From the kitchens of Kerala
Traditionalist, textile enthusiast and cookbook author Sabita Radhakrishna talks about her recently launched Paachakam, a curation of traditional recipes from six communities in Kerala
Published: 12th December 2022 01:24 AM | Last Updated: 12th December 2022 01:24 AM | A+A A-
CHENNAI: Octogenarian Sabita Radhakrishna grew up in a household where education was paramount. “My father used to say that there is enough time for me to learn (cooking),” she says during our conversation. This “small eater” loved her mother’s cooking, who excelled in traditional food. It was only after Sabita’s marriage that she set foot into the culinary world. “I was not even equipped to make a cup of tea. My husband is a foodie and was very particular about what he ate. They say, a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. And so, I used to write to my mother for recipes; her reply would reach me in two weeks, and then I used to prepare exactly as she mentioned,” she recalls.
And such are the wheels of time that she is now an author of three cookbooks. Her recent book, Paachakam - Heritage Cuisine of Kerala, delves into the traditional dishes of six communities in Kerala Nairs, Syrian Christians, North Malabar Thiyas, Moplahs, Cochin Jews, and Nambuthiris & Poduvals along with some classic favourites and the sadhya.
Whipping up cookbooks
With each chapter having an illustration by Nupur Panemanglor and photographs by Sumanth Kumar, the book is beginner-friendly and easy to comprehend. A page has been dedicated to explaining the various equipment used in a Kerala kitchen.
A traditionalist and active revivalist of textiles, arts and crafts, Sabita shares, “I feel that in this age we are losing the traditional touch. We are going in for foods that are alien to us. I’m not saying it’s wrong; I also eat different types of food and make them at home. That’s all very well but do not lose your traditional legacy, your heritage in any sphere or culture, and food is no exception.” The lack of record of recipes passed on from mothers and grandmothers coaxed her to document them in her first book, Aaharam. “Certain things, when not done for a long time, you forget that recipe.
That is what prompted me to do Aaharam, which won the Gourmet International Award for the best cookbook of the year. It encapsulated only my mother’s recipe and she used hand approximation for ingredients. But to write a cookbook you have to standardise the exact quantity and even now, very strangely, though I might have done these recipes a hundred times, I still refer to the book because if you follow these quantities and measures, our dish will taste the same each time,” she says.
Her efforts were noticed by Roli Books who invited Sabita to do Annapurni: Heritage Cuisine for Tamil Nadu, a book on traditional recipes from Tamil communities of Tamil Nadu. Soon, they invited her to do a book on Kerala. “I have the nose for vetting out recipes so it was challenging and interesting for me to choose people who are excellent cooks and note down their family recipes,” she shares.
Choosing these people was a difficult process. But trusted friends and their families came to her rescue. “Initially, I used to travel a lot to Kerala for textile exhibitions. I have stayed with Mrs KM Mathew and I was fascinated by her repertoire of dishes. I have read her books too. Another friend was Mrs BF Verghese — both of whom have passed away. Then I realised there was a lot to Malayalee cooking, they have an identity of their own, and they stick to traditions. I, of course, have my big circle of friends and I know that some of them have a reputation for being excellent cooks. I didn’t go to them directly without doing a little research. After that, they readily agreed to share their recipes. From each Kerala community, I took one person as a reference. I would come back to this main hostess with the dishes I tried and they would give their feedback and have their final say,” she explains.
So for the Nair recipes, Sabita hit up Meera Nair, Usha Chandrakumar for Poduval recipes, Bina Ram Mohan and Thulasi TP for Thiya recipes, and Ummi Abdulla for Malabar dishes. Friends like Mary Sebastian from Dubai helped her recreate some complicated dishes and Leela Samson introduced her to Bene Israel Jewish recipes.
Doling out dishes
Sabita’s home in Chennai is a haven for anyone who loves food. She loves having people over and there is always food to serve them. There is a strange bonding that has developed over time with her family members as well as friends. A praise or two from her guests has kept her going all these years. A history and heritage enthusiast, Sabita often had customers from Kerala come to her boutique in Chennai where, besides shopping, conversations would come alive. That’s how she learned about the different communities in the state and how different their foods are.
Sabita tried out all the recipes, checked with people who gave the recipe, gave them something to sample, and made the required changes in quantity based on the feedback. Sometimes, she would also visit the home of the person who gave the recipe to understand more.
She noted that apart from coconut being a common thread in all the recipes, there is ample use of curry leaves and spices as well. “There is pepper in many of the dishes. When Tamilians fry fish, we don’t necessarily put pepper in our curries or the fry, but here the addition of pepper makes it a little different. They add all other spices too. Cardamom is aplenty so they use it a lot for the payasam. They use what is available in their district or region,” she shares.
Served with respect
Since the time she was commissioned to write this book, Sabita had delved into making Kerala cuisine every day for almost a year. And there was a major myth that she busted. “After my husband developed heart disease, we swore off coconut entirely. Though our cholesterol was at border level, we were told it wasn’t good for the heart. When I started researching for this book, I had to make the dishes. I took a risk, and for a year I cooked only Kerala food for my family. I had to wade through 200-250 recipes before the final selection. At the end of the year when we took our test, the bad cholesterol had come down and the good cholesterol went up and the ratio was excellent. Now I cook everything in coconut oil, which is considered the safest oil for deep frying too,” she explains.
While it is difficult for her to choose one dish as her favourite, Sabita does have a few picks. “I like their fish curries. Each one has a different take on it. Meen pollichathu which is made using pearl cottage fish wrapped in banana leaf, with pudina chutney filling, steamed or baked is delicious. I like simpler dishes like nei choru made with seeraga samba rice, and I am also fond of Thalassery biryani,” she says.
Sabita wants this book to resonate with the younger generation. For her, there is nothing like opening a book, smelling it, taking it into the kitchen and having it smeared with turmeric and chilli powder. “It is fascinating to know of some recipes somebody has cooked. They are the experts. So I would like youngsters to not lose their heritage, respect it and treasure recipes left behind by our mothers and grandmothers,” she signs off.
On the route to recording forgotten recipes, finding Cochin Jews was a challenge. “At the time of writing, there were only five Cochin Jews left in Cochin. I wanted to go and meet them, but couldn’t go. Later, when I planned to go, there was not a single Cochin Jew left. So, a friend told me she knew some Bene Israel Jews who migrated and were living in Mumbai and Australia. It is a conjecture that they could have been connected to the Cochin Jews. So, I took a chance,” she says.
Another interesting tale is that of the North Malabar Thiyas, who had unique baking techniques. “They have influences from Arabian cuisine as well. They have a fantastic range of cakes. In all of their dinners and lunches, they will serve cakes. It is a speciality and legacy left behind by the Portuguese, the French and all who came in as traders and invaded the place,” she says.