“Food is really about memories, isn't it? It is perhaps the one thing that can always keep you in touch with or reconnect you to your roots. Food certainly was my link to Kerala while I was growing up in Mumbai; something that my mother, Thankamma, was quite particular about. And for that matter, it still is. For instance, the mere mention of kappa and meen curry will set me off on a nostalgic trip. After all, home food is comfort food,” says Lathika George, author of The Suriani Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala.
The book, which has within a rather short span of time become a must-have for lovers of Kerala cuisine, is filled with time-tested traditional recipes passed on from one generation to the other and peppered with anecdotes from the hearths of her extended Syrian Christian family from Central Kerala.
“I travelled all over Kerala and visited a lot of homes to get a taste of traditionally cooked food and to gather treasured recipes,” says Lathika.
Suriani food, explains Lathika, is an assimilation of cuisines – Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, Chinese...whatever culture that has touched our shores in the past and of course Kerala's own Hindu and Moplah cuisines. “Most of the dishes that we now call our own are originally from somewhere else. Appam is Dutch, Idiyappam is Sri Lankan, Porotta is Moplah, Theeyal is Hindu and so on. This makes the cuisine more open to experimentation – something that Surianis everywhere are masters of,” explains Lathika who seems to have done a lot of homework for her book.
It helped that her sister Latha George Pottenkulam (who also did the illustrations for her book) married into a family that still maintains a large traditional kitchen. The cover of Lathika's book features the kitchen complete with long-forgotten cooking implements that are rarely seen nowadays. However Lathika says she is at home in both a traditional kitchen and a modern one.
Surprisingly, the author says though she does not think of herself as a great cook, she loves cooking, especially baking bread. “But I make it a point to collect recipes from across the world. For instance, the other day at a wedding I came across chicken stew made with meatballs – something perfect for people on the go. And right now I am in my Turkish and Arabic cuisine phase. Every person who makes a good home-cooked meal is a great cook in my opinion,” she adds. An avid foodie, she frequents food blogs to collect recipes and watches various cookery shows. However, when offers to host various cookery shows came her way, she turned them down as she “does not feel comfortable in front of the camera.”
She remembers that she first entered the kitchen post-marriage, despite being a graduate in home science. “I would say that the best way to learn to cook is to be a newlywed thrown into a situation where you simply have to cook. Of course, it helps to have an indulgent husband who is willing to be your guinea pig,” says Lathika as she recalls her hilarious first attempts in the kitchen when she was living in Kuwait with her husband, George. “I didn't even know to cook rice. I was more concerned with the presentation/exoticism of the dish rather than the taste. Until, that is, after a particularly disastrous meal my husband advised me to keep it simple!”
If Lathika is now known for her kaipunyam (culinary talents), she is also equally (or more) well-known for her green thumb. She is a landscape designer based in Kodaikanal, who specialises in hill gardens. “When I was in Kuwait, I attended a course in interior designing, which included a course in plants and gardening. Gardening soon became a favourite,” says Lathika, who is currently designing her 23rd garden.
Her biggest project to date has been landscaping a 16-acre plot in Kodaikanal. Her vast garden at home, she says, is also a testament to her love for gardening. “Most of the vegetables and herbs that I use are grown organically in my garden. I am a big supporter of organic cultivation. They may not be as big as your average store-brought veggies but they sure taste so much better and are much healthier.”
So, between cooking and gardening, which is more cathartic? “Honestly, I cannot say. I get to indulge in both my passions, to my hearts' content. In that I can say I am truly lucky.”
And quite soon we will also see the enterprising mother of three (daughters Rajini, Roopa and Resham) in a new avatar... as a novelist! “It's a work of fiction that has a lot to do with [but of course] cooking and gardening. I've just begun writing and may take a while yet. I will be taking a break in December to work on the book.”
(MetroPlus caught up with the Kodaikanal-based cookbook author as she was preparing for that night's dinner at The Leela, Kovalam. With practiced ease she sautés onion and crabmeat with a dash of spice and then tops the mixture with white sauce made out of coconut milk. She then stuffs the lot inside the shell of a large crab; sprinkles cheese on top and bakes it to perfection. And voila! Suriani stuffed crab with a Western touch... mouth-watering, to say the least. Likewise, she rolls out refreshingly simple cutlets made out of banana flowers in a matter of minutes. “Suriani food is very easy to make. Try to use the freshest ingredients possible and just remember to control the spices.” The food fete is on till September 30.)