In transition - Malayali Culinary habits

A little about the food habits of yore

Early Malabar was quite cosmopolitan, especially around Cannanore, Calicut and Cochin, but we see hardly any permeation of foreign food habits into the Hindu food scene. While Moplah cooking was influenced by the Arabs, the Jews are all gone leaving behind just a few culinary memories. Portuguese and Syrian cooking styles permeated into the Christian community and still dominate their kitchens and we can see clearly the impact the Portuguese had in Malabar cooking. They influenced the recipes, utensils and implements, and a large variety of vegetables and meats entered the cooking scene. As time went by, the austere Malabar kitchen started getting spiced up, not only during festivities, but also in day to day life, as affluence and mobility increased. Let’s take a look.

Well into the past, Ayurvedic concepts ruled strong in upper caste Hindu food habits, and while certain foods were considered hot for the body to be consumed only during monsoon periods, food consumed during the hot summers was of the cooler variety. Vyasa described the food habits of three groups of people, the Rajassic, the Tamassic and the Satvic. The Satvic fellow liked bland food, with little spice and no oil, and it seemingly increased his lifespan, his health, strength, happiness, luster and kept him contended. The Rajassic preferred bitter, sour, medium spicy foods with less oil, but they also increased his thirst, made him sad, prone to diseases, and sickness. The lazy Tamassic tended to eat stale food (more than 1 yama or 6 hours old), those left overs which had lost all its taste and smelled bad!!

Malabar Hindu Culinary history
I will start with the more familiar (to me) Hindu culinary habits in this article and branch into the Christian and Muslim habits later on. As far as the Hindu’s of Malabar were concerned, the various castes handled food habits differently. While the Brahmins were vegetarian, others especially the Nairs, Tiyyas and some lower castes did eat non vegetarian food occasionally, especially fish, but meat was eaten only when available. The vegetarian groups were actually not really influenced by the intensely flavored Tamil cooking from across the border eaten by the settlers who came through the Palghat pass, and those Tamil Brahmins and Chettiars continued with their unique cuisines.

Looking back into my own childhood, I can only recall a limited number of items cooked at home, rice, very light curries such as olan (without coconut milk), mulagushiyam, erissery, mezhukku pirattis and a few other specials during feasts and weddings. Fried Pappadum was a must and so also the lime and tender mango pickles. Until the famine years we had never used wheat at home and it was always rice, with gruel and dryroasted pappadum, if one was sick. Idli, dosa (all eaten with white chutney) occasionally substituted by upma with baked or steamed bananas were eaten for breakfast, and small plantains were eaten as deserts, so also mangoes. That was about it, though I may have missed a few items such as arrowroot pudding and koorka. Unniappam and neyappams were made during festivities sharing the leaf with various payasams, and relished.

Items like Puttu, Appam, Pathiri, Porotta, baked bread, idiappam were never cooked at our home, and as I wrote many years ago, the home I grew up at had a sawdust hearth. Once in a blue moon, we would visit the Imperial restaurant or the Ananda Bhavan in Calicut and feast on items like ghee roast, vadas or Jilebi and mysore pak. Even more rare was Halwa which though staple to Calicut was hardly consumed at home, but banana chips were always stored in the glass jars. Kochoppa (my aunt) kept on the upper rack of the kitchen cabinet. Varathupperi and sharkara upperi were also stored in bharanis, to be eaten while feasting on Sadyas. During vacations at Palghat, the food routine was pretty much the same though we had more fried snacks, prepared by the neighbor Chettiar lady for us.

But first a little tidbit from the etymological world. Old Malabar thrived mainly on one cereal, that was rice, an ancient food article, recorded as way back as 2800BC in China. This was known as vrihi in Sanskrit, warinci and later Arisu in Dravidian languages and as Arruz (orez) in Arabic. Perhaps that was where the Greek word Oruza originated (via Alexander) and well, from that word was eventually born the English term Rice. For the Malayali, rice was and is everything.

