A Return To God's Own Country: Part I
I’ve had a tempestuous relationship with the food of Kerala. One that clearly mirrored the fluctuating uncertainty of my own Keralite identity. There was a time when fish curry meant the worst kind of torture, and a tiffin of idlis was a guarantee to 15 seconds of popularity at school. But, an embarrassed cringe would colour my face in anticipation of someone asking me why we cooked in the same oil that the rest of the country oiled their hair with!
Yeah, while growing up as a beef-eating, church-going Keralite Catholic in middle-class West Delhi, the mallu part of my heritage was exactly what I was trying to wish into non-existence. I would have given anything to not be the dark Christian (or ‘kishan’ as they’d call it) girl who most of my school mates seemed to assume survived on a steady unwavering diet of ‘idli-sambar’. That teenage me hated the idli, the beef, the coconuts, the fish, the curry leaves and anything else that remotely symbolised the snigger-inducing, isolating albeit inaccurate label of ‘Madrasi’.
My parents on the other hand were closer than ever to their roots. They cleaved to the small Catholic Keralite community of West Delhi to feel closer to what they still thought of as home despite having lived for several decades in North India. The spices, coconuts, plantains, curry leaves, shallots, brown rice, coconut ladoos (avalose undas), dried fish and shrimp, fish pickles they had grown up with were scarce precious markers of a time and space they longed for.
To soothe the homesickness, treasured boxes were lovingly sent from Kerala, joyfully hoarded in Delhi and slowly savoured on special occasions. The precious cargo would be lugged by visiting relatives who came for a Dilli darshan all the way from Kerala where my grandparents and uncles would have ceremonially stacked the homegrown goods into emptied cartons of electronics, secured by rough, stinging coir ropes.
The cartons would retain the metallic smell of the train and the layers of dust they gathered as they travelled the length of the country. But on the inside, would be trapped some of the aroma of my grandmothers attic with its drying spices and ripening bananas. The moments when those cartons were opened inevitably shimmered in excitement. Just a whiff of that smell would break out a smile of sunshine on my parents' faces, cutting through the winters of Delhi.
And yet, it was that wistfulness, the silent longing in those smiles that made me so very uncomfortable with these aromas and flavours. Finally, when my parents moved back to Kerala, it felt like my worst fears had come true. What was a move back ‘home’ for them was the snatching away of all that I had called home thus far.
Having eschewed all things Malayali at the age of 17, I left home for college and a search for a new place I could adopt as home. As I searched for myself in the various places I stayed in around the country, food, that had always been my solace, now became a medium of exploring the world and my own self. My interest in baking had developed into a full-fledged passion. As time passed by, international food and breads in particular became my favourite magic trick and therapy. By now, I had put in firm roots in Mumbai and married a Punjabi. It finally felt like I had found home.
When asked which part of the country I am from, I almost always said my parents were from Kerala, but that I only identified with being Indian rather than being from any particular place. I was no longer running away from all things Kerala. But no, I wasn’t embracing it either.
And then a couple of years ago things started to change as I started developing all sorts of allergies. Gluten would cause my skin to itch, dairy would induce nausea. A lot of my favourite baking ingredients became prime antagonists. Like in the years before I had decided I was ‘grown-up’, I turned to my parents for solace. In my fathers presence, I knew I would find the reassurance that all would be okay. My visits to Kerala increased in frequency as I realised the toll that time was taking on all our lives. I started looking forward to those visits. The place that had always seemed like a distant uncomfortable reality started feeling like home. Comfortable, familiar, secure, precious. My people. On one of my, visits to Kerala, it finally dawned on me.
There was a reason for why my mother’s Keralite cooking was the only food that never seemed to cause me allergies. Was my own body trying to tell me something that all my globe-trotting self-exploration hadn’t been able to reveal? It had taken me more than a decade and a half and a lot of growing up to realise that you can’t walk away from your roots however much you try to wish it into oblivion. That the isolating sense of dislocation so common to many of us who have lived far away from our roots had unfairly coloured my view of Kerala, closing me off to the inheritance that was mine to gain as well as to preserve.
Every visit to Kerala brings with it discoveries that are new, delicious and eye-opening. The nitya vazudanangya or eternal eggplant in my mom's terrace garden that is shaped like a flower, the unexpected delight in butter fruit (avocado) shake on the streets of Fort Kochi, and the subtle fragrance of the Malabar biryani especially the plentiful pandan that’s used in it.
The uniqueness of the flavours and cooking techniques in dishes like idiyappam, puttu, and pidi and the vast range of both meat and vegetarian dishes spread between the Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities across Kerala fill me with pride. The clever use of spices in both sweet and savoury dishes, the numerous unique and creative ways with rice tell me stories of ingenuity and wisdom. I have fallen in love with the perfection that is a well-cooked appam with its sheer, crisp frilly borders to it soft fluffy middle. The medley of textures that a well-made Malabar parotha can be – from the crisp, crunchy outer layers to the gossamer soft inner ones is one of my guilty pleasures. And I have finally begun to appreciate what a thing of joy the Kerala fish curry is – a fantastic and fragrant balance of the sour and the creamy.
I still don’t get many of the Malayali jokes, know enough about the history of Kerala or its rich, vast literature. On my visits, I am still the butt of jokes for my accent and lack of understanding of the nuances of Malayali idioms. But I look forward to unravelling the mysteries behind the dishes, discovering anew what my ancestors took for granted as their way of life, making these recipes my own by bringing to them all that I have learnt from my life outside Kerala as a Malayali.
Tempered by nostalgia and the knowledge that these spaces, this culture, folklore and tradition make up my own past, and the very being of some of the people I love the most, I know this is going to be an immense journey of self discovery. A journey that’s homeward bound.
Photos: Reshmy Kurian
Follow Reshmy on Twitter @ReshmyKurian