Friday, December 07, 2007

A story on Pazhampori

I recently happened to re-read a Malayalam short story. The odd thing, it was written by one of the well-known Malayalam poets – a few of his attempts at writing fiction. The writer is Edassery Govindan Nair, or just Edassery, for Malayalis. The story is now almost half a century old and its name is ‘Poricha Nanju.’

Now, I don’t know if these two words could ever be translated with equal force into English. Literally, it means, ‘fried poison.’ But, these two English words are never powerful enough to express the meanings hidden in the two words, ‘poricha nanju.’ While ‘visham,’ is the most commonly used Malayalam word for poison, ‘nanju,’ is more colloquial. But 'visham,' can never express the meaning that 'nanju,' can convey. And, the reference is to, ‘Pazhampori,’ (banana fritters) !

There you are ! You must have been wondering till now, what the hell has a Malayalam short story got to do in a food blog ? Yes, this is a story about ‘pazhampori,’ a favourite snack of many of our blogger-friends, I’m sure.

The milieu, as I told earlier, is almost half a century ago. The poet died in 1974. The story happens in a period corresponding to his own childhood. The protagonist is a young boy, barely ten years, even younger, may be. The setting is a ‘Marumakkathaya Tharavadu,’ in the central region of Kerala. Here, a few words for those who are not familiar with ‘Marumakkathayam.’

Marumakkathayam,’ is not exactly what the Western academics refer to as Matriarchy. It is matriliny, to an extent, but not exactly. Because it is male-centric, after all ! An exact translation could be - lineage / descent of the family name through ‘marumakkal,’ (nieces / nephews of a man through his sister), while ‘makkathayam,’ could be described as the lineage through offspring. In both cases, the issue at stake is a man’s descendants and the mode of continuing his family name !

However, ‘Marumakkathayam,’ extends certain concessions to women, who were, after all, carriers of the man’s family name and legacy. Unlike in ‘Makkathayam,’ they were not considered as unwanted births, to be ‘married off,’ never to return. They were conferred a higher social status, they inherited family property and the family home. They did not live in the eternal fear of being shown the door by an irate mother-in-law. At their husband’s homes, where they visited occasionally, they were treated as special guests. And their welfare was taken care of by the uncles, or the brothers. Well, that was it. It meant, their happiness was determined by the menfolk, just like all other social systems. Even sisters hardly showed their faces before their brothers. Even in rich households, Karanavar held the key to the store room, measuring out the day’s needs almost like a rationing system. He could make or break the lives of the womenfolk of his family. And, families without an elder male member still felt a certain sense of insecurity.

The system disappeared due to many reasons, and this is not the space to elaborate on that. Here, we have this story of ‘pazhampori,’ which turned out to be the fried poison for a young lad. But how ?

He lived in his tharavadu, with his mother, two sisters and elderly grand-mother. No uncles, or elder brothers. A male-less family, laden with all the associated insecurities. Both sisters were married and the elder one had a child, just younger than our protagonist. Though they were uncle and nephew in relationships, the two boys grew up like brothers, the younger one addressing the elder not as ‘uncle,’ but as ‘ettan,’ or elder brother. Now, the elder sister was estranged from her husband, not due to any discord between the couple, but due to some family feuds. This was common in those days, the writer tells us.

So, one day, following a slight skirmish between the two kids, the elder sister, without any reason, violently thrashed her son, apparently to give vent to her own tensions. The whole house fell into a pall of gloom. The next morning, the elder sister’s husband appeared on his way to office and handed over a parcel to his child. Again we are informed that though the relationship was almost broken, he was still allowed to give occasional gifts to his child. Apparently, the elder sister had sent word to him for this little token to compensate for the thrashing the baby suffered the previous day.

