The cookers

No, I am not writing about the prestige or the Hawkins varieties or the newfound space age stuff which one sees these days. I wanted to actually introduce to you a very special variety of people, the ‘Dahannakkaran pattar’ of Palakkad. Of course many know of them after the lovely Kamal Hassan movie Michael Madana Kamarajan where he and his father represent one such cooking team. Here is a small youtube video (The Palakkad pattar enters the scene after 1’30”) to introduce their special Malayalam and mannerisms, half Tamil, half Malayalam.

We see movies of Malabar weddings, we see movies of North Indian weddings, but a real Palakkad wedding is incomplete without this cooking team, and I myself cannot forget Parthan Pattar and his entourage. When a festivity was planned in our Nair Tharavad, our family matriarch, i.e. my grandma fondly called Amma, a slightly stentorian person herself, would send the Karyasthan to summon Parthan the cook, the previous morning. Parthan would then be seen hurriedly ambling along the road destined for our house. A lean man, with a slightly discolored dhoti, umbrella in one hand and a set of cooking implements in his other hand all the time, he was one who walked with a worried countenance, Parthan in spite of his busy life, was in reality a humble chap and would come through, pushing open the creaky front gate with peeling blue paint and walk across the gate pillars with twin elephants into the Nalu kettu. Sometime I wonder how those elephant statues got there, maybe a symbol of lost glory of the Tharavad, perhaps. It was in that area, many centuries ago that a wealthy Nambuthiri Illam existed.

My grandma, who was arthritic, would be seated in her chair on the portico, grandly overseeing the activities around and Parthan would stand in front of her, arms crossed. She would say, ‘Parthan we need all the usual for the feast and plenty of snacks (Palaharam), laddu, jilebi, mysore pakku, murukku, muthuswaram, thenkuzhal, etc for the snacks. What new things have you learnt for the main courses?’ And Parthan would come up with something new each time, after all he had to innovate to stay in business, and the crafty man always did that, learning all kinds of new things from his Bombay connections. He would come up with some new type of sweet like Badhusha, or some multicolored vegetable biryani, pulav or chana masala - poori and so on - all exotic vegetarian (only vegetarian fare has ever been served at home) stuff to the wide eyed people of a land around nowhere, Pallavur, somewhere in the shadows of the Palghat Western Ghats section, some 12 miles off the town, as the crow flies..

These Bombay connection pattars had relatives in Bombay. As time went by and the temples and Tharavads became poorer, the need for pattars for festivities and other matters were shrinking. Many migrated to Bombay or Madras, though mercifully Parthan did not. Some families did well and did not want their fathers to continue in this ‘useless’ low level business. And so, this was a dying breed even in those days. But for us in Pallavur, we had the great cook Parthan (though he lived in the neighboring village – Kudallur), a genius who could cook for a few hundred people with his two to three man team. When elders crossed on the road and talked of the upcoming festivity, the question always was, ‘who is cooking, is it Parthan?’ And the wise karanavar would nod his head in the affirmative.

The Pattars of palakkad are a special breed as I explained already; I need a whole blog to write about them, how they came, how they settled in a few gramams, the connections with the Zamorin and so on. It would be interesting only for certain people though. I must also mention here in passing that the community produced so many famous people that I can think of. Remember Sheshan, MS Viswanathan, and now Vidya balan? And for a select few who like history there is a wonderful history teacher and writer. My uncles had been his students and he wrote the books ‘Zamorins of Calicut’ and ‘History of Kerala’ the renowned teacher of history at Zamorins College Calicut - KV Krishna Iyer. I still have in my possession an autographed history book he gifted to an uncle, and by the way, he was from our part of the world. I guess, that after him, and probably my uncle, very few have shown interest in history of Malabar. I hope I am doing some justice to Iyer’s memory at least blogging on historic topics…

Ah, I am digressing, but just one more line – Sheshan mentioned that Palakkad has a number of pattars, they make the best bureaucrats and cooks. The Palghat Brahmins, said Seshan another time, came to excel in four fields, as civil servants and musicians, cooks and crooks. I wrote some time ago about the last variety by introducing Swaminatha Pattar. But now I am finally back to the topic, the cookers of Palakkad.

