Sabita Radhakrishna’s cookbook Paachakam celebrates the fascinating diversity of the cuisines of Kerala’s communities
Kerala today cocoons a diverse group of communities, each with its own unique character and culinary habits – though all with their own way to use the coconuts that grow in plenty and the spices that have long defined the importance of the region, from as early as 3000 BCE. Author, food columnist, freelance writer and textile designer Sabita Radhakrishna explores the commonalities and differences in their diverse foods with extensive research and interviews with the community elders and food custodians in her newest cookbook Paachakam: Heritage Cuisine of Kerala (Roli Books). She helps readers access this rich culinary smorgasbord via recipes from five predominant communities – the Nairs, Syrian Christians, North Malabar Thiyas, Moplahs, Cochin Jews and, taken together, the Nambuthris and Paduvals. She also includes a section on the inimitable sadyas (feasts) served on a banana leaf, which are, for most across India, part of the memory of joining in at wedding and Onam celebrations.
Sabita’s basic tips, the section on commonly-used utensils in Kerala such as the idiyappam and puttu makers, the glossary of Malayalam words with their equivalents in English and Hindi, and even the evocative illustrations will draw readers in to try the recipes.
We spoke to the author about putting together Paachakam and her thoughts about food in general…
You are a prolific author, with five books before this one. Tell us how this book came about and the process you followed.
Sabita: I have been writing books for many years now; my first cookbook Aharam was published in 1999. Paachakam is my fifth. Annapurni, published by Roli Books, dwelt on traditional Tamilian cuisine from the various communities in Tamil Nadu, and, when it was a great hit, Priya Kapoor of Roli Books commissioned me to write a cookbook on Kerala cuisine. At first, it seemed rather daunting, but, as I plunged into research, I was fascinated by a cuisine that has retained its originality with a character all its own. Since I was initially not so familiar with it, it took me a year and a half to research the history of the communities and try out the recipes, and another six months to write them out and submit my manuscript. The pandemic threw a spanner into the works and set us back by two years. There were the inevitable glitches, the manifold problems, but we managed; it has been a learning curve for me all the way.
“I was fascinated by how different the food of one community was from the other...”
What have been your major learnings in the writing of this book?
Sabita: Regional cuisine is cooked with local produce, and includes seasonal dishes cooked with what is available. With heavy rainfall and lush forests comes an abundance of spices – cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, spice leaves – and a prolific growth of coconut trees, all of which are used in the food cooked in Kerala. It makes sense to cook from the produce available in your backyard, which is the same for all regional cuisine, and it is a healthy equation.
The diversity of cuisines in India, even in one region, is fascinating; every community has its own favourite dishes that are cooked so often in its homes. I chose a few well-known communities such as the Syrian Christians, the Nairs, Moplahs, Namboothiris and Paduvals, North Malabar Thiyas and the Cochin Jews. I did not go into the sub castes and sects, as I would have ended up writing a tome. Although a thread of commonality runs through these communities, in their appams and idiyappams, their puttu and fish curries and pulaos, I was fascinated by how different the food of one community was from the other. The Syrian Christians, who are great meat eaters, have dishes redolent with spices; the Nairs have their distinctive repertoire of vegetarian and non vegetarian dishes, and their delicious mix of mango with fish, again mango with prawn and other delicacies. The Moplahs love complicated dishes such as the Thalassery biriyani, and the food of the Thiyas displays Western and Arabic influences. The simplicity of the cuisine of the Nambuthris and Paduvals is striking – you can taste the ingredients; they are never smothered with layers of masala, and that makes them easy on the stomach. And, of course, there is the food of the Cochin Jews.
When I was writing the book, there was only a family of five left in Kochi. I could not visit due to health issues in the family, and, finally, when I decided to go, there wasn’t a single one left. My friend Leela Samson had cousins who were Bene Israel Jews who had migrated to distant shores. It is conjecture that they were at one time part of the Cochin Jews, but I decided to include their recipes, which were totally different from the rest.
Everything in this book indicates many hours of research and interviews with women who are important figures in their communities…
Sabita: My first introduction to Kerala cuisine was through my good friend Accamma, to whom this book is dedicated. We built our respective houses at the same time and we were very good friends sharing recipes, friendly gossip and so on. I was privileged to stay with Mrs K M Mathew, who was founder editor of Vanitha magazine. I tasted delicacies in her home and still have fond memories of the way she fed us, and packed delectable minced meat samosas for our journey back home. I was also fortunate to have many Malayali friends living in Chennai so visiting them meant watching them cook, jotting down recipes and hints, and then trying them out myself and letting them see my efforts. Usha, who represented the Nambuthris and Paduvals, would even send me the cooked dishes to check out and compare with mine. I am so grateful to these lovely women who are supercooks of their respective cuisines.
Two of your earlier books related to food have been about the cuisine of Tamil Nadu. Ring some of the differences between these two cuisines for us.
Sabita: Though Kerala is flanked by Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, it retains the identity and character of its food, and has stuck to its traditional cuisine. The other states have a blend, and many dishes are similar, but I was struck by the diversity of cuisine in the different regions in Kerala, and it was exciting to try out the dishes!
“I still grind all my spice powders at home, and store them so that they can be used any time, because it is impossible to grind them fresh each time you cook”
You have described yourself as old school when it comes to researching a subject. You have looked for original recipes, as far as possible, and you believe in the goodness of home-ground spices. What is your advice to time-crunched home cooks who want as authentic a culinary experience as possible?
Sabita: I am old school with respect to textiles, food or craft – subjects that I am deeply involved in. The research into these provides us with the secrets to good living, how our forefathers lived and what they used to make the perfect dish. When masala pastes are ground on stone, and food is cooked on a wood fire, it does make a difference, as does slow cooking. I am not averse to change and shortcuts, because we do not have the luxury of time in this fast-paced age; we need pressure cookers, gas stoves and mixies. Quality does suffer, but a compromise is inevitable. You learn to innovate, to speed up the process of cooking so that we no longer slave over the stove as our mothers used to do. I would suggest that youngsters and home cooks make their powders and ground spices at home rather than buy processed ready mixes that alter the taste and contain preservatives. I still grind all my spice powders at home, and store them so that they can be used any time, because it is impossible to grind them fresh each time you cook.
Tell us a little about your next book, Amma’s Kitchen…
Sabita: We, the “cookers” in the family, are armed with notebooks, in which we quickly note down recipes from various friends, books or even off the internet. With the passage of time, these books become tatty, the pages dogeared and crying for attention. Placed as these notebooks are on the kitchen counter, the favourite pages are usually smeared with manjal (turmeric) and chilli powder and other splutters.
My scribble cookbook was given to me by my son Pradeep who knows my penchant for stationery, books to write in… This valuable book is now protesting, the pages threatening to fly off, and some of the writing has been obscured by splatters of water and even oil. It was high time to give it a new lease of life, by transferring the time-worn, oft-repeated recipes into a virtual book that could be printed. Then, my collection of cookbooks from all over the country and some from other parts of the world is gathering dust as there are no takers in the family; everything comes from the internet. You will not find a lifetime collection in one book, so here it comes, whether my descendants want it or not. Every recipe in Amma’s Kitchen has been time tested. Many of them have been given by friends, family and sometimes the net, but they have been standardised and tweaked to my taste before being tried out on people who have eaten at our table. It is a mix of the old, the new, fusion, and just about everything, a legacy of fool-proof recipes used countless number of times and dishes that have been highly appreciated.
Images: Roli Books