Food has always been an important part of the Syrian Christian home. Lathika George's The Suriani Kitchen gives you glimpses of another lifestyle.

Food, in any Syrian Christian home, is a lifestyle. And the rich, fertile land provided the community with not only vegetables and fruits but also spices. The lure of the spices was so strong that historical evidence has it that even before the time of Christ there were Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Jews and Chinese merchants trading with Kerala.

As Latika George, author of The Suriani Kitchen, says, “Meals are a celebration of the spices, herbs, seafood, meats, pulses, grains, nuts, and every edible leaf and seed that grows in this fertile land.”

Visits to Kerala bring to mind lush green paddy fields, waterways, rides in canoes, old tharavads and, of course, the food. The taste of “delicious food cooked in smoky country hearths” will remain with you a lifetime. The kappa-meen vevichathu, erachi olarthiathu, more kachiyathu, puttu, pal appam are some of the totally unforgettable items on the traditional menu.

Deep roots

Most tharavads have retained the original kitchen with its four to six adupus. The smell of smoke from the wood fire and freshly ground spices mixed with the aroma emanating from the slowly cooking food add up to make the meal a much-awaited event. Some essentials in the kitchen would be the chembu used for steaming, the puttu kutti, cheena chatti, appam chatti, the quintessential meen chatti and so on.

This community, with its roots deep in the culture of the land, has very traditional and original cuisine. The speciality of this cuisine is the trace of the various cultures that have influenced the community. There was constant traffic between the Malabar Coast and Alexandria. So it was no surprise when after the death of Christ, one of his disciples, Thomas by name, boarded a ship and arrived on the Malabar Coast. The few families he converted became the Syrian Christians, one of the oldest surviving Christian communities in the world.

Lathika George takes you on a journey to her roots, giving you glimpses of the culture and traditions of the Syrian Christians. Beginning with their origin, she goes on to their quaint custom of naming: where they are identified by their family names, which may sound strange but is highly descriptive. Besides which the names tell your story — your complete family history — instantly placing you on the family tree (for better or worse!).

The church plays an important part in the lives of all Syrian Christian families. In a way, it forms much of the social life with endless births, deaths, marriages, housewarming ceremonies and every other auspicious event officiated in the presence of the parish priest. Marriages used to be simple affairs, though now it is more flamboyant, more flashy and of course more expensive.

Meats and sea food play a predominant part in the diet. Vegetables are simply cooked, with a few spices sometimes with grated coconut. Most often the vegetables are cooked in their own juice to retain the flavour.

Coconut — whether fresh, ground, roasted or as coconut milk — plays an important part in almost all dishes. Spices are another important ingredient. Freshly ground herbs and spices not only enhance the taste of the dish but also make it exotic.

Every meal is elaborate. The favourite breakfast in most homes is the puttu, prepared with roasted, coarsely ground rice flour and fresh, ground coconut. The trick of turning out a good puttu lies in the mixing. You need just that little bit of water to ensure that the rice flour is moist but not soggy nor dry. There are variations to the humble puttu, like layering the mixture with curried meat or shrimp.

The paalappam is yet another favourite, but takes hours to make. Made in an appam chatti over a wood fire, it should be cooked slowly. It is best with chicken or mutton stew, though you could serve it with sweet coconut milk also.

Lunch can never be right without fish and meat. So there would always be a meen varathathu and a meen vevichatu. The meen molee, another favourite, is a creamy fish curry made with coconut milk and a dash of spices. The meen peera pattichathu is made with small fish like sardines or even shrimp. It is made in an earthenware pot with ground coconut, kokum and spices. The speciality of this dish is that it is cooked slowly on a wood fire and it is never stirred.

Most famous

Among the meat dishes, probably the most famous would be the Syrian beef fry or the erachi olarthiathu. This is spicy and fried with coconut pieces. Of course, the list is exhaustive with beef cutlets, and kofta karri, kothiyerachiyum kezhangu olathiathu and more. Chicken stew is comparatively milder and bland too and, for the innovative cook, lends itself to a lot of variations.

There are an interesting variety of chutneys, pickles and curry powders. The book ends with sweet and savoury snacks and some easy-to-make desserts. The cover design is by Pooja Pushpanath and the jacket photography by Salim Pushpanath. The photographer has captured the essence of the kitchen and one can almost smell the food being cooked. Through the book there are some very lovely pictures, especially the black and white ones. There are pictures of the Cheriapally, Syrian Christian marriage, a bride dressed in traditional attire and more. There are colour pictures too showing food as it is served. The picture of the puttu and appam, with the Malayalam Manorama and a pair of spectacles tells the story of a morning in Kerala. The karimeen and the shrimp are so real it's almost mouth watering. The centre spread is similar to the jacket, though this time it is darker, smokier and more magical.

A fascinating book, it takes you through not only the usual gastronomical delights of Syrian Christian cooking but also gives you a glimpse of a lifestyle far removed from the usual.

Meen Vevichathu

Ingredients

1/4 cup oil

8 shallots, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon thinly sliced fresh ginger

10 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons garlic paste

8 curry leaves

4 (2-inch) pieces coccum, soaked in water

2 cups water

2 tablespoons salt

1 kg fish fillets, sliced into thick squares

1 teaspoon coconut oil (optional)

Spice paste

3 tablespoons Kashmir chilli powder

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek, roasted.

Method: Grind spices to a fine paste with a little water. Heat the oil in a deep pot, add the sliced shallots and fry for 2 minutes. When they are lightly browned, add the ginger and garlic and curry leaves and fry for 2 more minutes.

Lower the heat and add the spice paste. Continue frying for 1 to 2 minutes, until the oil rises to the top.

Add the coccum, water and salt, then add the fish and simmer for 10 minutes with the lid on. When the fish is cooked, drizzle the coconut oil over the curry.

The Suriani Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala; Lathika George, Westland, Rs. 450.

RELATED NEWS

In cardamom countryMarch 13, 2010

Classical yet edgyMarch 16, 2010

Date with DakshinMarch 13, 2010