The next day Parthan would arrive early in the morning. It took me a while to get into his good books; normally kids just flashed by grabbed some snack and vanished off the kitchen area before Parthan could react, for they knew their home territory better than this cook. Having seen this at every house he cooked in, he came up with his own crafty plans, he would put the vegetable cutter near one door and the other at a second door doing murukku or something so that the area was well cordoned off. Parthans implements that I referred to were simple, they were a collection of knives, long handled stirrers, Janghri karandi for lifting cooked stuff from oil or making boondhi for laddus. I can still picture them at work, Parthans veggie cutter sitting at the muttu kathi and slicing away. It was awesome for me, this guy was sliding the vegetables across the razor sharp vertical blade between his legs, not even looking at it. They dropped at a blurring speed on the tray below, to be hefted off into the boiling pots…Parthan’s Sambar and rasam or lime pickles are the standard, I guess, if I were to set one.

Oh I forgot, the previous day morning, he would have given a long list of provisions needed for the feast and naturally conducted a lengthy argument with my grandma on why so much of each was needed. Grandma would then ask the second level Karyasthan cum cart man to get the bullock cart ready and head off to Alathur. Now some of you may not know the place, it is about 5-6 miles from Pallavur and has a market and some shops. So Eaacharan the cartman would head for this area on the cart, slowly humming under his breath and talking to the bullocks. I had the good fortune to be permitted once to go in the bullock cart for that purchasing spree. There he would take me to the chips shop where a Koya made heavenly coconut chips ( It has been a bone of contention with my wife who is from Calicut – she says Calicut chips set the gold standard and I would maintain that the Alathur version is in no way inferior – actually I would say they are better). Now after many years, we have agreed to disagree, but the secret was that this Koya had come from Calicut in the first place. OK, where were we, ah! I would be given a small sampler packet with 50 gms of chips to munch. One or twice I tried to get the bullocks to try a couple of chips, but they looked away in disdain (probably hated coconut oil) and dripped saliva all over my chips making me throw them away with much sadness.

By the way some years back I had written about the incredible trip that this very bullock cart took from Pallavur to Tampa in Florida. Those who are interested may check this out.

And thus the laden cart and we retraced the steps to Pallavur, the metal lined wheels grinding the tar road and the rhythmic tap tap of the bullock’s iron shoe clad feet lulling me to sleep. Sometimes it was the sonorous or was it tunelss nadan pattu from Eacharan who had a quick swig of Kallu(toddy), which did it.

Soon we were back and the sacks were put in the kitchen. The women cleared the kitchen by 6PM the previous evening. Parthan came by in the evening and set up some of the stuff for the next day and did some of the grinding work etc. I would sidle up to the chap and ask questions, how much chilli, how much color or sugar and so on. Soon he found me harmless enough to let me into the kitchen as he and his assistants cooked. He would ask me about Calicut where I had studied. Parthan always wanted to know about these new places. But he himself strayed only some 10-15 square miles around the village in those days.

The next day, at the stroke of dawn, or shall I say the first rays of dawn, Parthan would come, accompanied usually with two or sometimes three understudy’s. Soon they would get to serious work. I do not remember anymore the exact progression, but I think they made the sweets first, Boondhi, Jalebi or Jhangri and Mysore pakku. Then he made the hot mixture and started with the Thenkuzhal, Murukku and Muthuswaram. Later he experimented a bit and he would try out some banana chips, some quarter banana chips, sharkara varatti chips and so on (I would be nearby asking questions, chattering away and sampling the cooked stuff. Strange as it may seem, all my life I have loved watching cooking and I am a reasonably good cook as well). After all the Palaharam work was done, he would start with the special dinner items. Sometimes his commission ran into the next day and he had to make breakfast (Medu vada, Iddli, chatni, Dhideer Upma, Poori masala and so on) and the grand lunch – usually a marriage reception under the shamianas in front of the house for a relative where the entire desham attended (Some other day I will tell you about my own wedding and my wife’s thoughts of all this, coming from a more modern Calicut city atmosphere).

