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!!
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!! :)