It was a relaxed evening on a regular school week, I was 9 years old and nursing a hunger after rigorous play-time with friends in the neighborhood. I usually would ask my maid Lakshmi to fix me a snack, but that day I asked her to teach me to cook. So, we chopped up some tomatoes and onions, threw in some spices and seasoning and had a quick side dish to go with home made flatbread.
Food has always been a central activity with my family; and the act of preparing, almost sacred. Food was what got the family together. We never were the type to play board games or gather around for a movie; we washed, cut, sautéed, marinated and cooked wholesome good food. During the summer, my uncles, aunts and cousins would gather at my grandparent’s place in the Malabar region of Kerala. It was a large house with a huge backyard, surrounded by trees, and this allowed an urban kid like me to run amok amongst the trees, the livestock and the vast natural spaces. As I grew older, the running was replaced by a pulp fiction in hand and music blaring through my headphones. Through all the years that my grandparents lived in that house in the hills, there always was this one tradition of the family coming together to cook a large meal.
The menu for the big meal would take shape during the previous day’s dinner;where, over fat grained boiled rice, crispy fried spicy beef and flavorful fish curry the adults planned on what to cook. As little brats, we would sometimes throw in our contribution for a chicken curry and dessert.
The next day, the preparations would begin post a breakfast of appam -stew that was washed down by hot milky tea. The ladies of the house would pile up vegetables in large bamboo trays and carry them to a table in the backyard. They would sit and precariously slice juicy red tomatoes, fragrant ginger, heady garlic and red onions. As conversation ensued, the vegetables would be sliced to perfection in length and size. The menfolk would lay out large wooden tables, washed clean and knead dough for Kerala porotta. Meanwhile, my grandmother would oversee the work in progress and prepare milk paayasam as dessert after the heady meal.
The meat would be marinated, and the onions fried transparent to give way to a succulent juicy chicken curry, slow cooked in thick coconut milk. As kids, the porotta was always entertainment value for a meal. The soft bread being almost pastry in its layers, makes a threaded heap when torn into bits.
After the bread was made, the meat cooked and dessert cooled, we kids would lay out the table and carry trays of air filled- crispy papads, home-made pickles, dried fried bitter gourd, salted fried chillies and other small accompaniments to the meal. We would all sit around the table and tuck into the wholesome food in a humid Kerala summer with plenty of conversation and laughter.
Being in a foreign country far away from the home and the Hills of Malabar, today I was reminiscing about the old days and food traditions of my family with my better half over, my version of a Mediterranean platter – Whole Wheat Pita Bread, Hummus, Greek Yogurt and some healthy vegetables.