#kerala, food, Life, Personal, Places

Beach and Baji

We, in India, following the COVID19 pandemic, are being slowly conditioned into an ‘unlock’ plan by the government. On November 1st, which incidentally is Kerala Piravi or Kerala Day, was also the day our beaches were opened to the public after eight months of restrictions.

Sunset ‘boulevard’ Photo courtesy:Hormese Joseph

Alappuzha beach , with its picturesque stretch of coastline has a magnetic force that draws locals and passers-by in droves.

Alappuzha is a well planned city that lies between Vembanad Lake and the Arabian Sea. It was economically significant in the spice trade for a long time. A port was founded in 1762 for the export of coir-matting and coir-yarn. Alleppey coir yarn has been GI certified since 2007.

The lighthouse built on the coast of the city is the first of its kind along the Laccadive Sea coast. It was first lit in 1862 and is still a manned station! Surprisingly, Alappuzha beach hosts a beach festival and sand art festival. (Surprising cause it isn’t considered the most progressive of cities). A canal system helped bring in goods to port from the backwaters and encouraged an entourage of traders from Surat, Mumbai and Kutch, who eventually, chose to make Alleppey home.

The lighthouse at Alappuzha

The beach here is always teeming with people. For an Alleppey native, it is the go-to place that provides free entry, a meeting ground for friends, more-than-friends, souls on the path of enlightenment and general tomfoolery.

Meet-up place Photo courtesy: Hormese Joseph

In the evenings , when the light starts to dim and the sun starts to set, an artist’s palette creates a riot of colours; a whirlwind of consciousness. The gas fires from the ‘undhu vandi‘ (carts), the calls of the ice cream vendors and the king of Alappuzha beach snacks ( yes, such a snack exists) the glorious, humungously satisfying “Baji“. This coated-in-batter, deep-fried street food is at the zenith of recreational activities in this setting.

Egg baji

It is a truth universally acknowledged (or a truth that the whole of Alleppey knows), that even if burgers & fries and Arabian delicacies are mushrooming in every nook and cranny, the baji guy😎 is the ever-present ,doller-out of the best snack for introspective sunset vibes.

A cup of chai ( not coffee) is the final touch. My friend @aparnasramblings may graciously disagree (but we all know which is better 😜).

The tea is of various kinds: black tea with ‘karipetti‘, the sweet milky one and even a ‘sulaimani‘. But the baji, oh the baji ! Cauliflower, banana peppers (baji chilly), thinly sliced raw banana, eggs- we are spoilt for choices. A tomato chutney (that seems a mite confusing to replicate) is poured on top and voila! A feast for the taste buds. Sophisticated it’s not, but definitely touches all the right places of my tummy!

Banana Chilly Fritters

I’m wondering if any you are now waiting for a recipe? Not coming! This baji has to come with beach. That tea has to accompany it. The setting is the hero in this one. So, what’s your favourite snack setting?

#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.

#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.

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?

#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!”.