Syrian Christians of Kerala are one of the oldest surviving Christian communities in the world. In The Suriani Kitchen, Lathika George—a Mumbai-born Syrian Christian from Kanjirappally in Kerala—shares the mainstays of a Suriani (Syrian Christian community) kitchen through vivid memories and recipes.
Lathika recalls her earliest and favourite memory of a Suriani meal—puttu is a steamed rice cake served with kokum fish curry or kadala (black chickpea) curry. The taste lingers.
Spices and the way they are used coupled with the distinctive way of cooking meats define the Suriani style of cooking. “We grind coriander, red chilli and turmeric into a wet paste. The trinity of spices—cinnamon, cardamom and cloves—are lightly heated and powdered. These are mostly used towards the end of the cooking process. Each dish uses a different blend of spices. For curries, we may use ground
coconut or more frequently coconut milk; and spice, oil requirements for any particular dish are according to personal preferences,” she says.
Suriani cuisine has a distinctive way of cooking meats—the meat is slowly braised in spiced water, and once it is cooked, the next stage of frying onions, garlic etc begins, post which braised meat and spices are added.
Ask her about the preferred protein of the community, she says, “Though beef, chicken, mutton and pork are eaten, seafood is the universally favourite. Indigenous vegetables like bitter gourd, cucumber, beans, yam, tapioca, spinach, and a long bean called achingya payar, which is a favourite, find their way into the kitchen. Tubers like yam, sweet potato and koorka, an indigenous root are also cooked.”
A typical meal in her household comprises “red rice, buttermilk, two or three vegetables, including spinach, dried beans (like moong) fish curried or fried, or/and meat/chicken or beef. Pickles and chutneys would be laid out”.
A traditional dish that many families have is fish curry made with kokum, which keeps for many days. It’s also called ‘yesterday’s fish curry’. From the book, Lathika recalls her favourites, “The Kerala chicken curry is made with coconut milk and is finished with a squeeze of lime. It tastes great with appams or puttu or even Kerala parotta. The prawn olarthiathu is sublime. Vegetarians must try the olan made with red beans and coconut milk. The fresh cashew sauté is a seasonal delicacy that one must try.”
For the Surianis, feasts would be a combination of regular meals with some additional dishes.
“There would be roast duck, chicken, pork, and mutton. Seafood would be included. We fast before Easter and Christmas, after a death, etc. For us, fasting food is ‘light food’ like kanji (rice gruel), chutney, and also moong beans,” she says.