KOCHI: Lush green paddy fields, fresh catch from backwaters and earthy fragrance of red soil. Pleasant memories and simple pleasures of growing up in Ponnani Taluk in Kerala often flash through Othaloor VijayaDass Nair’s mind. Cooking has been a part of her genes. So is the love for her hometown and coastal cuisine. She vividly remembers grinding masalas at the age of eight for her mother Othaloor Sarojini amma’s heirloom fish curry. Kitchen has always been Vijaya’s happy place since childhood.
“We lived in a joint family...four generations lived together. My father was a hotelier. Our family business was agriculture and renting land for farming. Food would be freshly prepared for the day and served to all our workers. Evenings were incomplete without fish fry. Anybody who came home would walk out only after eating a hearty and satisfying meal. I continue to practice that. Even today we gather for festivals and important occasions at our ancestral house, and I take over the kitchen,” says a soft-spoken Vijaya, who worked for 15 years in the fisheries cooperative sector.
The home chef moved to Chennai after marriage in 1987. She has been residing in Perambur for 35 years, and has a daughter. Fondly called Viji by her family members, she strongly believes that cooking is a lifelong skill. Viji looks up to her mother from whom she has learned the tricks of the trade. Sharing a few tips that anyone can follow at their home, she says, “If you keep the previous day’s fish curry in mud pot for the next day, splash cold water and then eat. Add a spoon of coconut oil to prevent it from getting spoilt. Likewise, for omelette, use small onions and coconut oil for taste and fluffiness. In palada payasam, add a scoop of butter after preparation as a final touch. This will give it a glazed look. These are the things I Iearned from mother and it helps retain originality in my cooking.”
Although Viji misses food from her hometown, she enjoys preparing authentic Kerala food in her house with the home-ground masala. She purchases tamarind and coconut whenever she goes to Kerala. “Be it water, oil or freshly grown vegetables, the native touch is irreplaceable. To date, I prepare onion chutney by grinding onions in ‘ammi kal’ and not a mixer. Old habits never die. My daughter’s friends love this cuisine. So I prepare it often for them,” she says.
Every year on Onam, around 30 members gather at her house for Onam sadya. Right from pazham pori to fish curry, there’s always food at home served with love and affection. “I see the love for Kerala cuisine increasing day by day in the city. Many have come from there and settled here. I ask my daughter to take me to restaurants serving other cuisines because I will never be satisfied with the taste at an eatery that serves Kerala cuisine here. I also watch chef Damu’s programmes to learn local Tamil cuisine. Vada curry and kurma are my favourites. We are also working on our brand called Viji’s Adukala that will be launched on the EAT app platform next year,” says Viji who wants to make the best out of upcoming opportunities to share her knowledge and expertise in cuisine with others.