Now, let us try and find out what the early medieval food habits were, in Malabar by looking at the journals of visitors like Barbosa and others. While most of the books concentrate on the spices provided by Calicut to the rest of the world, there is very little detail on what Malabar natives ate. From what we do know, we see the following. We note from the Chinese scribe Mahuan’s notes about Cochin and Calicut that rice and ghee were eaten in the 15th century and he also mentions people consuming jackfruit, melons, gourds, turnips. Following him, we see mention of rice and butter(ghee) as well as boiled fish being eaten by natives in Vasco da Gama’s chronicles, circa late 15th. Barboza mentions that our victuals were milk, butter, sugar, rice, preserves of many kinds, many fruits, bread, vegetables, and field herbs; and that Malabar people had gardens and orchards (thodis) wherever they lived.

Pyrard Laval notes in the 17th century that the Zamorin sat upon a piece of well-polished wood, and ate off plantain leaves, that he never ate flesh, fish, he eats nothing but rice cooked with milk, butter, and sugar, and diverse kinds of broths made of vegetables, herbs, melons, cucumbers, and other fruits, such as water-melons (Pasteqiies), etc. He takes his food at noon, and eats but once a day, and is three hours at table. He goes to bed very late, and after a collation of some fruit or preserves of the native sort. Dellon spent his time at North Malabar and notes pretty much the same, adding that North Malabar Nairs liked pork but never ate rabbits, beef or lamb. He does add a bit about toddy drinking, which was quite popular, mentioning also that mangoes were eaten raw or were pickled (called achar even then). Pepper and cardamom from Malabar were excellent though Ceylon cinnamon was far better in flavor. Adding that Cardamom is mainly added to rice by the people of Arabia and Persia, he showcases a differing cuisine among the affluent expatriate trading community. Betel chewing is mentioned by most travelers, and Dellon also mentioned that people generally eat with their backs to the lamp.

The Samkhya triguna system which was the basis behind the Nambudiri and Nair food culture did change over time as the Osellas found and recorded in their studies during a long sojourn in Malabar. They found that it had distilled itself into two broad types of food, the body heaters and the coolers. They conclude - Here, sattvik is associated with ideas of whiteness, brightness, purity, coolness and so on; rajasik is associated with heat, vitality, energy, and the colour red; tamasik is associated with the colour black and with darkness, sluggishness, stupidity and impurity. Social hierarchies are neatly mapped onto this tripartite division over and over, and resistant discourses are few and weak, because the tri gunas system is so all-encompassing, complex and deeply-rooted in Hindu society (of central importance, for example, in Ayurvedic medicine). In that broad classification, Brahmins claim to occupy the sattvic category, stating that typically Christians, Nairs and Izhavas/Tiyyas occupy the Rajasik. The rest who eat without discipline are a confused lot and are Tamasic. The counter argument by the other groups is that vegetarian satvik food provides hardly any nourishment and is useless.

Camöens the Portuguese bard noted so about the Nambudiri’s - To crown their meal no meanest life expires. Pulse, fruit, and herb alone their food requires. Thurston studying the Nambuthiri’s provides some detail –The Nambuthiri staple is rice and curry. Upperi is a curry of chopped vegetables fried in ghee (clarified butter), cocoanut, seasoned with gingelly mustard, salt, and jaggery (crude sugar). Aviyal is another, composed of jackfruit mixed with some vegetables. Sweets are sometimes eaten. Candied cakes of wheat or rice, and rice boiled in milk with sugar and spices, are delicacies. Papadams (wafer-like cakes) are eaten at almost every meal.

The Nambutiri householder is said to be allowed by the Shastras, which rule his life in every detail, to eat but one meal of rice a day, at midday. He should not, strictly speaking, eat rice in the evening, but he may do so without sinning heinously, and usually does. Fruit only should be eaten in the evening. Women and children eat two or three times in a day. A widow, however, is supposed to lead the life of a Sanyasi, and eats only once a day. Tea and coffee are objected to as the Shastras do not permit their use. At the same time, they do not prohibit them, and some Nambutiris drink both, but not openly. The gourd called churakhai, palmyra fruit, and palmyra jaggery are taboo to the Nambutiri at all times.

Water-melons are eaten regularly and Gingelly oil never enters the kitchen. Milk is not taken except as porridge, which goes by the name of prathaman. A bolus-like preparation of boiled rice-flour with cocoanut scrapings, called kozhakkatta, is in great favor, and is known as Parasu Rama’s palaharam, or the light refreshment originally prescribed by Parasu Rama. Conji, or rice gruel, served up with the usual accessories, is the Nambutiri’s favorite luncheon. Cold drinks are rarely taken. The drinking water is boiled, and flavored with coriander, cumin seeds, etc., to form a pleasant beverage. During diksha, as well as during the Brahmachari period, certain articles of food, such as the drumstick vegetable, milk, chilies, gram, dhal, papadams, etc., are prohibited. Garlic and onion are hot and hence avoided.