Parthan was indeed a fantastic cook, he cooked for probably two or even three of our generations, I am told he still is going strong and even doing parallel wedding sessions with his brother and two or three ‘shingidi’s’.

Parthan’s modern experiments were Ok, though not spectacular. The people of Pallavur who were so used to his food of course liked the change, but for us who came for Parthan’s originals, the badhushah or the stiff jalebi were a disappointment. We would end up complaining to grandma and she would bawl at Parthan and Parthan would sulk, casting a forlorn glare at me since I did not support him. Ah, all those memories, grandma is gone, my mother is no more and the Tharavad nalukettu stays locked. All we are left with are fond memories of many a great festivity in that home and people like Parthan who enriched and enlivened it. Parthn’s story is typical of many nice people who worked behind the scenes, and made all our memories richer. Little did we know about their own lives or families, guys spending day & night in kitchens and hot firewood stoves, bleary red rimmed eyes and sometime a racking cough from the smoke & dust…The thin and gaunt frame, the bent back and the man on a trot, Parthan actually came up in my thoughts when I read Abe’s blog on Anna Chedatti – the village savoury maker.

These were the people who brought Tamil cooking to Palghat and Carnatic music to our daily lives…The priestly class who were not allowed to conduct poojas & prayers at the temples by the Namboothiris, living a special life in their small and dark agraharams and madams.. Ah so many stories on them…but another day. I will tell you about my trip to Palani to attend a Brahmin wedding..

And now something about the Ambi community – Let me first introduce you to Shenha’s blog a Palakkad Iyer herself talking about them, or read this lovely piece from KV Krishnan.

So they are the cookers – Sorry guys, this is a classic unstructured rambling, please forgive the style, but it was just that I felt like it…Think of it like you hear it from an old and wheezing uncle you met after many years…Some might ask why I titled it cookers, the reason is the following, I heard somebody, some visitor from some other god forsaken village (of course), ask Parthan what he did as Parthan was sitting at the table after his efforts and eating the food like some other late comers. Calmly he answered ‘naan oru cooker aakum’.


Nice recollection. Well narrated. In Bangalore, food is one thing that I badly miss! All the good food is costly and in every hotel the sambar is unbearable! To read a blog like this, makes me want to eat a feast like that. But let me try to cook atleast lemon rice and tomato rice tomorrow - I have been inspired by you (Actually I can cook rice, but nothing else). :-)

Destination Infinity
Good stuff Maddy - awaiting more Palakkad posts.
Happy Kitten said…
sigh.. your narration had to end!

the Calicut chips r one of a kind.. cant disagree...

thought even the pattars could do poojas in the temples..

Seshan is one lion.. the one who showed that the country has a department called Election Commission!

nd what about the Potti's are they similar to Pattar.. Mavelikara used to have one such Potti hotel and the lunch that it served was heavenly....
narendra shenoy said…
I've eaten from the hands of one of these. They are truly unsurpassed. The tastiest food in the world, and without non-veg, onion or garlic. Amazing food. Beautifully written, as usual. I wish it wasn't so well written, though, because it is around lunch time here. I'm going to be fantasizing about this as I wade through my lettuce sandwich
Anonymous said…
What a simplistic self-intro!

Nice read Maddy.
Though the style is different,I loved this one too in spite of the expatiated tone.

I have been to KeralaIyers site earlier and has a lot of interesting stuff to read.Thanks for the link to Snehavenkat's blog.

Thanks Maddy.
Anonymous said…
I hate it when you write about food. Incidentally, I did make Malabar Chicken Biryani. And then Malabar Chicken Curry. And then Malabar Egg Curry - all thanks to you. But looking for a cooker in Seattle is going to be a bit more challenging :P

Nice one!

