Column | Imagining the culinary habits of our ancestors

Wheat appam and kadala curry

So many culinary treats that are now an integral part of Kerala cuisine, and feel like ‘ancient hand-me-downs’, are relatively new food items that did not exist until the beginning of the 16th century in the Malayalam-speaking world. Take the very basic combination of aapam and stew (or ishtoo as we say in Malayalam). A large number of vegetarian households prepare their ishtoo with potatoes, something that came to Kerala only with the Portuguese. It is also quite possible that ishtoo, which this writer considers as comfort food, is a mispronunciation of the word stew, and that English stew was localised and made with spices and coconut milk to get its present Malayali avatar.

Aapams though are said to have existed in the areas comprising Tamil Nadu and Kerala for over a thousand years. Our ancestors would have enjoyed them with a number of curries that did not have chillies, since that is another thing that was brought to India by the Portuguese. Sambar, a perfect accompaniment to idlis and dosas, tastes best when it is made with tomatoes, yet, another Portuguese gift from South America. We can be sure that the original champaaram from which the word sambar is derived did not have tomatoes. Again, our masala dosas are stuffed with potatoes and a big green chilly. Even plain dosas are enjoyed with molagu, a chutney made from red chilly powder.

wheat idiyappam

Long before the Portuguese arrived on Kerala’s shores, Malayali cuisine was influenced by the Chinese, who would call on the state on their way to and from the Arab world. The nool puttu that we love to eat is essentially a localised version of Chinese noodles, and the same can be said of kozhukatta and dumplings or dim sum.

Chinese travellers also introduced Malayalis to the wok, which we happily call the ‘Cheenchatti’ or Chinese pot. It’s hard to tell if any Malayali dishes are the result of Chinese influences. Rice has been an integral part of the cuisines of both places and southern China grew many of the vegetables that are found aplenty in Kerala.

Malayalis and Chinese have also traditionally had rice gruel, called kanyi in Malayalam and zhou in China.

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Clues in a Sadya

The most revered traditional meal, the Sadya stands out for a lack of relatively new imports. Erissery, which is made with pumpkin, black-eyed peas, coconut, jeera and black pepper, is a dish that definitely would have existed before the 16th century. Avial has a legend that goes all the way back to the time of Bheeshma from the Mahabharata. Modern Olan recipes have green chilly in them, but this is one more dish that was probably a part of the Kerala palate before the Columbian exchange. Since rice cultivation goes back to thousands of years, it is fair to assume that our ancestors had a fair helping of rice with the dishes that are featured in a traditional sadya.

Given the abundance of sea food off the Kerala coastline and fish in its rivers and ponds it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that most of our ancestors were not vegetarians. Animal sacrifices in temples were also common, so meat definitely featured in the menus of Malayalis, even if it was just on special occasions.

For the sheer diversity of meat dishes, Kerala has both the Syrian Christians and Arabs to thank. There is nothing to suggest that this writer’s ancestors did not go occasionally from Palakkad to Ponnani and enjoy Pathiri and chicken curry and biriyanis. Again, with all these delights, we can be rest assured that tomatoes and green chillies were added to the preparation only in the 16th century.

Some of our favourite tea-time snacks also probably existed long before we became tea-drinking people. Pakkavada, which is made from rice flour and besan, is something that has existed for several hundred years in the state. The same can be said of Murukku, which is part of the common Kerala-Tamil Nadu heritage. Traditional sweet snacks like Poruvalamkaya, made from fried rice flour and powdered green gram with jaggery, and Manoharam, also made with powdered green gram and jaggery, have been a part our culinary heritage for several hundred years. Maybe they were consumed as snacks when workers in our largely agrarian society took breaks while toiling in the fields.

Other staples that have been passed down to us include newly-classified superfoods such as jackfruit, moringa and Nendran bananas.

In 2022, even as Kerala struggles to fight off the pandemic, a largely overlooked problem in the state and among the Malayali diaspora is obesity. Prosperity has brought with it an unhealthy combination of excess alcohol consumption and an addiction to Western-style processed foods. Going back to traditional foods and snacks cooked in the way our great-grandmother’s generation made them will help offset some of the public health problems that are part and parcel of 21st century life.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)


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