Rediscovering one’s hometown through a few romantic culinary adventures

Words by Lakshmi Krishnakumar; Art by Javed Imthiaz

I cleaved the mussel shell apart; the rice flour filling the cavity of the shell was crisp-fried on the outside but revealed a half-cooked mass inside, spiced with chillis and fenugreek, with a stray curry leaf, and, of course, the mussel pod lacing. A bit of the ocean engulfed by the fruits of the monsoon and the fields. Behind me, the ocean lashed its waves on the beach. It was close to dusk. Kids played on the sand or sucked slices of pickled mangoes and papayas. Middle-aged women in headscarves stood by small carts selling paper-cups filled with shaved ice, topped with tutty-fruity and honey, which would soon melt in the setting sun. Kozhikode (a city in the coastal state of Kerala in south India) lay out all her glory in the evening. The musliyar called out from the mosque and clouds gathered over the Arabian Sea. My kalumakkai nirachathu (stuffed mussel) lay prised apart in my palms. As I bit into it, the spiciness brought to me our conversations of why I would love Kozhikode. For its food.

He had always told me that if not for the bookstores, the plays at Tagore Hall or the quiet afternoons that I could possibly spend at Mananjira Park, I could always come back to Kozhikode for the food. I thought it was a bit too much to ask for. Of course, one always associated tastes with the place and the weather. But so far, the taste of Kozhikode for me was that of spiced biriyani from Paragon hotel, which was as much a part of my summer holidays as my grandmother’s empty insulin bottles were. Moving to Kozhikode from Chennai, which was home for all these years, was going to take some work, and food wasn’t going to hurt, I figured. He was another reason I knew I would come to love this place that I was to call home.

Talk to anyone from any part of Kerala and they would readily acknowledge that Kozhikode is the food capital of the state. How this reputation came to be still beats me, but this is something that I take much pride in and something that now becomes a winning trump card in any discussion about the perks of living in the Malabar.

The first time we went for a walk, we had just left a play halfway through. We passed the fish market–silvery fins glistening under the incandescent bulbs. Fresh fish–cut and uncut–prawns in heaps and side-sections of shark, mackerels and sardines, all lay on the tiled slabs, covered with crushed ice that dripped slowly to the ground, where cats stood in silent wait for a fish-head to be cut and thrown. The smell of fresh fish was always the smell of monsoon love and home for me since that night. When my mother–whose religious vows stops her from eating any seafood–picks out the clay pot to make her raw mango and fish curry, spiced with turmeric, I know what the house will smell of that night.

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His palate yearned for my mother’s vegetarian dishes. Decades of living in Tamil Nadu had given my mother’s cooking some distinctly non-Malayali flavours. Green tomato chutney, stir-fried cowpea beans, carrots and beans cooked with chopped coconuts–all tasting of coconut oil and vaguely carrying the burnt flavour of our china pan. The overwhelming Tamil flavours of turmeric and tamarind made her cuisine a pan-South Indian one. On Vishu, we would eat the malayali aviyal (assorted vegetables cooked in curd) and end the meal with the Madras Brahmin dish of ground green mango, cooked with bitter neem flowers and jaggery, one for all the tastes that should be ushered in the New Year. Vegetarian dishes that had defined my childhood now suddenly took on the feeling of longing. Staying away from home for most of my adult life was only part of this feeling. Meeting him was synonymous with me opening up my senses to everything that transpired in the kitchen early in the morning, when my mother–the back of her floral night-gown damp from the wetness of her freshly washed hair–would scurry around in the tiny space, scourging for almost-forgotten spices. This way, he became home, he became Kozhikode, and more importantly, he became the food that defined both for me.

He taught me how to make suleimani–no lemon, that was his first rule. Elaichi (cardamom) and cinnamon, ground and boiled with tea-leaves, covered for a minute and then drank. From afternoon experiments, slowly suleimani became my late-night drink. The ready-to-drink Kashmiri kahwahs of my hostel life were a distant memory as I sipped his suleimani, with the monsoon beating outside my window.

It wasn’t just the way he loved food that set me thinking about how much of him I see every day in everything I ate in Kozhikode. When he cooked, he did it with the artistic flair that it deserved. Onion peels were readily discarded, Baburaj (a famous music composer from the region) sang somewhere and his fingers moved deftly along the baskets of vegetables in the fridge, looking for what he wanted. He would smile as I washed the dishes after his cooking, clanging the pots along the steel sink and making fun of my lack of domestic talents. These moments would later accompany my nights, when I would have nothing except my solitude as company.

During Ramzan, I would walk along the Kuttichira streets, near the temple, looking at the stalls of snacks for breaking the fast–rice breads fried with chicken, pies of egg, raisins and cashews, bananas stuffed with coconut and sugar. Girls in headscarves would smile and buy these to take home. I would buy those too, but with a sense of loss that I know would mar any thought of him for the rest of my life. In spite of the closeness of his way of life, and his food, we would still be strangers to each other in many ways. His food, my mother’s cooking, these were just doors for us to love each other through. They wouldn’t be shut, but like all doors, one day, going through was going to be tough. Because then, knowing him through his food would just not be enough. But till that day of dissatisfaction arrives, I had my cleaved mussels that I could bite into, while he opened and smelled the different jars of pickled vegetables along the beach.