Though unstructured, it was quite interesting and absorbing. While I was under 20, I remember to have visited Alathur. There was a brahmin hotel near a talkies owned by one Krishnamurthy. I also remember to have gone to Pushpagiri walking all the way. I do not remember whom I met. Well things are fading out of memory. If I try all night, I may get to that.
Anonymous said…
Beautiful narration. After reading the post, I am hungry! :)
Anonymous said…
Hi Maddy

Enjoyed this piece-anything to do with food,esp naadan gets my undivided attention.The only problem then,is you wish you could taste all that now!

I thought uzhunnu vada was called as such all over kerala and medhu outside it.Certainly we thekkanmaar call it uzhunnu vada!

Abs agree with Palakkad Pattanmaar-they are a special breed.Very clever and creative.

Anonymous said…

Are you sure that MSV was a pure Palakad pattar? As he was called Swamy,I also thought he was one. But one of my friends said that he is a Nair, as his mother's grandfather was one, and Kerala Hindus follow the matriachial system?

Whether Nair or Pattar he was a brilliant music director.

Anonymous said…
Also liked the usage 'cooker'.
Even though it is commonly used to describe a cooking utensil [and sometimes frowned upon by purists if used to describe a person],it also means someone who is employed to operate cooking utensils for the commercial preparation of food.[does that mean you cannot use it to decribe someone who does not cook for commercial purposes?!!]

Maddy said…
Hi DI,

I agree with you on the Bangalore sambar - phew they put sugar in it!! I remember a few mallu places there.. koshy's and coconut grove or something like that!! but good mallu veg maybe difficult to find.. I heard that there is a great place in chennai though..

Thanks BPSK - ok will do some more Palakkad posts, am planning a quick visit soon, so that will be inspiration

Thanks HK..

Difficult to answer your Potti question properly, it is a complex one. Typically Kerala Brahmins of Travancore are classed under this genre and yes, they can perform poojas. But you do not really see many in Malabar. You see embranthiri's of course from tulunaad.
Maddy said…
thanks anonymous & nikhil..
the kerala iyers site is pretty interesting, i agree.

Thanks litteratuse, am happy to have inspired cooking in you..yup agreed, finding cookers out there is tough, probably easier in the east cost...

thanks narendra..long time no hear..maybe you should convince begum to pack a small tiffin carrier - two or three tier instead?? lettuce sandwich? yow....
Maddy said…
thanks PNS.. I am not sure if the ambi vilas hotel is still around, but i doubt if there are any changes.

thanks aparana - do visit often

thanks alex..

yes, it is uzhunnu vadai, but in palakkad, usually we just say vadai, i recall tamil & palakkad pattars also say medu vadai - parupuu vadai is not so popular for feasts etc..

Ah! you caught me there, i had to check and found some indignant notings from certain people here & there that MSV is not a Brahmin, sorry there, i stand corrected..

Wow - I am sure Parthan had no clue about the proper definition when he said that..I was always under the impression that cookers generally are of the inanimate kind..
In our Madam, we used to get the services of a Poti. I was told by my father (more than 5 decades ago) that they too are brahmins from the Tulu country. Kindly let me know about the imbrandiris as well. Any reference material?
Maddy said…
hi PNS, thanks, yes, there is good reference material in Travancore state manual by Aiya and Thurston's castes of S India, but for now you can get a quick answer here
Thanks Maddy for the link. I am enlightened.
Reshmi said…

Actively tracking blogs of pals after quite sometime, and I have to say that this post has refreshed me. All the dishes tasted at different Pattar friends house is doing a slideshow in my mind, and melting to warm saliva in my mouth...:D

Lage raho with your recollections...Fantastic read!

kallu said…
Nice slice of a lifestyle that has passed away. But movies like MMKR do keep the flavor around.
Maddy said…
Thanks reshmi.

i should be seeing parthan soon, I guess

thanks kallu..
My folks are from Palakkad, and though by now, I have hogged on food from all parts or Kerala, even the prospect of an authentic Palakkadan Pattar made sadya makes the taste buds all weak with hunger. Informative, yet poignant read.
harimohan said…
njaan oru kooker aakum i liked that bit the best njoyd the post maddy
Maddy said…
thanks hari..