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.