A number of Namboothiri anacharams had many food related aspects figuring prominently – You must not cook your food before you bathe, You must avoid cold rice, etc. (food cooked on the previous day), You must not eat anything that has been offered to Siva, You must not serve out food with your hands, You must not use the ghee of buffalo cows for burnt offerings, You must not use buffalo milk or ghee for funeral offerings, A particular mode of taking food (not to put too much in the mouth, because none must be taken back) is followed, You must not chew betel while you are polluted,  You must not fast in order to obtain fulfilment of your desires….

LAK Iyer the anthropologist adds - No food should be taken with wet clothing or when quite naked, or sitting at the window and not on the floor, or on a broken plank, or on tiptoe, or lying down, or sitting in the lap of another or from a broken vessel or the bare floor or holding the food in the bare hand without a leaf or a vessel. No salt ought to be served at meals before prayers are over. While sitting at meals children should not be abused. No one should sit by himself for meals, but an enemy, a wife, or one who by caste rules is not allowed to sit in the same line should, on any account, be allowed to sit together for meals. Rice prepared with gingelly seeds as well as curds should not be taken at night, nor milk during day-time. Food ought not to be taken before performing homam (sacrifice) or before one’s parents have taken theirs. Remains and refuse of victuals ought not to be taken. Food should be taken with ghee, it should not be taken outside a house or in view of a great multitude or in an uninhabited house. The stomach should at no time be over-filled. If the food and the acharams are pure, the heart will be pure.

Nairs in general followed the Namboothiri food habits though most the strict compulsions were done away with or relaxed. There are mentions of meat and fowl consumption, albeit rarely and when eating away from home. For a Tiyyan, the staple food is rice with fish curry. The common beverage is conjee, but this is being supplanted by tea, coffee. The lower classes ate rice or rice gruel - konji with a green chilli or some leftover curry from the previous day. Very rarely did they get anything more by way of nutrition in the medieval days. Strangely, the lower castes were not permitted to address the food items in its actual name, and karikadi, was the term used to denote their food.

Tamil or Pardesi Brahmins were also strict vegetarians and teetotalers. Rice is the chief article of food, and other grains such as pulse, black, gram, Bengal gram, and dhal were used in their daily meals. Milk, ghee, curds and butter milk are part of their cuisine. All kinds of vegetables with the exception of potatoes are freely used. Orthodox Brahmans have their dinner between eleven and twelve o’ clock in the morning and supper at eight PM. They too avoided onions and garlic.

That we used the leaves of various vegetables to make ‘upperi’ or stir-fried vegetables is clear from the Puthari event (harvest’s first meal) when the leaves of Chunda, Thakara, Payar, Vazhuthina, Kumbalam etc are used. Similar vegetables are used to usher the event connected with the Karkitakam rains, and you hear of a dish with 8 leaves from Thalu, thakara, payaru, Cheera, mathan, kumbalanga, chena and muringa. They also made a thavidu (kanakapodi) appam. In between meals, one heard of Aval or beaten rice consumption, plain or with some coconut to provide flavor.

Interestingly even in the old days they polished rice to make it white and it was usually called Choru (Bartholomew), and of course matta brown unpolished par-boiled rice was prepared and stored by farmers and landed households. Sweet dishes, especially the dry ones were typically made with beaten rice (aval) and puffed rice (malar). Typically, salaries or work compensation were made with rice and in certain cases, koppu (vegetables and oil required to make side dishes/curries) was also provided, sometimes complete with some cloth.

I will not get into the various caste related issues with respect to eating like who could cook for whom, what defiles a person etc, it is a vast topic and has be treated separately, though it had some impact on what was prepared as food and how it was prepared. The dining hall was a place where pride and power were exhibited, based on caste. In fact, the rules were so strict that even the size of the papadam was regulated based on caste, big papadams could not be fried by lower castes.

