Noted screenwriter John Paul recalls some of his vivid food memories that are related to Good Friday. He says that the Jacobite and Orthodox denominations have fairly longer church services on the Good Friday. In most churches, the service begins early in the morning and would be over only by 3 in the afternoon.
Traditionally, the believers are supposed to fast during the day time, to be in one with the sufferings of Jesus Christ. “I remember how I struggled chewing the neem leaves on an empty stomach in the morning. In between the service, the believers would take a gulp of the kaipuneer (a bitter drink) as a symbolic gesture. Besides, the congregation is required to kneel down and bow, with their foreheads touching the floor, at least 100 times during the service. The church is filled with the loud reverberations of responses, prayers and the soulful songs and dirges that depict the passion of Christ,” says John Paul.
The writer says that most people would be famished by the time the service is over. It would be too late for the families to return home and then cook something. So, most churches serve piping hot kanji (rice gruel) for the congregation after the service. “Our ancestors may have foreseen that a semi solid food would be easy on the stomach than solid food when people are famished. They may have even realized the medicinal effect of the neem drink or leaves on the empty stomach. People, irrespective of their social classes, enjoying hot kanji, with payar (green gram stir fry) and mango pickle, sitting on the verandah and the steps of the church is a common afternoon sight in most Eastern churches and also in the Marthomite churches, on Good Friday,” notes the writer.
“I can still taste the hot kanji and payar that I had, sitting in the front yard of our church in Cherai. A small hole was dug on the ground and was covered using a plantain leaf. The hot kanji would be served in these makeshift holes dug in the ground. The kanji was scooped up using spoons made of jackfruit tree leaves. The plantain leaf gets softened when the piping hot kanji is poured on it. The sweet aroma of the plantain leaf makes the kanji even more appetizing. When I moved to the city, the jackfruit tree leaf spoon got replaced with a steel spoon. Later, aval vilayichathu (flavored rice flakes) too were served along with green gram stir fry and mango pickle.
In some churches, flavoured rice flakes are distributed as offering. On the few days before the Good Friday, the women would be busy making the mango pickle at their homes. This practice, which the women do as a service to the congregation, is continued even today. These domestic gatherings of women were also the occasion when many marriage alliances and proposals were fixed, to be solemnized after the lent,” recalls John Paul.
Kanji is served at homes after funerals as well. John Paul assumes that it got its name, pashni kanji, as this would be the first meal that the family members eat after fasting. He thinks that the same idea could have inspired the tradition of serving kanji in churches after the services on Good Friday, as it is the day when Jesus' passion, crucifixion and burial are commemorated with solemnity.
John Paul says, in the olden days, people would gather at the home of the demised to offer their support and condolences to the family members. He also observes that most people prefer a brief visit to the bereaving family these days. “Earlier, food would be cooked only after everyone has returned from the funeral. If the floor of the house if rubbed with cow dung, then the fire would be burned in the hearth only after redoing the kitchen floor. The neighbours would prepare fresh coffee for those who gather at the funeral house. When the relatives and friends return after the funeral, hot kanji, payar and mango pickle, prepared in the neighbouring houses would be served. Those who come to pay their last respects to the deceased person would return to their homes only after having that pashni kanji. This tradition was followed by everyone in the society, irrespective of caste or class differences,” says John Paul.
Though this tradition was observed by everyone, the food items that were served changed according to the culinary and social culture of each group. In the Hindu households, lunch was served instead of kanji. Hot rice would be accompanied with some pulinkari (a simple traditional gravy dish) and a humble mezhukkupuratty (vegetable stir fry). Sometimes, pickle too would be served. These were cooked in the neighbouring houses. Meanwhile, the Muslim families would arrange dishes that resemble the ones that are served for iftar when they break their fast during Ramadan.
The Kutch community in Kochi serves a special item called the kunnichoru made with cooked lentils and rice. “People make sure that these traditions are strictly followed, though with minor changes, to uphold the unifying nature of the society,” observes John Paul.
(This article was published in Ruchi Sallapam in 2014.)