Cooking up a storm

The couple looked puzzled, but they welcomed him respectfully.

The couple looked puzzled, but they welcomed him respectfully. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Some of you may think this is a cooked-up story. It’s about food and foodies, slurping and drooling.

Once in six years, a spectacular food festival happens in Kilikkarai, a village at the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Food-lovers flock here. Local cooks make traditional dishes from both states. A celebrity chef selects the best cook.

Along with Rajat came his 13-year-old son, Babu Saran, to celebrate his vacation.

Along with Rajat came his 13-year-old son, Babu Saran, to celebrate his vacation. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

This year, the village headman invited Rajat Saran, a famous chef and expert on food, to be the judge. “We’re proud to have you in Kilikkarai,” he said. Along with Rajat came his 13-year-old son, Babu Saran, to celebrate his vacation.

Despite the hot summer sun, Rajat was in and out of kitchens, watching the cooks at work. People were amused to see a young boy accompanying him, dripping with sweat, curious about their food. Babu watched as a stern-looking grandfather made milk-white puttu and rich kadala curry. A mother made appam and ishtu even as her child ran all around her.

A mother made appam and ishtu.

A mother made appam and ishtu. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Up on the shaded terrace of another house, appalam, pappadam, vadam, and dried red chillies were spread out on straw mats. In the kitchen below, Babu saw the making of thattai. His nose quivered as the snack fried in oil, turned golden, then brown. His father said, “I remember running to my mother who broke off bits of thattai to feed me.”

Delectable delicacies

Babu breathed in the scent of puliyodharai in one house. And sampled murukku in another, crunching it between his teeth. Everyone was eager to please this little fellow, the food judge’s son. In another kitchen, a Kerala family had made ada, filling jaggery, grated coconut and a pinch of cardamom between swathes of rice paste before wrapping the delicacy in banana leaf, and steaming it.

Babu ate a piece of everything. He told his father, “This one’s terrific. This one’s terrible. This one could be better. This one shouldn’t be eaten at all!”

“It’s so easy for Daddy to judge. The best dishes are what grandma used to make,” thought Babu.

“Ah, here’s boli,” he exclaimed. But the cook corrected him. “That’s poli.” Rajat Saran chuckled, “Call it what you will. It tastes good!”

He took Babu to a house with a courtyard and tiled roof. Its garden was thick with plants and vegetable beds. A man and woman came out. The man said, “Sorry, but we’re not making anything for the food festival.” Rajat Saran smiled. “I know. I just wanted my son to see this house.” The couple looked puzzled, but they welcomed him respectfully.

He stood in the verandah, staring at an old framed black-and-white photo of a man and woman. “That’s grandma and grandpa!” said Babu excitedly. Rajat Saran grinned at him. The man said, “We bought this house 20 years ago. This picture was here. We haven’t removed it.”

The woman said, “They say the lady in the picture was the best cook in the village. Everyone loved her food. But when they grew old, their son took them with him to the city.”

“This is the house?” asked Babu excitedly.

Rajat placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Yes, this is where it all began!” He turned to the man of the house. “Thanks for keeping the photo!”

They went through the house, to every room, and even climbed up to the terrace. They stood under the blazing sun, happy and sweating. Babu imagined the terrace full of people, laughing and chatting, spreading dried chillies and appalams on straw mats. He imagined large glass jars with delicious-smelling pickles.

Rajat chuckled. “You can imagine your grandma here, can’t you?”

“So that’s why you wanted to bring me here!” said Babu.

On the final day of the food festival, the large village hall was crowded. Everyone spoke at the same time, anxious to know who would be declared the best cook for the next six years. Rajat Saran had walked around the village for two days, observing people in their kitchens.

Today, he tasted everything, taking his time. He was finally ready. As the crowd waited patiently, he told the headman, “But I’m not going to declare who is the Best Cook.” The headman looked puzzled. “Why, sir? Did we do anything wrong?”

“No, no,” Rajat smiled. “My son will judge this competition.”

The headman’s mouth fell open. “Your son! But how can he---?”

“You’ll see,” said Rajat. “I learnt from my mother. And he learnt from his grandmother and me. Babu is as good as I am.”

The headman said, “People saw you going into one of the houses. They weren’t even cooking for the competition.” His eyes narrowed. “Is it true that house belonged to your parents a long time ago?”

“Is it true? Is it not true?” Rajat grinned. “But this is where it all began. Today, my Babu will show you the lessons he learnt from his grandmother. He has come with me to every house. He has tasted every dish that was made. He has his roots in Kilikkarai.” Rajat Saran said earnestly, “He’s the best judge you can get.”

The headman stammered, “But the boy is so young!”

Babu bubbled with laughter. “You can’t judge a cook by his age!”

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2022 7:35:49 pm |