Back to food – It is very important to note that in Malabar, food was eaten twice a day, one in the morning (pakal bakshanam) and one at dusk (Athazham). It was not a given that good rice was always eaten in the past, for even in middle class Nair households, low grade rice like Chama, theni, mula nellu, kuvaraku, muthira, payaru based kanjis and puzhukku were the mainstay. On many occasions rice imports were resorted to, rice coming from the SE Asia (Cambodia, Burma) or from the Orissa & Bengal regions.

A look into some Nambuthiri illam records show what food items were required in a kitchen, not really different from a vegetarian home today. Nendra pazham, Chena, Vazhuthinanga, Elavan, Mathan, Vellarikka, chembu, chundanga, achinga, cheera, cheru pazham, thuvar dhal, coconut, muthira, chukka, mulaku, jeerakam, kadugu, turmeric, uluva, uzhunnuparippu, elam, sugar, coconut oil, butter, ghee, chukka, curds and of course pappadam. Often you heard of the exotic vazhapoo thoran or the rarely mader parippu kari and kitchadi.

Aviyal is missing in old Malabar chronicles, maybe it was more from Travancore and as legends put it, an invention by Ramayyan. So also, items like the idli, appam, dosa, rasam all look quite new and don’t figure in the old times. Koova and padachoru are mentioned.

For breakfast it was kanji or water with rice and Puzhukku made from muthira, or chembu, sometimes a kalan with kumbalanga and vazhakka. Not much of oil was used in any cooking, as you can see, even athazham had only rice, a curry and probably an upperi at best. Most people used banana leaves to eat on, but the affluent homes had copper or bronze plates. A traditional feast would comprise usually buttermilk, kalan, upperi – at least two types of mezhukku piratti, chammandi with tamarind & red chilli), injipuli, payasam and water boiled with jeeerakam and muthira to drink.  But nowhere in any chronicle does one item figure, it was totally alien to Kerala cooking – the venerable Samabar (an invention of the Madurai Mahrattas)!!

A very grand sadya had 11 kootukaris, a rich man’s kanji may be boiled in milk, coconut milk was sometimes added, special payasams were made and exotic items such as valsan (ela ada) figured, of course with other fried items such as varthupperi, sharkara upperi, kondattam, uppilittathu, elisseri, olan, pulisseri and so on. Curiously, Palada was abhorred by Nambuthiris, they connected it to animal flesh as it appears, based on texture!! Vermicelli or semiya was a new entrant.

The Tamil brahmin kitchen, or the Nair kitchen had many more Tamil influenced items, using additionally tamarind, jaggery and sometimes honey. Their kitchens had many varieties, such as sambar, kulambu’s, thuvals, perattis, mashiyal, podimas, kootu, sambar and rasam (of course), milagootals, perukku, adai and so on. Not to forget the many fried items like vada, bonda, cheeda etc. They also had the fabulous vepillakatti (made from Kaffir lime or vadukapuli leaves).

I should not forget that all homesteads chewed betel with arecanut and lime, of course. Temple nivediyams is another vast subject, but to quickly summarize, it was not just sweets which were made in temple kitchens, but also regular food for the god, later eaten by the ambalavasis or distributed to others. What did people do after a feast, especially in Namboothiri illams? They chewed betel and narrated poems or boasted and bluffed – vedi parachil as it is called.

As a non-vegetarian item in Tiyya and other Hindu households, we come across only mentions of fish on a day to day basis. Other animal meats were eaten only on special occasions, when a hunter made it available. Other than for some kootu curries, I have hardly seen the use of black pepper and it is unlikely that anybody used spices like cloves, cinnamon, cardamom etc in vegetarian cooking. One dish which proved to be the most popular in today’s Kerala was the 19th century introduction of the Kuzhal puttu made of rice flour and coconut shreds. Puttu in those days was actually known as Kandiappam or Kambham thuri!

Non-Hindu cooking
Syrian Christians and Portuguese Christians had more elaborate recipes influenced by their geographic origins. Kappa which is a mainstay in Travancore today, supposedly came to Kerala in the 19th century during famine years. Potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage were all introduced by the Portuguese and quickly found their way to the Hindu kitchens, except those of the Nambuthiris. Prawns are also fairly recent.

