Everything about this elderly woman in old fashioned cotton saris, with her silvery hair tied in a bun and gentle smile suggests warmth, love, and nostalgia. A retired school headmistress, Suma teacher (as she likes to call herself) has over 147k subscribers on YouTube.
Her dishes are mostly regular, popular fare, from Poori Bajji, Kovilakam Kalan, Chuttaracha Chammanthi, Plum cakes to Kottayam style Fish curry, but the difference is in how she presents them. If she finishes her Poori Bajji making tutorial in 8 minutes, rest of it goes in explaining the health and historical benefits of the dish, along with going back to her younger days and recalling how it used to be a favourite during the wedding receptions back then.
At other times she talks about her favourite cookery vessels (soapstone kadai, earthen pots) and their health benefits. Recently, globetrotter Santosh George Kulangara of Safari TV was her guest, along with her husband Sivadas sir, when her channel hit over 1 lakh subscribers. Excerpts from the conversation.
Suma Teacher: When you talk about food, we also need to understand that, along with taste and nourishment, it has broader historical and scientific implications. What is your take on this? And why do you never show cookery on your channel?
Santosh George Kulangara: Suma teacher and Sivadas sir have known me from my childhood. I have always looked up to them for guidance at various stages of my life. When we were caught for mischief at home, we would rush to their home for refuge. A bond that has lasted over 30 odd years, that is how I would like to describe it. Coming back to your question, yes, we have not shown cookery on our travel show and since you have mentioned it, I feel guilty about it now.
During the initial days, I was keener on exploring a country/city’s culture and history. The plan was to soak in its sights, sounds and stories to the maximum. That would usually take an entire day, leaving us with little time to indulge in anything more. And to be honest, to capture food, it is important to eat heartily but, on most days, I am content with just a sandwich or hot dog due to the tight schedule.
Besides, it is only a myth that I travel throughout the year when all I get are 5 days of a month to travel. I have other commitments and I need to shoot at least 30 episodes in these 5 days. But from now on, I promise to include at least two food specialities of that region in my show.
For the uninitiated, Suma teacher is an expert in Kerala’s traditional cuisine. When I started Kerala Palace, a heritage resort in Vembanad, I requested Suma teacher to compile a book on Kerala’s secreted (little known) traditional cuisine. I handed over that book to the Chef at the resort and instructed them to incorporate the dishes into their daily menu.
What, a lot of cooks from this generation, do not get is that certain ingredients need to be added at a precise time. If ghee was told to be added after the tempering of a dish, that is exactly how it should be. Same goes to salt and water.
Suma Teacher: Earlier only salt was added with hands. There were no precise measurements and it was considered inappropriate to use a spoon to add the salt. I think there is some truth in the scientific theory that salt is the only ingredient in the food that needs to be added with a lot of love and care. You know why? You can perhaps tolerate an excess of other spices in your food, but not salt.
Santosh George Kulangara: Not just that I am a bit high on blood pressure, therefore salt consumption has been strictly regulated. That is when I realised the importance of salt in food, especially the magic (or the lack of ) it provides some dishes if not added precisely.
Sivadas sir: You have been to several countries. What is that one common food everywhere?
Santosh George Kulangara: Bread! I have not come across any country where bread is not used. But yes, it varies in homes. Further South, they use a lot of bread in their meals but in the North, they mostly opt for noodles and rice. In countries like India, Pakistan they use a lot of wheat flour to make their bread (tandoor rotis, chapattis and naans).
Sivadas sir: But aren’t there many variants and flavours in bread?
Santosh George Kulangara: I found sweet bread only here. There they use multiple grains and colours to make bread. You get sourdough bread and other variants as they are usually eaten with other accompaniments. Like how we eat rice here. Imagine pairing your rice with curry if it's sweet?
Sivadas sir: Your breakfast will invariably have sandwiches?
Santosh George Kulangara: There are several kinds of sandwiches. I have not seen readymade sandwiches in hotels. Sumptuous varieties of bread would be stacked there. That is usually a given at most continental breakfast buffets and it always amazes me. As a rule, I do not eat a heavy breakfast, but I have been surprised by how lavishly foreigners eat their morning meal. Beginning with sausages and bacon, sandwiches to fresh fruits. I guess they follow the ‘breakfast like a king’ theory.
And I have noticed that post that large meal, they usually go for a light lunch, mostly a sandwich or a hot dog. Their dinner will be at 6 pm, amidst family or friends, with beer or other forms of alcohol. For them, it's less about the food and more about camaraderie. They abhor solitary dinners and look at it as a social activity.
One thing I have observed in most countries is that irrespective of their economic status, they order their food keeping an eye on the pricing. They usually buy newspapers to check if popular food chain outlets (Mc Donald’s, KFC) are giving out discounts. They do not really splurge on clothes or food, contrary to popular belief. They are as calculated and careful about their money as the rest of us.
Sivadas sir: Is the food mostly meat-based?
Santosh George Kulangara: Yes. Meat is an important food in winter as it gives heat and energy to your body. It will be difficult for a vegetarian to sustain in these winter countries.
Suma Teacher: What about butter and cheese?
Santosh George Kulangara: Cheese is an indispensable part of their menu.
Suma Teacher: Vegetables are mostly consumed in the form of leaves?
Santosh George Kulangara: That should be more than enough. But yes, they also use different kinds of beans (lentils) in their diet. I am always impressed by how they always correctly proportioned their intake of meat with leafy vegetables. Do you know where we go wrong here? We boil these leafy vegetables till they lose all the nutrients and then eat.