#kerala, food

Onam in God’s own country

Onam might just be the topic that is occupying a malayalees insta feed , Facebook and various other social media handles for the better part of a fortnight starting yesterday!

During my undergraduate days, Onam celebrations first started at that reverred institution two weeks before break began. Competitions were fierce, especially the tug-of-war. Scraped hands, bloodied feet and sore throats were a given. There were also one act plays with decked up (in gold) women, flower carpets ‘pokkalams’ , and horribly predicatable Malayalam vibes – a medley of onam ‘looks’. There were singing competitions, best dressed (nope, I never came even the tiniest bit close when there were girls at college who made dressing up an art form), ‘vanchipatu’ (traditional boat songs) and fusion songs playing over the speakers during these days. The mood was festive with a capital F.

Onam is a harvest festival celebrated in the malayalam month of Chingam. According to legend, the festival is celebrated to commemorate  Mahabali( the self-sacrificing king) whose spirit is said to visit Kerala at this time.

Vallam kalli (boat races), pulikali (tiger dance), pookalams, folk songs and dance, make up part of the festivities. But, and that’s a huge BUT, dominating the competitions and wiping out all the willy-nilly revelry is the (drum roll), sadhya!

A veritable feast is served on plantain leaves and could consist of over two dozen dishes. Let me repeat that. Over two dozen! (Ha! And here you thought we were all about parota and beef (Godha movie scene). Chips, Sharkaraveratti (Fried pieces of banana coated with jaggery), pappadam, olan , kalan, injipuli, thoran, mezhukkupurati, aviyal, sambar, paripu, erisheri, pachadi, kichadi, puliseri, naranga curry, moru, pickles (uff thats an extensive line-up!). It definitely does not stop there. No way! then we go on to the payasam, a sweet dish of which atleast two or three kinds is served with boli, pappadam and plantains, eaten on the same plantain leaf. Although the list seems endless, there is a method to this madness of curries. Check out Onam recipes from Squaremeals.

An unmarred plaintain leaf is laid with its tip pointing to the left of the person seated. The chips are then laid on the left edge of the leaf and the curries are served (in moderation of course). Tingling sour curries like kalan, sweet and salty ginger curry, warm coconut aviyal are all served on the leaf. The paripu and ghee poured on the rice is my favourite part (yes, I make the server pour not drizzle on my leaf).

The payasam though is the most anticipated, delectable and perfect conclusion to the parade. Personally, I keep a small amount of pickle in a corner of the leaf. Ask me why. Cause you can eat more payasam since the spicy pickle re-balances your taste buds! I’m a genius!

Paripu payasam

Onam brings the family together; the aunts and uncles, cousins and neighbours. The sadhya tastes infinitely better in that atmosphere of love. Although a gathering of such proportions might be restricted this year, it can still be celebrated differently.

Even if it seems the worst of times, we can make it the best of times. Saluting the frontline warriors of the Covid19 pandemic and wishing everyone a happy Onam. saying thank you.

food

Salt: the good, the bad and the salty

Salt is a mineral composed mainly of sodium chloride (NaCl). It is present in vast quantities in seawater and according to Wikipedia, the open ocean has about 35 grams (1.2 oz) of solids per liter of sea water.

Salt is essential for us to season our food and saltiness is a fundamental and foremost part of human taste. Salt processing is as old as 6000B.C.! Whoa and I thought early humans knew nothing about seasoning!

Salt was used to seal deals in trade and was also part of burial ceremonies in Egypt. Wars have been fought over this commodity that harmonizes flavours in cooking. It is abundant, significant yet so common and nominal in price.

So why have I suddenly decided to write on salt of all things? For quite a few days I’ve been messing up the seasoning in most of my curries. My husband had to point it out cause I was missing it (the embarrassment!). Then he asked quite a pertinent question. Do you think your blood pressure is fine? Which led me on a salty chase! Sometimes the level of saltiness we taste in our food may indicate a fluctuation in blood pressure. Read up more on Salt and its effects on the body.

