A writer, author and a curator, Tanya Abraham grew up in a small town in Kerala impressed by her grandmother's 'uncanny knack of producing flavours' from the kusinchya (a Portuguese derivative of the word kitchen).
In her latest book Eating with History: Ancient Trade-Influenced Cuisines of Kerala, dedicated to her grandmother Annie Burleigh Kurishingal, Tanya lists out more than 100 recipes from various communities, 'each conjured up by women in families' across Kerala. She also explains in detail how Kerala's culinary culture got evolved and mixed with foreign food culture creating new tastes and flavours in the process of local adaptation.
Even though her grandmother passed away at the age of 104, her curries are recalled with deep love. “It made me think of all the women like her, who ran households and brought to life recipes passed down generations in their kitchen,” Tanya writes.
In a conversation with Onmanorama, Tanya Abraham talks about the culinary tradition and how various recipes evolved out of Kerala's kitchens.
1. When did you decide to bring out a cookbook and how long did it take to complete 'Eating with History?'
The truth is, I never thought of a cookbook. I was keenly interested in the historical aspect of food and food culture. There are so many layers attached to food culture, we often tend to miss them. The book is the product of a quest - a quest to find another aspect of the famed spice-trade Kerala is known for. With the ancient spice-trade, Kerala was open to the world, coveted for the spices from the Malabar, especially pepper. One can just imagine the bustling energy of the trade centres, especially in what we call Muziris or Muchiri. The search for the location of "Muziris" is still on; historians say it is mentioned in the Bible and other ancient texts and documents. To attain pepper, ships plied their way to the shores of Kerala from Arabia and the Mediterranean. With them, new cultures docked at its shores. Those communities who chose to take root in Kerala shared their cultures with the local people, creating a completely new aspect of culture. The main elements I found that influence food as culture are ingredients, techniques of cooking and religion.
2. You have delved into the history and changes in the food habits of Kerala very extensively in your book. Can you briefly explain one major change that has influenced Kerala cuisine?
There is a natural metamorphosis that takes place when cultures influence each other. These usually take long periods of time to occur. One, the communities of peoples who arrived in Kerala had to cook with existing Kerala ingredients. When religious laws play a part, cooking adheres to those laws or needs. For example, Jews never mix milk and meat. So, coconut milk was used instead. A Jewish recipe found new flavour with a new ingredient. Red chilli too was never a part of our cuisine, it was the Portuguese who brought it to us, including fruits like pineapple, sapota, custard apple, tamarind and others. Vinegar in cooking was introduced by them, we used vinegar but not as a cooking element. I would think the marrying of ingredients always produces something new and different. But no one influence alone occurs, it is the coming together of a number of them.
3. Are each dishes cooked differently in different communities? Can you elaborate?
Each dish is different in different communities. Customs change with each community. In Christianity alone ( Portuguese influenced food), cuisines shift from one Christian community to another. The ingredients could be the same, but techniques maybe different. Or ingredients may differ but the dish is called by the same name. For example, Prawn Balcham which always was thought to be a Goan dish is found in Fort Kochi too. But the Anglo-Indians use ilimbipuli or the green tamarind. Muttamala is an Arabic sweetmeat, but who knew the Paradesi Jews have it as well? Sometimes the differences are very minute but it makes us understand that small differences are backed by reasons and a history. My paternal grandmother's (Latin Catholic) meen pollichathu was starkly different from my maternal grandmother's (Syrian Catholic), but they were called by the same name. It is interesting when one studies history how food becomes such a strong identity of a community. And it is through food that culture is most undiluted and if it does, it takes a very long time for it to get diluted.
4. You talk about your grandmother's 'kusinchya' in the beginning of your book. What's your memory of her kitchen like?
Kusinchya is the Portuguese term for kitchen. Fort Kochi was a Portuguese colony. Naturally, most of the food she churned out from her kitchen carried its flavour. The kusinchya truly was the soul of the household. It was the heart of our large home with a large number of members. It was also where I saw an army of people cook for visitors - politicians, priests, friends...She kept the fires burning during the freedom movement in Kochi. Some how, food, I believe, kept everything and everybody nourished. She also catered to fancy Christmas parties for 200 odd-people every year. Cooking everything from scratch. Food from other communities were also sent to us on their special festivals and feasts. Fort Kochi is a multi cultural town - Paradesi Jews, Anglo Indians and others lived within close quarters of each other. It made me understand that many layers existed to cultures.
5. Keralites are becoming much globalised in terms of food. With more people eating out, food has also transformed from traditional to fusion. Where would you place Kerala cuisine on the global food landscape right now?
Fusion is the discovery of new types of cooking possibilities. The cuisines that I write about is also ancient fusion in a way. Because Kerala embraced cultures from time immemorial, new cuisines or creole food emerged. But this was a natural creation from natural amalgamation of things. The book records and traces history of five communities bearing three religions, which emerged from foreign influences through the spice trade. Fusion food today is people's interest in thinking of new recipe ideas and cooking techniques. At the moment they are two different aspects altogether. The food culture we possess is what Kerala alone has. Since this forms the firm foundation of food, these cuisines are likely to remain quite unscathed. But change eventually is inevitable,change is part of life. That is why I traversed old families for authentic recipes to document them for tomorrow. These become a reference for future study on heritage and culture. I am sure many have been, over time, already lost. The Malabari Jewish recipes were largely scouted from the Cochinii Malabari Jews in Israel (families who migrated from Cochin after the State of Israel was formed). The new generation of these Jews there don't speak Malayalam but they do eat Jewish Kerala food. Food carries traditions,customs and stories of people with them.
6. What were the criteria for choosing those 100 recipes in your cookbook?
The book has a little more than a 100 recipes. I have only skimmed the surface of what lies out there in terms of recipes. Each family is likely to have a collection unique to them. The whole process took me around three years (of work). The research will teach us why one recipe has a particular ingredient and the other another ingredient. The number of recipes in the book was not deliberate. I have tried to give a flavour of what exists out there. With things changing so fast, recipes that carry history are bound to vanish. Maybe we must start documenting the rest!
7. What's your favourite recipe from your book and why?
This is a question I am always asked! For me, food is also memory-memories of a family and its happenings. So, growing up in Fort Kochi, my Paternal grandmother's recipes are my favourite. I love her Pada, a unique pickle made from shrimp. I also love the steamed appam with coconut milk and banana (ethaka), a Portuguese influenced snack.
8. You have authored two books- Fort Cochin: History and Untold Stories and Eating with History. What's your next project?
Another book ! History somehow always remains the core of my writing. I am intrigued by the past and how they mould who we are. I am proud to be a Malayalee and the multifarious cultures we house that make us a unique people. I can't write if it is not part of my consciousness. I write what I can touch in my mind, heart and imagination; what I feel within me. And, thus, all my writing is bound to be centred in Kerala.