By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, Sep 4 (SocialNews.XYZ) She's a traditionalist who loves to preserve the heritage of a bygone era - be it recipes, textiles or crafts - and believes "the woods are lovely, dark and deep and I have miles to go before I sleep". Freelance writer, food columnist and broadcaster Sabita Radhakrishna's latest offering, "Paachakam - Heritage Cuisine of Kerala", could not be better timed, coming as does in the midst of the Onam season.
There's a double bonus in this book - not only does it lead you through the varied cuisine of God's Own Country but there's also a double-page spread of the 24-items that make up the Sadya feast served on Onam and other special occasions and their precise positioning on a plantain leaf.
"I am a foodie, and my idea was to retrieve old recipes which would die with the people who cooked them and I started to document all my mother's recipes in 'Aharam' which was my first book on traditional cuisine. For one thing, I love to preserve recipes of a bygone era, and I am a traditionalist and do not like precious heritage items to languish, be it textiles, craft, or the craft of cooking food," Radhakrishna told IANS of "Paachakam" (Roli Books).
"My idea was not to write 'just a cookbook'. I needed to learn and understand the history of origin of the food, in this case Kerala, and to study the different communities and food habits. It was also a learning curve for me and I enjoyed it. I talked to women who were excellent cooks and chose one from each community who would be the central figure representing her community and who would guide me through.
"I am grateful to all those women from different regions who shared their family recipes. It was a long route just trying to standardize and test the recipes, and retrying if they didn't turn out right. It took me about one-and-a-half years before I submitted my manuscript," Radhakrishna explained.
This was just one part of the research that went into the writing of the book.
"I belong to an old school where I research in the conventional way, going to libraries and looking at archival material and reading books by other authors. I do not believe in just going to the internet and collecting material. I used to visit the library of (Chennai's) DakshinaChitra (heritage museum) though it is quite far away, and went through food history. Another valuable source and very good reading was the book by (food scientist and nutritionist) K.T. Achaya on the history of food in general.
"This is a challenge that every writer faces when you write about a culture alien to you. You research extensively, you talk to experts in the field and it is a long process of learning and understanding a different kind of cuisine. I decided to cover the major communities in Kerala, and their diversity and food habits were a revelation and so very interesting. I met many women who cooked traditional Kerala food," Radhakrishna elaborated.
The book focuses on major communities like the Nairs, Syrian Christians, Nambuthiris, Poduvals, Thiyas and Cochin Jews.
"I chose foodies who were very conversant with the pan-Indian recipes which today are diluted and sometimes changed drastically. I wanted no less than the original at least as close as possible," Radhakrishna said of her quest.
"I have found that in Kerala, most women who cook stick to original recipes though understandably they switch to short cuts which are inevitable," she added.
The recipes apart, the author also provides pen-sketches of the communities featured in the book.
Kanjee is the staple food of the Nairs, sometimes consumed thrice a day. Coconut, jackfruit, bananas and mangoes feature prominently in their cooking. Fish is preferred to chicken and fowl but beef is taboo.
Essentially non-vegetarian, Syrian Christians eat meat anytime, starting with their breakfast. Short red rice and tapioca are a must almost every day. The use of 'kodam puli' (tamarind), with its tangy flavour, makes the curries stand out.
While most of Kerala is predominantly non-vegetarian, Nambuthiris and Poduvals are pure vegetarians, also abstaining from garlic, onion and alcohol.
The history of the Thiya community of Malabar is shrouded in conjecture. Some converted to Islam around the ninth century due to the influence of Arab traders. A section of the Travancore Royal Family moved to North Kerala, where they cultivated rice and local vegetables while the larger community lived on a largely seafood diet. The advent of colonial rule saw the hot curries, for instance, gave way to stews, while the French introduced baking.
The food of the Cochin Jews is kosher - meat and dairy products cannot be mixed; pork is banned, as also fish cooked with fins and scales. The staple food of the Cochinis is unpolished parboiled rice which takes on many incarnations like dosa, idli, appam puttu. In this cuisine, large quantities of onions are browned, and the vegetables and other ingredients are cooked in onion juice instead of water, which gives them a distinct and special flavour.
In exploring the diverse foods and customs, interviewing community leaders, and researching preferred spices and flavours, Radhakrishna uncovers special commonalities between them that serve to define Kerala cuisine as a whole.
One thing that Radhakrishna was very insistent about is hone ground spices.
"There is no comparison between home ground masala powder and the commercial variety. At home we are careful to broil each ingredient separately and make just enough to last for a short time. Commercial powders are produced in large quantities, and preservatives have to be added for longer shelf life. I make my own powders at home, even today and definitely it contributes to a better taste. Flavours are undoubtedly better and the food is tastier with home ground spice powders," Radhakrishna maintained.
However, "the market today is flooded with readymade spice powders, and if you are a young working woman it is too tempting as these people do not have the time or patience to make powders at home", she added.
"Paachakam" is Radhkrishna's fifth book, two of which have won international award, but there's no letting up for her.
She also runs an NGO, Udhavi, which she founded nine years ago, "providing company for elders living alone and connecting them to services which they might need. I wrote a small book called 'Handbook for Silvers', less than 100 pages and it is selling very well".
"I am now compiling a book of recipes I have tried over and over again, which my friends and family love. I know people can get recipes from the Net, but nothing like a book with time-tested recipes. They are a mix of the old and the new and is called 'Amma's Kitchen'. It is my legacy to my children and their children who have always enjoyed my cooking.
"Would I be doing another regional cookbook? I really do not know as it requires so much work.
"Yes, the woods are lovely dark and deep and I have miles to go before I sleep," Radhikrishna concluded, quoting the American poet Robert Frost.
(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)