When my mom showed signs of high blood pressure, the doctor advised her to get rid of the salt shaker and cut back on the salt intake gradually, which would, in turn, allow the taste buds to naturally adjust. But too little sodium can also lead to hyponatremia and dizziness, muscle twitches and/or seizures. Doctors suggest the maximum intake of sodium should not exceed a teaspoon a day (around 5gms of salt)! The Mayo clinic considers that even a slight reduction of sodium in our diet may improve heart health and reduce blood pressure.

Processed foods are so stealthy in incorporating a high level of salt that you have to watch that oh-so-tempting but sneaky-package. A whooping 75% of the salt we consume is found in the food we buy. The additives alone are enough to give you a coronary. If a food label says sodium instead of salt, it can actually mislead you. Read the facts Sodium and salt.

Surprising uses for salt

But even with these seemingly horrible effects, salt remains indispensable. It is a powerful antibacterial agent. It kills (without remorse) certain types of bacteria, through the process of osmosis; that is – molecules of a solvent usually pass through a semipermeable membrane from a less concentrated solution into a more concentrated one, thereby enzymes cannot function and the cell collapses in on itself. (I had to read that thrice and even then the definition keeps me going in circles). Yeah, so to make a long story short, salt is ninja to most bacteria. But underline most.

But on towards salt’s usefulness:

  • Gargling with salt water can ease swelling and help a sore throat feel better.
  • A balance of fluid and sodium(found in salt) is necessary for the health of the heart, liver, and kidneys.
  • It regulates blood fluids and prevents low blood pressure.
  • Throwing some rock salt on African snails= instant kill.
  • Salt is the raw material for the production of chlorine and caustic soda.
  • De-icing
  • In pharmaceuticals
  • Water treatment
  • Food preservation

Salt even has biblical connotations – the ancient Hebrews used salt to make a covenant with God. Huh!

“every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt.”

Leviticus 2:12-13

Even the Winchester brothers from Supernatural used salt as a shield/ barrier between them and evil spirits.

There’s still a lot more facts (and fiction) about salt, but this right here is what I found interesting. So the next time someone implies you are the salt of the earth, take it with a grain of salt!!(I just had to say that😁)

Oh and guess who has a slightly peaked blood pressure reading (the husband)!

Chemistry Jokes
#kerala, Travel

The Beauty of Kuttanad

Kuttanadan Punjayile
Kochu Penne Kuyilale
Kottu Venam Kuzhal Venam
Kurava Venam” – an evergreen boat song (watch the catchy fusion version by Vidya Vox)

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a young father went to collect his family from his wife’s homestead…

Sounds like the beginning to a fantasy novel doesn’t it? This was how my dad described his adventure-filled travel to Kuttanad back in the day when the bridges there were coconut logs. Travelling away from was more common than travelling towards.

Photo courtesy: Joyal Antony Thomas

Poems, songs and many literary works have had their setting in this land of the famed backwaters of Vembanad Lake. Coastal backwaters, rivers and well networked water ways; green, green paddy fields as far as the eye can see; shimmering water and countless ‘kettuvallams‘ and smaller ‘vallams‘ are the norm here.

When visiting my grandparents, the ride to the destination was picturesque to say the least. The adventure started when we had to get on a vallam (something like a canoe). Bags and people were loaded on and, getting on and off required great balance because:

  • a) the bank was higher up than the canoe and                                                  
  • b) the waves caused by motorboats kept the canoe swaying.

We once had a tinier-than-a-canoe pick us up from the jetty. There was probably a half-inch difference between the upper edge of the vallam and the river we were crossing. My kuttanad-born mom was more nervous for that than us kids!  

Photo courtesy: Joyal Antony Thomas

The Nehru Trophy Boat Race, although happens in Alleppey, is a prominent crowd puller from this part of the district. I have never understood the fevour the people have for the ‘vallam kali‘ (boat race). It was (and still is) impossible to get a clear cut view of which boat was where in a race that resembles a drag race! Every year, my husband goes to watch the ‘vallam kali‘but inevitably, I have learnt to expect a phone call asking who won the race. (I told you its impossible to see anything!).

Kuttanad lies in the heart of Alappuzha district and is fondly known as the Venice of the east. It is infact a huge area of reclaimed land that is separated by dikes from water higher than the land. It lies below sea- level and a two century old, ingenious method of rice cultivation is still being practised. The Food and Agricultural Organisation(FAO) has declared the Kuttanad farming method as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). Its Biosaline Farming system sets the land apart in terms of agricultural custom. It is unfortunate that I only recently came across such distinctions and history even though it’s where my mother grew up.

