A Syrian Christian bemoans the gradual extinction of certain culinary traditions of her community

Words by Anjuly Mathai; Art by Sruti Menon

My parents are out attending a function and my grandmother and I are having dinner at our home. I watch her hand shake as she stirs a bowl of oats, the lattice of veins on it standing out, bearing witness to the 91 years of her life. Then, the plates are cleared and the tube light is switched off. In the dim glow of the overhead lamp, my grandmother transports me to a different time–her time–when she was a gawky young girl with stick legs and pigtails, eager to bring forth the stories rattling within her.

“I used to play many pretend games in Paroor (a small town in Kerala), where I grew up with my cousins,” she tells me. “Like building a tent out of some blankets and imagining it to be a general store. Everyone would want to be the manager of the store. Or playing ‘school’. Whoever could get hold of a stick would get to be the teacher and we would all have to call them ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. Then we played ‘church’, where a white sheet would be draped over the ‘priest’ and a coconut husk wired with a string would make do for the incense pot. All of us would have a bag made of old rags slung over our shoulders, which would be filled with balls of kaliyadakkappam.”

“What is that?” I ask her.

“It was a sweetmeat dish made by mixing jaggery and cumin into balls and then frying them,” she says. “It was very popular those days because it was easy to make. Another of our favourites was the seed of the jackfruit ground and fried.  In my childhood days, there were no bakery products. Making dishes out of wheat flour was almost unheard of.”

“Then what did your meals consist of?” I ask her.

“When my father, who was a lawyer, moved to Thrissur, we lived in a large 25-acre compound. In it, there were five small tenements where many daily wage workers lived with their families. My step-mother would make kanji (rice gruel) for the workers and my sister and I, too, would have that for breakfast. For lunch, the water would be filtered from the kanji and it would become rice. This would be served with side dishes like boiled achinga (long beans) or koorkka (a kind of tuber). This was the meal for everyone from esteemed guests to daily wage workers.

Once, a forest official called Tharakan came to our house and grumbled about the simplicity of the food he was served. My stepmother told him: “Whether you are Tharakan or thirikan (joker), this is all the food you are going to get in this house”. We used to cultivate large paddy fields. Not once have we given rice grain to be ground at a mill. A blind woman and her son would come home and grind the grain in an ural (a large vessel) with a wooden stick until the husk was removed. The fibrous part of it called bran would remain. None of us bought bran in the form of an oil or powder as you do now. We never had many choices for our meals. But all the dishes were so tasty because they were made of raw products from our own backyard. I still remember the preparations made out of sweet potato and tapioca. Sadly, they’ve become extinct now.”

As my grandmother’s voice peters off, I notice the cacophony of crickets filling the night air. She is lost in reverie and I’m left with a curious sense of loss, a nostalgia for a childhood I’ve never lived. I realise that it is not just traditions that we are losing; it is a way of life that is disappearing with each generation of Syrian Christians.

In my mother’s ancestral home in Kottayam, for example, there was a large wooden granary made of jack tree wood used to store rice for the year. It was located near the kitchen and, as children, we used to hide in its nook and corners during games of hide-and-seek. After my grandmother’s death, the room was converted into a store room; the dark corners lie languid and lonely.

My mother tells me that she remembers the granary as the room where the muram (a flat, shallow bamboo basket) was kept. “I grew up with seven brothers and sisters, so ours was a large household,” she says. “Sometimes a whole jackfruit would be split open and placed in the muram. All of us would sit around, dip our hands into the jackfruit and tear off juicy pieces. It would be extremely messy. Sometimes, while sucking the seed out of a piece, it would get stuck in our throats. These days, mothers will waste no time in rushing their children to the hospital if this happens. But my mother would only scold us and turn a blind eye at our desperate attempts to dislodge the seed.”

Did she, too, share the same food as the servants in her house? “Not really,” she tells me. “When I was young, the servants would be served kanji with inexpensive meen peera (fish cooked with coconut). All of us would be served traditional Syrian Christian dishes like puttu (steamed rice) and appam (rice pancake). But we considered the kanji a very exotic dish. We would beg the servants to allow us to sit with them and eat. Since my mother disapproved of it, we would do it in hiding.”

The Syrian Christians of Kerala are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. St Thomas, the Apostle, is believed to have arrived at the seaport of Muziris in Kerala in AD 52. He converted many people, including several Namboodiri Brahmin families, to Christianity. Most of these early Christians were known as Malabar Christians until the advent of a Syrian merchant called Thomas of Canaan who arrived in Muziris. The Syrians he brought with him and the Malabar Christians intermarried, leading to the birth of the Syrian Christian community in Kerala.

The cooking traditions of the Syrian Christians have evolved over centuries of trial and error and have incorporated Arab, Chinese, Malay, Portuguese and Syrian influences. Some of the traditional Syrian Christian dishes include erachi olarthiathu (fried beef), meen vevichathu (fish curry cooked in a clay pot), ethakka appam (plantain fritters) and kozhukotta (stuffed rice cakes).

These dishes would be cooked in a traditional Syrian Christian kitchen found in ancestral homes like the one in which my mother grew up. Lathika George, in her book The Suriani Kitchen, describes this kitchen. It centred around the hearth which had four to six stoves. The heat of each stove was controlled by the amount of wood placed in the fire. There would be a little stone and mortar pestle in which small amounts of spices or chillies were crushed or powdered. The kitchen countertop held the grinding stone on which most of the daily spices were ground or crushed. A deep stone sink could be found in a smaller room nearby and here the large pots and pans were scrubbed after cooking. The storeroom, usually adjacent to the kitchen, was where large reserves of food staples were kept. Larger homes had separate rooms for storing coconuts and dry wood.

The biggest casualty of our modern day, I feel, is not the loss of traditions but the loss of time. I never seem to have the time for anything, least of all to cook elaborate meals. I have cereal for breakfast, lunch from my office canteen and get fast food delivered to my apartment for dinner.

With the globalisation of cuisine, we appropriate dishes which are from other parts of the world as our own. If you know what Nasi Lemak is, you are worthy of being emulated. If you know how to cook it, you are worthy of being adulated. But breaking an achappam (Kerala style rosette cookie) into five rings and sucking them out of my fingers with messy abandon will always give me more pleasure than learning how to consume a dish of Nasi Lemak with suave finesse.

I miss the ubiquitous presence of jars of achappam and murukku (a crunchy snack made of rice flour) in the cupboard in our pantry; it almost feels like I’m flailing in a calamitous world without any mooring. With the death of my grandmother and her contemporaries, the kaliyadakkappams will die a silent, unmourned death. And with it, the image of a young precocious girl garbed in a white robe and swinging a make-believe incense pot made of a coconut husk, her hands not yet gnarled, her voice not yet quaking…