As the fresh slices of fish crackle in the puddle of coconut oil, absorbing the racy taste of spices, the acidic taste of tamarind and element of curry leaves, the aroma maps the place. The distinctive smell of a platter served at a Syrian Christian family is an irresistible invitation, given the assorted dishes in their menu.
“There is not a single day when we don’t have non-vegetarian food,” says Sumita Verghese, 58, a Malayali Christian from Kottayam who came to Chennai in 1973. “Except for the Lent season, of course,” she adds, while fervently mixing the ingredients for fish curry in an earthen pot. Sumita’s aunt, Aleyamma, is quick to add the significance of these clay pots – “The earthen pots apart from being a healthier option also help retain the taste of the fish, unlike the metallic vessels which may undergo some chemical reaction with the ingredients.”
The kitchen is alive and functioning, right in the morning. It is surprising how, even today, despite the tight schedule, the conventional appams with either mutton or chicken stew is served for breakfast. An alternative would be eggs in their myriad forms – scrambled, poached or roasted. The lunch is another grand event. Kodampulli itta Fish curry (Fish curry using gambooge, a tamarind variety), Fish Molee (Fried fish cooked in coconut milk), Karimeen (Black Pearl spot that is kippered and fried) or Meen Peera (Crispy Nethili/Kozhuva or Anchovies fried in coconut oil) and Beef ulatiyathu (Deep fried Beef) find their way to the dining table almost everyday. Along with this are the flavoursome accompaniments – Moru Kari, which has vegetables mixed in curd and Moru Kachiyathu, yellow seasoned buttermilk that doesn’t include vegetables. The only few dishes in the menu that are palatable by the vegetarian folks are thoran, a mix of vegetables with coconut and Mezhukupuratti, wherein the vegetables are blanched in salt, turmeric, chilli powder and topped with oil. Must be easier to remember this way – Mezhuku refers to oil and puratti is smear in English. “One of the striking features among Malayali christians is the style in which they cook the pork,” Sumita says, halting to taste her fish curry which now has now taken a deep brown viscous form. “It is only cooked as a dry dish, called Pork olathiyathu, unlike among the Goan christians who make gravies out of it,” she continues. The intake of pork among the families has reduced considering the health issues. Also, it is generally not prefered during marriage functions as people in a few regions, towards the South of Kerala consider it against their religion to consume it. “It is believed that when the Satan was being pushed away by the God, he landed on pork,” says Aleyamma animatedly, recounting an incident from the past when a group of guests walked away from the marriage dining hall on being served pork.
Taste a morsel of fish from the freshly made Meen pattichadu, and you would bow to the oceans for providing you with these little aquatic creatures. A signature dish among the Syrian christians, this dish teases the taste buds with its hot and tangy flavour. Gambooge is added along with water and the soft pieces of fish are added slowly into it towards the end. The dish is then left to simmer to get the desired consistency. The result is a plate of fiery red moist piece of fish, which adds a whole new taste to rice or tapioca.
What about spices? “Oh it is to be taken by default,” says Aleyamma. Their dishes are mostly spicy and ‘ginger, turmeric, garlic, chilli and curry leaves are a must in most.’ Meanwhile, Sumathi brings a small green chilli, kanthari mulagu, which she says, is used extensively. The bird’s eye chilli, as it is known in English, shouldn’t be taken for its stunted growth. The piquant taste can almost make one’s hair stand up!
As an aperitif, if it is gooseberry wine now, it was toddy then. Paani and Pazham, banana slices immersed in a sugary syrup of toddy, they say, is the standard conclusive dish in any Syrian Christian wedding. The absence of cakes, which have only gained popularity recently, was then filled by achappam, kozhalappam, Avalos unda and churuttu, all made using rice flour.
“In comparison to others, we have westernised our style of cooking,” Sumita says. “All the traditional dishes are time consuming. No one takes the pain to make them now,” she adds. According to her, it is just a matter of few years before dishes like pidi become extinct. It involves soaking the rice, powdering it and subsequently making small balls out of it. “It is famously called as dumplings,” she says, parallely setting the table for lunch.
The green leaves are spread. Before the steam from rice wears off and the oil bubbles on the beef roast cease rattling, take a bite – a taste of mystique reveling in the rich tradition of Malayali Christians.