An aerial view of the backwaters

Years before frog hunting was banned, I remember my uncle going out after it rained,in the late evenings, to catch frogs to make crunchy fried frog’s legs. As daring as the French in their cuisine, weren’t they?! Duck, the famed Pearl Spot fish (karimeen), clam meat, were never exotic delicacies for the people here!

Paddy fields

So, back to my dad’s journey to Kuttanad. My brother had a bout of food poisoning from drinking pond water and he was adamant to see my father (the stubborn oaf😁). Anyway, my dad started sometime in the late afternoon and travelled by bus for one stretch of the journey and then he was on his own. There was still 30kms to cover, a jangar (ferry) to cross and two lakes between him and the house. But the malayalee man is a resourceful being, a sip of good brandy is enough for a kilometer worth of walk. When he finally reached the last water body he had to cross, it was pitch dark, there was no one about and no way to cross the river. Providence finally brought a kettuvallam and its vallakaaran (oarsman) passing through. My dad shouted and whistled, got the man’s attention, agreed on a price to ferry him across. Bang in the middle of the crossing the vallakaaran demanded double the money! Well, desperate times and all that. Finally, exhausted and only slightly intoxicated, my dad reached my grandparents house, looked in on my brother and promptly fell asleep.

Now the land and my maternal house is better connected with roadways, bridges and motorboats. But whatever developments continue to happen the Kuttanadan native is as close to the land and its waters as he was then.

food

Drooling over Mysore Pav

Imagine having a cookie, and that cookie has besan (gram) flour instead of all-purpose, ghee instead of butter, and that the ghee is double the amount of butter recommended. That is a Mysore Pav!

I have been craving this wondrous, delectable sweet for a few days and when that call became too great to ignore, I went out and got it (you cannot say I’m indecisive). I had religiously avoided venturing out into CoronaLand but the stomach wants what it wants! At first I opted for a 200gm pack and then I asked the guy at the counter to add another 200gm and then took 3 more pieces just to be on the safe side. Loosely translated 400gms of this ambrosia and you are set for a 2× weight gain. But never let that be a deterrent! We will slay the ‘fat-dragon’ another day!

Mysur pav

Mysore pak is an Indian sweet that originated in the city of Mysore in Karnataka hence the name Mysore Pak. Paaka meaning sugar syrup. Interesting facts (or story) about the sweet : the then Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wadiyar (1884–1940), was a food connoisseur (all the good ones are) and enjoyed different cuisines cooked in his ginormous kitchens. His chef, Kakasura Madappa, was credited with the invention of the dish and Madappa’s desecedants still run a bakery following the original recipe. It’s called Guru Sweets located in Mysore.

Inside the Mysore palace

My mother’s aunt used to make batches of it at her home in Alleppey. But it was a much harder version from what we get now at Sri Krishna Sweet house. This is softer, definitely more ghee-laden and as the Lays jingle goes “no one can eat just one”! I break off half a slice, but it melts in my mouth before I can say ‘Mysore’ that I have to have another, just to be sure I really did eat it. It is indeed food fit for a king ( a king who wouldn’t fit into much if he kept at it)!

How good does this look! Check out my friend’s page Aparnasramblings

This piece of yellow sweet inevitably will bring a smile to your face. The smile is reason enough to have another piece because smilers never lose and frowners never win. Try the recipe from Rakskitchen.

wellness, health

Fortify your immune system

The importance of boosting your immune power is being stressed like never before in this time of COVID19.

Long before a pandemic claimed the world and even before scientists in the western world discovered the benefits of curcumin in turmeric, there was a practice of building up the immune system existent in Ayurveda.

The malayalam month of ‘Karkkidam’ (starting in the middle of July- August 16th) is one of the coolest months (not to be confused with the slang connotation but rather the temperature). As a predominantly agricultural state, Keralities used to view this as the time to rejuvenate their physical self because the monsoon prevented said activities. The unrelenting rains meant the people suffered rheumatic diseases, digestive difficulties and were thus susceptible to other illnesses. Fasting, informed food choices and consuming ‘karkkida kanji’ was recommended along with spiritual reconnection.