Now, the young ‘uncle’ knew the parcel contained ‘pazhampori,’ the most special treat those days. ‘Pazhampori,’ could be obtained only from the local tea-shop, and only those who had access to cash could afford it. He remembers the only previous time he had tasted it, and reminiscing the heavenly taste, hopes for a share of the treat. But, all the two pazhampori-s were fed to the younger boy, by his mother, who also wanted to vent her ire towards her own kid brother. The younger sister comes to learn of this. Childless, she harboured a special affection for her little brother. The next day, she sends the kid brother out with her husband, who buys him a parcel from the tea shop, with instructions to take it safely to his wife. But, the aged grandmother happened to see it and with extreme desire, pinched off a bit. The younger sister appeared dramatically and literally grabbing the parcel out of the old woman’s trembling hands, dragged the little boy into her room. As if with a vengeance, she force-fed both the pazhampori-s to the lad, who is torn between his never-ending craving the sweet treat and his longing to share it with his grand-mother and the young nephew. When he came out, the little boy, Ramakrishnan, found out what the entire racket had been about and started to cry his heart out, asking for pazhampori. The protagonist felt as if he had swallowed not the sweet pazhampori, but poison fried in oil.

I know that this is no way to do justice to a beautiful story, but I just couldn’t resist it, much like the little boy, who swallowed the last bit of the pazhampori, trying to forget his grandmother’s trembling hands.

I liked this story not for its craft alone. It sheds light into the social situation in a Kerala a few decades ago, which has become long-forgottten history for our present generation. It also reveals how rare was food, in general, in those days. And it also teaches us how precious were the simple treats of those days. These days, hundreds of pazhampori-s are gobbled up everyday at tea time across Kerala, at tea shops, bigger restaurants, offices, homes, everywhere. There is an over-abundance of food items all over the place. But I don’t think we will ever experience the taste of pazhampori like the boy in that Edassery story. The taste of scarcity.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Happy Saraswati Pooja !!!

This is how we celebrated Vijayadashami at our Ernakulam flat. As I am still recovering from a foot injury, we couldn't go to Irinjalakuda for the Vijayadashami. Though we had not arranged a 'poojaveyppu,' (worshipping of the books), I wanted to observe the 'ezhuthu,' or writing, which is the most important aspect of Vijayadashami. Usually, on Durgashtami Day evening, all the tools of work (mainly books), will be wrapped up neatly and placed before an idol of Krishna, with all the lamps lit around it. So, no reading or home work for the next day !

On Vijayadashami Day, after lighting all the lamps, a handful of sand will be spread on the floor. A lit traditional bronze lamp (Nilavilakku) and Thunchath Ezhuthachan's 'Adhyathma Ramayanam,' will be placed nearby. Father would sit in front of the sand and write 'Harisree Ganapathaye Namah' in Malayalam script, followed by a couple of sloka-s praising Saraswati and all our Guru-s. Then, the complete Malayalam alphabet, starting from 'A, aa,' followed by Devanagari (representing Sanskrit). (I started adding the English alphabet after English became my professional language). After writing, he would pick up the Ramayanam and read a couple of verses, marking the ending of worshipping the goddess of Knowledge.

Vijayadashami had always been the festival of worshipping Knowledge for Malayalees. I don't know if Saraswati is worshipped with this much fervour in any other Indian states. Vijayadashami is also the day for everyone to start the learning of music and dance. Children are also initiated into the world of letters on this day. These days, the Vidyarambham is a big event, with functions being arranged in major temples, as well as in secular institutions. Even Christian churches arrange Vidyarambham these days.

Today, at our flat, we made a simple ceremony with a plate of raw rice for the auspicious writing. Though clean sand is used, raw rice is considered the most auspicious, especially for the children's 'Vidyarambham.' We had no sand, hence the rice. Then, Rajan lit the Nilavilakku, arranged some fruits, including a piece of sugarcane, oranges, an apple and a sappotta (which is not part of the traditional arrangement, but just for the sake of appearance !), put a small metal Nataraja (which we had bought from the Gujarat Emporium), and I placed an old copy of Adhyathma Ramayanam nearby. Rajan's tablas can be seen in the background. And on the rice is written 'Harisree' in Malayalam.

A refreshing way to pay respects to the Vidya we practice !

