanam Vittum Onam Unnanam,’ whichadvises that Onam should be celebrated at any cost, even by selling offland. Many sayings also allude to the days of hunger which might follow thefeasting.

The general scarcity of food that existed in olden days must have caused this celebration of feasting. Notwithstanding our blabber about ‘those goodol’ days,’ those were days really short of food. Even the rich could just manage decent meals. Nature was harsher, and social rules even harsher.

The times have changed, along with Malayali’s markets and habits. Food availability has increased manifold, in variety as well as quantity. Season is no limit for the market now. Mangoes and bananas flood the shops round the year. And no wonder, Ona Sadya has become a homogenous affair. At least the popular version of the Ona Sadya projected by the mass media as the lavish spread on the sparkling green banana leaf, beamed at us from hoardings and miniscreens alike. Now we cannot imagine Ona Sadya withoutsambar, aviyal, kalan, ishttu, koottukari, upperi, puliyinchi, narangakkari and palada prathaman.

Yet, how many of us know that many of these dishes were late entrants in the Malayali menu ? Or that Sadya itself differs drastically from the North to the South ?

To begin with, sambar and aviyal, now indispensable in any Malayali sadya, were absent even by the turn of 20th century. They do not appear in any olden writings on food. ‘Ashanam,’ the portion of the four-part 'Purusharthakkoothu,' dealing with food and eating, which describes a gargantuan feast devoured by gluttons, do not list sambar and aviyal in the menu though rasam is mentioned as ‘mulaku vellam,’ (chilly water). These dishes arrived later, from the neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

The major difference between the Onam feast of northern and southern Keralai s regarding non-vegetarian fare. Eating meat or fish on Onam day is astrict no-no in the central and southern Kerala, but the northerners, especially in Kannur and Kasaragode districts, splurge on meat. Mutton is almost a must. Saraswathi Sukumaran, a native of Kannur district, remembers that the habit was not much in vogue a few decades back. But,according to Prasad hailing from Thalassery, mutton had been the treat of Onam for years. Earlier, people would slaughter lambs locally, booking orders in advance, remembers he. Now shops and cold storages have taken over. At the same time, even habitual non-vegetarians in Thrissur and Palakkad districts abstain from flesh during Onam.

The ubiquitous pazham nurukku, the chunks of boiled plantains (nenthrappazham),eaten with crushed pappadam-s is also a feature confined to central Kerala,especially the old Cochin and Valluvanadu regions. People in other parts are apparently unfamiliar with this delicacy during Onam. But for central Keralites, there is no Onam without the syrupy sweetness of the pazham nurukku.

Making it is a ritual itself, starting with procuring the right bunch of raw bananas which are ripened at home. At least for one week during Onam,breakfast becomes nothing but pazham nurukku, pappadams and upperi. Visitors are invariably served it at every home and it is the No. 1 item for the Sadya.

These days we think payasam is indispensable for Onasadya. But many from the Valluvanadu region will vow otherwise. Even now, many homes there do not make payasam. Instead, a mixture of coconut scrappings and jaggery is served as dessert in some places.

Almost all over Kerala, frying banana chips means the beginning of Onam preparations. But in some regions, like Punaloor in Kollam district, the chips are not of banana alone. A whole range of vegetables like, chena (elephant-foot yam), chembu (colocasia), payar and bitter gourd are fried and stored days in advance. Other crispies like ‘kaliyadakka,’ (nothing to do with betelnuts, but a round crispy made of rice flour) as well as murukku were made during Onam, remembers Reghunathan, a native of Punaloor. He also remembers that a thoran of 'chenathandu and cherupayar,’ (stem of yam and green gram) was invariably served the day before Onam. The reason was simple. Yams were dug up for the Ona Sadya, and the leftover stem which was edible and nutritious could not be wasted !
In most of Thrissur district, making ‘ada’ as part of the offerings toThrikkakarayappan is an important custom. The special ‘poovada,’ with thumpa flowers sprinkled with the filling was used for puja. Onam breakfast consisted of adas, pazham nurukku, pappadam and upperi. But, even in some other parts of Thrissur district like Cheruthuruthi, no ‘ada’ was made for Onam, but during Vishu.

One description of Onasadya appears in the autobiography of late A.M. N.Chakyar (‘The Last Smartha Vicharam,’ describes the social persecutions he had to endure in childhood as a result of Smartha Vicharam, the evil custom practised by Namboothiris in the past). It gives an idea of Onasadya in a prosperous Namboothiri household during the turn of 20th century - ‘At our illam, sadya (the feast) was prepared for both the noon meal and evening during varieties of curries, four types of ‘uppilittathu,’ (pickles) and prathaman. The four curries were kaalan, olan, erisseri and pulisseri. The four types of uppilittathu were lemon, mango, puliyinchi and inchithayiru.These four pickles and payasam continue without any change even today.Sambar, rasam, aviyal etc. were unheard of in those days. ‘Pazham nurukku and varuthupperi were the integral parts of the Onam season.’

Thus, customs change, habits change. But the sadya still survives. And these days it has become trendy. You could go to any posh restaurant and have sadya comfortably. Or else, it will arrive at your door-step, packaged neatly, conveniently.
(Courtesy: The Hindu)