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Boiled banana with sausage

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Representative Image   | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak

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The changes Kerala has undergone in 50 years is evident in its now-adventurous palate

On a recent visit to Kerala, I kept reading the boards lining the highway advertising a wide variety of dishes to satisfy both hunger and pleasure. I fell to thinking about travelling in Kerala half-a-century ago when roads disappeared as we went further and further inland, away from the railway station, and finally reaching a broad stretch of water as expansive as the sea to the eye but just a mile-long breadth of water to be crossed on a ferry.

What patience the people of that time must have had! It took a whole morning to visit one’s neighbour or mother’s house if it lay further down the opposite bank of the river.

But about food… When I met my aunt, I asked her what kind of foods grandfather liked. “Every day, he ate mashed lentils, rice and ghee. There was a special spicy chutney which Amma made for him. Other than that, I cannot recall anything in particular.” So. No fun-foods. Curds were unheard-of — it was always buttermilk.

Talking about her parents, she narrated a memorable parallel reading of an American writer named Mrs. (Ellen) Henry Wood who was popular a century ago. Grandfather read her East Lynne in English and grandmother the Malayalam translation. “She read after the household was asleep and by the faint light of the night-lamp. She was that fond of reading.”

Wallowing in water

Returning home, I came across an old photograph of four children in waist-high water grinning into the camera. In seconds, the past needled its way through 60 years and came alive. I even smelled the faint sweetish scent of the water and remembered the patches of pale-green “skin” that covered the surface of the pond. This kind of man-made pond (kolamm) was surrounded by a high wall. Such was the moisture- laden nature of the soil of Kerala that there were two or sometimes even three such ponds in the vast compounds of well-to-do households of that time.

How we took it all for granted! Those beautiful trees and creepers, that variety and the day-long calls of birds and squirrels were gradually overtaken by the roar of traffic and the yells and shrieks from loudspeakers as the near-medieval ethos of the mid-20th century village yielded to modernity, electricity and “development”.

To come back to the children and their bath time… What could have finished in 20 minutes took two hours. We played and half-swam for so long that we forgot the time. Strangely, no adult arrived to urge, or nag, us to come out of the water. Nor were we supervised. Thinking back, I admire the non-interference of our parents, aunts and uncles. Perhaps, they were glad to be rid of us for some time. Were we so noisy? I remember being told not to thunder up and down the wooden staircase nor dash past the room at one end of the corridor occupied by our very old grandfather.

Breakfast was unvaryingly stone-hard idli, boiled banana and egg served on leaves alongside tea in small brass vessels (kindi) with spouts. Laced with jaggery, that summer-time tea had a strange flavour, but was hot, plentiful and satisfying. Occasionally, we got small cylindrical moulds of steamed rice flour and coconut (puttu) with a spicy side dish of gram.

Before electricity turned night into day, the dusk, as the night set in, was an intense dark softened only by the burring of the raandal, or hurricane lamp, as it hissed and spread its glow in the front veranda which was partially enclosed. Recalling these scenes is like remembering patches of an old film watched many years ago.

Today’s breakfasts in Kerala could be anything from sausages and corn-flakes to poori and potato or dosa and chutney with a variety of spiced powders served as accompaniments. For none of these items is the Kerala kitchen under much strain because readymade mixes and powders fight for space on the shelves of grocery stores in even the most remote village.

Were we healthier? Did we sleep better?

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 1:56:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/kerala-cuisine-has-undergone-a-drastic-change/article29806636.ece

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