Sunday, May 27, 2007


Having a dental job done is one of my worst nightmares. Not only mine, I realised of late as I bumped against one after another of friends with strong dentist-phobia. I even realised that I might be the bravest of all, even. More so because I have a nice dentist who at least comforts you and describes meticulously what all her instruments had been poking in and scrapping away at some of the most sensitive spots in your mouth.

But the worst part of a dental treatment is the after-part, for me. I simply hate that 'after-taste' of chemicals, flavoured with a dash of cloves. Why they use so much of cloves in everything associated with the dental stuff so as to make you hate cloves for the rest of your lives ! And the abhorrent mouth-washes !!! Just one mouthful and it is enough to make your taste buds warp down and scrap away the whole lining of your mouth. Add to it the gels that leaves a sense of numbness and a course of antibiotics that plays havoc with your taste, mouth and your stomach.

So, for the past one week, I had been going through all this, worser than ever as this time it was a surgical procedure for the gums. The 'procedure' itself was brief, but the after-effect not so brief ! One week later, I can't still chew properly, nor can I have anything spicier than bread soaked in milk or idlies soaked in moloshyam. Yes, moloshyam, that's what inspired this whole diatribe about the dental problems.

I don't how familiar are the Malayalees from other parts of Kerala with this curry, but in the part where I hail from, this is a staple. 'Moloshyam,' or 'Mulakushyam,' ('l' pronounced as in, what should I say, 'Kerala,'), is actually a 'corruption' or a shortening of 'Mulaku dooshyam.' Literally meaning, 'Chillies are bad !' The etymology can be anything, but the curry is least spicy. Of course you can make it hotter by adding more green chillies, but it can be the least spicy, comfort food for the convalescing.

Tuvar dal and ash gourd are the ingredients of the basic moloshyam. There can be many, many other variants. But, learn the basics first. As I had said earlier, I don't know the measures. I just make it. Here's how I make the basic moloshyam -

I take some tuvar dal, wash it well and put it to boil. Then, chop up some ash gourd into bite-size pieces, add it to the dal, add a pinch of turmeric powder and, usually I pressure cook it. Pressure cooking is the easiest and fastest method with all dals, you know. You can cook both the dal and gourd together as ash gourd takes some time to cook, also because this curry needs it cooked to a mushy consistency. You can add salt if you are using a pressure cooker, if not, add the salt only towards the end. Otherwise, salt has a tendency to slow down the cooking process. Also, add a few drops of oil (coconut oil, for me), before you close the lid, so that the dal will not cause overflowing through the valves. If you want to make it hot, add green chillies, according to your taste, also. Only green chillies, no red chilly powder.

If you are using a powerful pressure pan, cook until two or three hisses. Then turn down the heat and leave it till the steam cools down. The steam will continue the cooking process. After you open the lid, stir the curry, check the salt and simmer without lid for a few minutes, till that 'steamed' smell leaves. Then, add a generous handful of curry leaves (crush them in your hand slightly after washing so that they release the fragrance), and drizzle some coconut oil. Coconut oil, it has to be, mind you all cholesterol-phobiacs, otherwise, this is not moloshyam. You can call it by any other name !!! Those who are scared of coconut, fearing it will build walls within their arteries, can keep their hands off this lovely dish.

So, after the curry leaves and oil, just keep the curry in the cooking vessel, and close lightly. Let it sit there for some time before serving, to let the tastes blend well.

This is the basic moloshyam. Once you have mastered this, there can be endless improvisations. The ash gourd can be replaced by any vegetable, except something mushy like vendakka (okra) or vazhuthinanga (baigan). I've once tasted an exquisite moloshyam with dal and carrot. Chena (elephant-foot yam), makes a great combo. As well as raw banana. Moloshyam can also be made with chena and banana alone, without dal.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Asking recipes !

Today I received a mail. The lovely Sumitha of Kitchen Wonders had left comments at my blogs - both at Adukkala and the other one, Green Banana Leaf. Thank you Sumi for visiting my blogs.

But, truly, her request for recipes put me off a little bit at first. Recipes, what recipes, I wondered. Then, after checking the Green Banana Leaf, I realised that she was asking for the recipes of some Thiruvathira dishes I had mentioned.

