Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Malayaleeccentricities...Let's talk Food!!

I'm presently in the Kingdom of the Gods (of Malayalees), in the fiefdom of the Menons - we are meticulous book-keepers - or so I have learnt the ancestors were too in the service of the kings of Travancore-Cochin and Malabar. They were number jugglers, I don't fancy numbers at all - they juggle before my eyes. So I document words, practises and those things that make Malayalees uniquely Mallu - and sometimes only a Malayali can understand why it is strange. That's how we like it -little need to be said! And boo-yoo that we aren't much into experimenting with tradition, except when we are not in Kerala. Then we are game to try and re-mould our lives to suit any weather, palate or customs! :) So now for the time that I'm in Kerala, I'm going to attempt to write on Malayaleeccentricities

Our fascination with food, for instance, is not really all-encompassing. Yesterday I was making chicken curry, when Dad sauntered in into the kitchen. I believe I was making a Malayali-version of a simple chicken curry. However, in the absence of dry roasted coconut and a thick gravy, the snap assessment is that it is one of those experimental preparations! Sigh!!! Similarly, coriander leaves are as North Indian in garnish as curry leaves tempered in coconut oil are in this part of the world. Every time I chop a bit up for the fresh aromatic smell, I'm asking if I'm making a Mumbai dish!

Can you understand the lure of kappa (tapioca) boiled with just turmeric and salt with shallots and green chillies crushed in coconut oil again with a bit of salt? Even as I write this, there is a pool forming in my mouth - I have just put it on the list of must-ask-Mom-to-make! Its spicy, its bland, its tuber-y and its blah - ohhh but it is so Malayali. When friends well-versed with Malayali cooking rave about the kappa and meen curry (kappa with fish curry), I ask them if they have tried the humbler fare.

Similarly, in north Kerala, especially Thrissur - during Onam, there is a traditional breakfast made from steamed yellow plantains. Well, there is no recipe to share, because it is just ripe plantains -steamed till it nearly oozes out of the skin. It is steamed either as a whole or after chopping into bits. It is served with the skin on - what the blessed soul that gets to eat it has to do is use just two fingers artfully to peel off the steaming skin and then crush two huge pappadams( the Kerala variety, mind you, which is differently from the poppadums and the appalams and the Lijjat papads you might be used to) and make it into a mouth-wateringly maserated mess ( when I begin to alliterate that means the nostalgia is at its peak!) before popping into your salivating mouth. In several households, there is puttu (steamed rice cakes) kept on standby for the more snooty or fastidious! However, in my family, pazham and pappadam is the tradition - we would be crazy to try and experiment!

 I don't know if the reason it is only served during Onam is to keep some kinds of 'dishes' exclusively to herald Onam festivities. I cannot see the reason why it can't be convenience food for hassled mothers to dish up to their kids. But even on days when Amma was struggling to get us all ready and prepped to school before grabbing her bag to head to work, she never gave us the pleasure of savouring an out-of-turn pazham-pappadam!!

And then I think of our daily fare - not the glorious avials, kottukaris and the other sadya fare. The regular stuff made at home - the theeyals and the thorans and the mezhukkupurattis(this literally translates into vegetables sauteed in a bit of oil!) -the unglamourous, unlauded cousins - ask any Malayalee about their personal favourites and trust me, while they will be impressed by your knowledge of puttu-kadala and avial - they will secretly be craving their Amma's simple mathanga-pulingari or a vazhappindi or vazhakkoombu thoran (that's made from the different parts of the plantain - nothing goes to waste) or even the muringila thoran (drumsticks leaves)...That smell of hot hot coconut oil and curry leaves and mustard tempering in it is infinitely more blissful than the smell of jeera tempering in ghee!

Like there is a good name and a pet name that are distinctly different among Bengalis and 'good' clothes and 'home' clothes among most middle class Indians - Malayali food also has 'home' food and 'guest' food classifications. I'd say it is a distinctly discriminatory practice where we, the Malayalis decide what the non-Malayali will love and savour. The rest we pack it away to enjoy when there are no guests around our dining table. We discriminate and how - call it our Malayaleeccentricity!! :)

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan!!

Its 8.30 in the morning and my heart is racing. I have less than 48 hours left in the city. In 2009, as I was surrounded by crates and carton, I remember feeling this sense of panic - a mild ache in the heart along with the sense of disquiet about what could be in store!

This parting is a bitter-sweet one. This is the third time I'm bidding adieu to this city without knowing if I will be back. As a young adult of 22, Mumbai had appeared forebodingly huge to comprehend. But a career as a journalist that took me across the length and breadth of the city set me off on the love-hate relationship. In the span of a year, I  had moved from a bare apartment to a small one-room tenement within that span. In hindsight, cunning house-brokers, heartless landlords and how a trainee's salary stretched so much and no more were the biggest takeaways of this time. Food was mostly rasta takeaway- dosas, sandwiches and hot hot oily Indian Chinese and fruit plates - the dishes might not appeal to my palate anymore, but then the pleasure of  paying for it with the few rupees that was my honest sweat provide that extra zingggg and taste to the memories. A year and a half later, I left happy - sure in my cocky head that Mumbai is not for me, such big cities were not for small lives.

You never know how much a city has ingratiated itself into you till you leave it. And then, every little chink, every irritation appears minor - trivial even. The chaos of the traffic is forgotten when the memories turn mellow with longing, the ravages of rain and the pocket handkerchief apartments are forgiven. All that remains in the memory is vignettes of the city that allows everyone to claim a piece of it as their own!

I returned in 2005 - no longer cocky, a bit broken- needing a haven to heal. That's when I realised how fortuitous big city living is when all you need is a bit of obscurity, some space from prying souls and time to contemplate and regroup. Big cities let lost souls slip into their cracks and keep them safe and anonymous.

The next time I packed my bags and bid adieu to Mumbai was in 2009. UK was calling and I was once again back on the student mode. I left a happier soul, not worried about where life was taking me. There was a world to conquer out there..sights to be seen, beaches to leave footprints behind on.. I came back to Mumbai this time realising that I was truly in love with the city.

I'd lived for over a year in an amazing beach town of England, but the hustle and bustle of an overcrowded, dirty metropolis lured me back. There were practical considerations but the emotional connect was unmistakeable. I still hate the pocket handkerchief existence..But this city still smells freedom, independence and dignity to me.

I'm forsaking my beloved city again - will the third time perhaps be the final time?? Somewhere the heart sinks...I have cribbed about it, wished to move away where I can stretch my arms and legs and not have to bump into walls or furniture, swore till I was blue when I was stuck in a traffic jam waiting for Ganpatis to walk their way into the sea...I want to believe I will find my way back, time and again to reminisce about the lovely days spent here - just the way you never forget your deep love.

To date, I'm yet to find the city where my heart has set down anchor. I wonder if the vagabond that I am will ever find a place to call home for the rest of my life. But Mumbai - you are under my skin. I shall return..that's a promise!