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.