I have to admit that the request for recipes has really put me in a difficult situation. Because, I don't know recipes ! It is true. Coming to think of it, I had grown up never thinking in terms of recipes. Never seen anyone cooking out of recipes. The only experience I had in dealing with recipes was when I was working for a women's magazine (yes, I have done that also). For the benefit of those who don't know how magazines are made, one regular chore for me was opening the old folder in the shelf and sifting through the recipes stacked away, send by faithful housewives who loved to see their names in print. The recipes were picked up mostly based on their length, like can this theeyal recipe fill this blank space here ?

That was way back in 1994/5. My own culinary experiences had started around that period too. I will have to confess that my culinary experiences / explorations are rather limited. I never learnt cooking from home. Not even how to make tea. There were other things, more important, always. Never gave a second thought even to what I ate, really.

In 1994, I started working, after completing my journalism post-diploma. The first job paid Rs. 750 per month ! At 'Indian Communicator,' an English newspaper (pretty short-lived), run by the Diocese of Cochin, from Thoppumpady in Ernakulam / Kochi. I still remember my first trip over the Venduruthy Bridge, crossing over to Fort Kochi, the Western Kochi region, experiencing the thrill of travelling over the sprawling backwaters along the narrow bridge, in the speeding red-coloured city bus, watching the railway tracks running parallel to the bridge, the ships anchored at the distant Port and the fishing boats speeding under the bridge. I thought, here is the heart of Kochi. At the office of 'Indian Communicator,' I wrote a piece on my impressions on crossing over to Fort Kochi, and was immediately offered a job - at Rs. 750 per month. Any amount of salary was ok then. I just wanted a job.

The 'Indian Communicator' and its sister publication in Malayalam, 'Sadvartha,' employed many girls, most of them fresh out of journalism courses as sub-editors. We all stayed together in a house arranged by the management, which meant the Church. It was an experience, seven or eight girls, all equally inexperienced in cooking and all harbouring great ambitions on a journalistic career, sharing a living space.

We drew up a weekly time table for cooking, ensuring that all took turns at the kitchen. I took care that I was teamed with the one most proficient in kitchenwork, so that I could escape the dreaded task of real cooking. Doing the dishes I found ok. (And that was something I continued to do, for years to come, whoever might be my companions).

There, at that rented house in Thoppumpady, I started my first forays into making food. Learning to light the kerosene stove (I've forgotten that now), learning to make tea and even attempting some curries. When my father visited, I made him some tea, with all the haughtiness I could muster. He must have been appalled, but nonetheless, he never showed !!!

The Thoppumpadi life lasted only six months, but it seems like an age. We celebrated Onam there, trying to cook up the sadya. I taught everyone how the vegetables should be cut for aviyal, as I had watched the process at home. We tried to make sambar, but ended up with something like rasam. (or was it the other way, I don't remember). Whatever be the results, the sadya was fabulous for all of us.

We kept a frugal kitchen. In the beginning of every month, we would pool money and purchase rice, dal and something like vanpayar (red beans). Then, till the meagre salaries were completely squandered, we would eat at every restaurant in Thoppumpady Junction. The masaladosa at Vasantha Vihar was a treat, affordable only in the first week of the month. Afterwards, there was the Nethaji Cafe, where we could get a masaladosa and tea for six rupees. In the evenings, just before the duty started (we all worked the night shifts), some of us would go out, to eat porotta and beef / egg curry at some small shack like restaurant. For the menfolk at these two newspapers there were any number of watering holes at the junction, ranging from seedy bars to arrack shops.

My culinary adventures stopped soon after. The hostel life resumed once more, to my dread. There was no other option while working at Mathrubhumi in Kozhikode. After one and half years of dread, I reached Kochi again. After experimenting with hostel life for a couple of months, I quit and moved over with a friend.