Herbs and plants used in karkkida kanji

Traditional knowledge about the goodness of consuming certain foods during changing seasons has been passed down through generations. ‘Karkkida kanji’ is a nourishing meal that boosts immune power and is prepared using a unique combination of herbs, spices, and grains. It is had for three or seven consecutive days( a meal per day) and is considered effective in counteracting rheumatic pains and increasing energy and stamina. An aunt of mine has recently shared a recipe for the kanji Nimmy&Paul

The kanji being prepared

The medicinal value of many herbs, plants and seeds are ingrained in most of us and are wonderfully effective home remedies. Water boiled with cumin seeds help relieve gas and bloating. A glass of water blended with a piece of ash gourd eases bowel movement (helpful info here!). Oo, and barley water alleviates an UTI.

Food helps sustain our physical self. Watching what we eat and also when we eat has a great impact on our immune systems.

Did you know that spices, herbs, honey, rock salt and even lamb forms part of Ayurvedic medicine? What are the local/cultural practises that you have unknowingly adopted as home remedies?

#comics, memories

Comics: the best as can be!

The Peanuts family

When my daughter asked me “what should I read?” I told her to get a comic to which she repiled she didn’t like comics! 😳 Was I a dumbstruck mama or what? I literally went “whaaa?!”.

I remember a time when there were Archie and Amar Chitra Katha comics in every nook and cranny of my childhood home. It boggles the mind why my daugther said she did not like comics! Maybe I should get her barbie ones *shudder*!

My falling-apart Peanut comics with Dennis

Comics were a staple in our house where I was known to borrow ‘Archies’ and never return them. (You can imagine how that turned out!) The gentleness of Charlie Brown, the sarcastic wit of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, the smugness of Garfield- comics trigger happy memories. I’d have a stupid smile on my face everytime I got new or old ones! This was my favourite kind of entertainment. They were read and re-read and re-re-read.

When we used to come to Kerala for our summer breaks (we lived in Dubai for around 10years, way back in1986), I would get bundles of Amar Chitra Katha comics to take back. This was the embodiment of my knowledge about Indian folklore and that impossibly brainy/cheeky guy called Birbal for a long time.

Veronica from Archie’s Gals

Asterix and Obelisk, and Tintin were horribly expensive, but my brother’s friend used to loan them to him (guess who read it first). But Archie, Betty and Veronica, and Jughead(my kinda guy) were more easily purchased. I felt as if they were my friends too, hanging out with me and being obnoxious in general. (Warning: This kind of thinking bears no resemblance to the Russell Crowe character in the movie A Beautiful Mind). These comics had a charm of their own. I’m not sure why we didn’t have more of DC or Marvel publications though.

Why doesn’t my daughter like comics? I am trying to understand (I give up , I can’t find a reason). It’s a whole new world of quirky behaviour, awe-inspiring illustrations with little nuggets of wisdom tucked in spunky, relatable dialogue.

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip

Peter Parker/Spiderman in All-New Captain America Special #1: “We’re not just our failures. As much as they hurt, we learn from them. Then we go out there and do our best….”.

My favourite character has to be Charlie Brown or maybe Calvin, who’s yours?

food

Dosa batter, err banter

We had dosa for breakfast today, which got me thinking. I was never a dosa-lover when I was a kid but my son will stand and go through atleast three even before it gets from the tawa to the plate

Served with its accompaniments; sambar and coconut chutney, this traditional south Indian breakfast is as healthy as a breakfast/light snack/dinner can get (I may be biased here and I’m leaving idli for another day).

The paper roast with accompaniments

Food preferences have changed for me over the years and today I relish a ghee-laden paper roast ,(the waistline can watch its self), with sambar and any kind of chutney. If I feel the kids need an extra shot of protein with that, I just crack an egg on top and swirl it about, adding a pinch of salt and pepper. Grated cheese between the folds of a wafer-thin dosa, drizzled with ghee is soooo divine. Scientific studies have proved ghee is important for the brain to function well! (This is me not being cheeky😁)

There have been countless fails, in the intial years of cooking, trying to get the batter right: there was the unrisen one, the funny-tasting one , the watery one…the list goes on. I definitely learnt what not to do when making the batter.

