The tamarind tree that taught cinema

Director-actor Mysskin might have explored food across the world, but his heart lies in frugal fare

February 22, 2017 03:55 pm | Updated August 08, 2017 05:07 pm IST

“I keep breaking rules, especially when it comes to cooking. I experiment,” says Mysskin. The director, who learnt cooking from his grandmother and mother, is an ardent fan of simple food cooked in a rustic style. “Our cooking style has evolved over many hundreds of years. Its hallmark is that it is simple, and made using locally-available ingredients, using less condiments.”

During his childhood, Mysskin had the opportunity to go fishing in the water channels amid agricultural fields and sit atop the tamarind tree and taste the unripe fruit. “Today, ayiraimeen is considered exotic, but this was the only variety I ate in my childhood as it was available everywhere. Mutton and chicken were reserved for special occasions,” says Mysskin, adding that “the food that still lingers in my taste buds and memory is the one I ate between the ages of five and 10. We were reeling from poverty, but the frugal fare my grandmother prepared, be it a watery pulikuzhambu or thogayal with just a sliver of coconut, was heavenly.”

The tamarind tree seems to be a strong metaphor in Mysskin’s life. As a child, he climbed the tree and observed the evolution of the fruit, from raw to ripe. “I have tasted puliyanga in 15 different stages; at each, the taste is unique. The colour gradually changes. Even the tender leaves were used to make thogayal. Somewhere, I think this observation has helped me understand cinema.”

The director is passionate about cooking and yearns for traditional food, especially after travelling abroad. “Can anything match the taste of pazhaya soru and karuvattu kuzhambu ?” he asks. “ Pulikuzhambu is preserved for a couple of days, and tastes better with every passing day. Sambar varies from home to home. The sambar you get in the city is different from how it is made in the villages. And, there are a thousand ways to prepare rasam.”

Talking about experimenting, Mysskin says he once prepared fish gravy in 10 different ways on 10 consecutive days.

“My mother used to say that ginger must not be used to cook fish, but I cooked it with ginger, coconut and other ingredients usually not used for fish.”

When he visited Japan some years ago, Mysskin tasted 100 different local dishes. “I went about it thematically, so that each day I got to taste one species — shellfish, fish, chicken, and so on. Though the taste did not appeal, I enjoyed the process. I’ve extensively explored food in Europe as well. But, at the end of the day, I’ve realised that my food sensibilities are aligned to what I ate as a child; my palate doesn’t accept any other kind of food.”

Mysskin says his best meal in recent times was in a Goan village. “My friend and I reached there around midnight, famished. There was no hotel; we knocked on a random door and requested the lady of the house to cook a meal for us. We handed over ₹ 50. She prepared rice and gravy with mussels; it was extraordinary.”

A biryani aficionado, the director has tasted over a 100 varieties of it, but still has fond memories of a memorable meal. “One year, during Ramzan, I tasted biryani made to perfection at Nasser sir’s house. The ‘master’ did not turn up the next year, sadly.”

Mysskin believes that working in the kitchen lends grace to one’s personality. “For many, the first recognition or accolade would have been for cooking. The feeling you get when someone enjoys the food you’ve cooked is incomparable. Cooking is an art, and food is, at times, a spiritual experience.”

(A fortnightly column on film personalities and their trysts with food.)

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