There, my encounters with the kitchen started again. My friend could cook, but we cooked just for survival. For dinner, in fact. I could get breakfast and lunch at the office canteen. Dinner was always simple. Rice, which would be cooked in the traditional way. One mezhukkupuratti, which would usually be of cheera, payar or vazhuthananga. The 'ozhichukari' will invariably be 'puli.' From where we learnt this 'venthayappuli' I don't remember. It was just tamarind juice, seasoned at first with mustard, fenugreek, dried red chillies and curry leaves and boiled well with a dash of turmeric powder. Rice, cheera and puli - that was heavenly food.

Life changed drastically again. A few tumultuous months later, I left Mathrubhumi and started writing for The Hindu. Once good money started coming in, I also started to realise that something called good food also existed. Methodical exploration of the city's restaurants began. That time, I was staying as a paying guest with an old lady in Panampilly Nagar. An army widow, she had also lived for a good time in England.

It was at her house that I came across the concept of fine dining. Her table presented a whole range of new food for me, even though my being a vegetarian had prevented her from offering her non-vegetarian range to me. That was the first time I was seeing kitchen scales and someone actually measuring for recipes. Her kitchen had a clock as well. Molly Auntie had a Bihari cook, a young man who would come every week to cook exquisite Bihari food for her. He (I forgot his name, or never knew it), would work in the kitchen silently and methodically. There was an order and rhythm in everything he did. Silently, he would labour over the most perfect and simplest dal and vegetables. Seeing him at work, I learnt that cooking can be an art.

After three or four months, my life (or culinary revelry) at Molly Auntie's house came to an end, as she had to join her daughter abroad. I rented a house, alongwith a friend.

At this second floor house in SRM Road, I proudly set up my first kitchen. Armed with a 'Butterfly' stove, 'Prestige' pressure cooker, one 'cheenachatti,' a couple of other pots and plates and spoons, me and my friend set up house. As she was travelling too much, I was left mostly alone to fend for myself. There I learnt the basics of feeding myself.

Well, that was all I ever achieved ! Feeding myself. I had never been a well-versed cook. And, even that I stopped almost later on, after setting up house with my partner. It is quite intriguing. Normally women start cooking after marriage. I stopped.

So, all this brings back the question of recipes that Sumi asked. I told you, I don't know recipes. I just know methods. How things are made. And so, Sumi, here's how we make the Thiruvathira dishes at home - there can be many, many variations of these same dishes. But this is how I have known them.

An essential must for the Thiruvathira day. The main ingredients are muthira (horse gram) and the tuber called kavuthu (kachil) I think its scientific name is Dioscorea alata. Its a seasonal vegetable and is available in markets in Kerala during December. It was a common plant that would grow wildly, needing not much care in the backyards.

So, the muthira and kavuthu / kachil are just boiled together, with salt. Don't ask me for quantities. Use your common sense. There should be an equal quantity of muthira and the tuber pieces in the puzhukku. Cooking muthira has become an easy job with the advent of pressure cooking. Otherwise, it was a long process that started the previous day.

When the muthira and kavuthu are well-cooked, add some coconut paste, prepared before. A small quantity of jeera could be added to the paste, nothing more. Cook again for some more minutes, add some coconut oil and sprigs of curry leaves, just before or after removing from fire. And keep covered for some time, so that the flavours of coconut oil and curry leaves could mix well.

Koova is nothing but arrowroot. The flour made from arrowroot was prepared prior to Thiruvathira earlier. But these days, you can get the powder from shops, especially medical shops ! The powder is mixed with water and boiled. Again, please don't ask me for quantities. I still don't know. When the mixture starts boiling, add jaggery. If you want to do away with the impurities in jaggery, you can melt it beforehand and seive the syrup. After adding jaggery, continue boiling, till it starts to get a viscous consistency. You have to be extremely careful at this time if you want to get the perfect consistency. If you want jelly-like pieces that could be cut, continue the boiling for a few more minutes. Otherwise stop at the viscous consistency. It will harden furthern when it cools. Just at that moment, sprinkle some roughly scrapped coconut. Ideally it is the scrappings of tender coconuts used. This will provide a 'bite' in the payasam.

Hope you all are confused enough. If you want more accurate recipes, just google for thiruvathirappuzhukku. Ammupatti's blog also gives some Thiruvathira recipes, though they are more or less Tamil Brahmin style.