My dosa crisping up! The ghee will follow!

But if you are a gastronome like me (wink), this is a dish you must try for its robustness, its completeness and the feeling of contentment only a good, healthy meal can give.

#personal, Life

Monsoon @home

It’s raining! Well, it’s June and I live in Kerala- rains should be expected. If it doesn’t rain we panic and if it rains too heavily, we panic.

The first rain of the monsoon season thankfully clicks the minimize button on the sweltering and oppressive heat that starts mid-February.

The courtyard at home

Blue skies look as if they’ve been hip-checked by grey and somber clouds.The season of mangoes, jackfruit, guavas and chambakka have closed shop in the incessant rain.

As kids (which was quite some time ago) we had to pack away our summer games of cricket, football, ‘SAT'(not the exam but the Malayalee game of hide and seek) for raincoats and book bags. From memory, June 1st was the harbinger of the season and, mostly always, the first day of school.( It was a given that we’d enter our new class with squelch-y feet).

The sky at the start of the monsoon

The onset of the monsoons also brought with it a whole load of extra work for each of us (as if there wasn’t enough already). The buckets and ‘kalams’ needed to be brought out to catch the water that dripped between loose roof tiles. The sun peeking out meant you made a mad dash to get the clothes on the line and somewhat dry before the next shower(all this in a span of 15mins😬).

Invariably, for the duration of this season, the umbrella, (the most loved prop in the life of a malayee) ,was either misplaced, flicked or flounced with gusto all over God’s own country.

2018 floods

Although the last two years saw unprecedented destruction caused by floods- the effect of extreme rainfall the State received in 2018 and 2019- we overcame the worst of times and inevitably learnt new lessons along the way. One being: don’t throw plastic into the river, she’s just gonna throw it right back at you! The vulnerability and resilience of the people came to the fore even as tears mingled with the flood waters.


But yet, what is Kerala without her monsoon? The joy that that first rain brings is soul-stirring . The green becomes greener; the ponds, rivers and lakes seem to cleanse themselves, beginning a rhythm that is bewitching and mesmerizing.

On a more personal note, when it rains , all I want to do I sit on my verandah with a cup of tea, lay down my burdens and forget the cares of the world. Recalibrating, as the GPS lady calls it. The beauty of that rainfall may be captured by a camera but that ease of soul, less likely. It reminds me that the beauty the Lord has created is…shalom. Indeed, “it is good!”.

#BlackLivesMatter

Injustice threatens justice

Ain’t it enough i’m American?

No siree, I can see
you are up to no good
your race,
your colour-
you are too much melanin

And I-
I’m too less human.

you do not point at me,
you do not raise your eyes to me.
Beneath me.


Justice has turned back

Truth has fallen in the streets


Injustice threatening Justice

But
Watch, the past, present and future collide,
Watch,
The smoke billows,
Up and down,
Side to side

Untying, uniting
Unrelenting.
Watch,
Watch your back.

A. Tom

#personal

Solitude in confinement

the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

I wandered lonely as a cloud, William Wordsworth

Ever locked yourself in the bathroom when the noise, the questions or the space gets a little too loud, insistent or suffocating?

I know it’s true for me ( smiling sheepishly here). Between kids, chores, housekeeping and when every second sentence begins with the word “Amma!” (as loudly and emphatically as possible); a breather is found in this unlikely place where no one questions your motives.

The bathroom offers the solitude I crave to recentre, recalibrate and surrender my sighs to heaven. Weird! I know. But that solitude is priceless. The silence strengthening.

On a normal day I would have had the house to myself- the kids at school, the husband at work. This lockdown, which has gone on for over two months now, has been a trying time for me. Not because of the extra work or the confinement but because finding such moments have been difficult.

If you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious, being alone to be mindful helps calm the storm. Experiencing that solitude feels like the clearing up of a fogged glass- a revelation of what’s inside. No words need be spoken, no thoughts explained, no discussion entered into; like a doorway to the Lord has opened up and my innermost being has found quietude. Bliss! As Wordsworth so succinctly put it.

Photo courtesy: Joyal Antony Thomas