Moplah food started as simple fish-based items eaten together with rice on a daily basis. On festive occasions a large multitude of side items made their entry, again mostly influenced by food from the middle east, typically Yemen and the Emirates, as well as by Mughal and Hyderabadi brethren. Alisa the wheat and meat porridge, tharikanji, samosa and biryanis. Mutta mala, pinhanathappam, pathiri, adukku roti, and what not. Sweet dishes served on festive days are the vazhakari or pidikari made of rice and sugar. Breads such as the pathiris made their way in, neypathiri, vattapathiri, palaroti (with coconut milk), adukku pathiri (layered) erachi pathiri (fried with meat), meenpathiri (stuffed with fish, through Arab traders. Unnakaya (stuffed banana rolls), kozhinirachatu (stuffed chicken), mutta pola, kinnathappam are other noteworthy food items.  A favorite drink was the tari kanji (gruel of rava or sooji) jeeraka kanji (cumin gruel) during festival occasions. The ammayi pattu provides a great list of many such items.

Just go to Calicut and you can find most of them during their festive occasions, though the old fare is quickly giving way to new foods from the middle east like broasted chicken, shawarmas and so on, to satisfy the much travelled or gulf returned Malayali. The Malabar flaky Porotta a staple of today’s Malayali, based on Yemeni origins is relatively recent. However, it is hard not to notice that Moplahs shunned Sambar, idli and Dosa for a very long time and only recently have their taste changed to include these fermented rice dishes.

The Parangis of Cochin inherited a lot, graduating from Canji to canja da galinha (kanji with Chicken), the bole (boli), vindhaloo, stew (a most popular Kerala dish – istew), bachalhou (fish curry), arroz e caril (rice and curry). Many dishes used vinegar instead of tamarind, Barbecued espetada de leitao, bolo de sura (a sweet bun), many of the bakery breads (pao) and biscuits we know today, sowlinge (payasam), all came from Lisbon. Stews were made of pork or beef, and prawn and other sea foods made their entry into the Cochin cuisine through the Portuguese.

The Jewish community had similar fare like vellaappams, kubba (meat and rice balls), pastel ( like a puff), ellegal, chuttulli meen, motta salada (like the mutta mala of the Moplah), adas, churulappams, achappams, ural or halwa, unniyappam, neyappam, Chukunda (like cheeda)  and so on, plus the drink mooli (like panakam)…

The Syrian Catholics too brought in new ideas and some of the snacks and savories such as achappam and kuzhalappam stand tall. The introduced the mappas, or chicken stew, so also Appams (kallappam, vellayappam), Noolpittu or idiappam and many curries to go with it, vegetarian or mostly non vegetarian made with fiery spices and using a good amount of fat. Such curry dishes include piralen (chicken stir-fries), meat thoran (dry curry with shredded coconut), sardine and duck curries, and meen molee (spicy stewed fish). Meen Mulakittathu or Meen vevichathu (fish in fiery red chilly sauce) is another favorite item, Pidi a type of rice dumplings in thick gravy, is a delicacy, so also irachi ularthiyathu.

Many types of alcoholic kallu drinks were available, normal fresh tapped toddy, Poringallu (made from pori and palayamthodan pazham), Madhura Kallu, Nengallu, and of course charayam and arrak, completed alocoholic trysts.

How about grocery shops? They sold rice, pulses, some of the Tamil imports like kappal mulagu, uluva and some of the spices like jerrakam and oil. But one thing had to be purchased, always, that was salt and that is why the British tried to control its sale and use in order to control masses. We will talk about this and the difficulties lower castes had in just buying a paisa worth of salt, another day.

So, what is hot and cold in culinary arguments? The Osella’s explain - Among Hindus, cold foods may be acknowledged as purer and productive of qualities such as calmness and intelligence, while hot foods may be ambivalent: good for some people, such as men who must labor, post-delivery women who are dangerously cool and in need of heating, newlyweds who must raise their thermostat and be ‘hot’, desirous; and bad for others, such as widows, who must not inflame their sexual appetites, or violent people—who should be seeking to calm themselves.

Legends state that for 3,000 years, food habits in Malabar never changed. But I guess it was from the 20th century that things started to change, as the people became mobile. Famine resulted in new grains such as wheat entering the menu, and as Nairs came back from British battalions, Nair hotels or military hotels started. The old hotels were classified as Brahmin hotels or just hotels and people sat and ate on the floor. There were coffee clubs serving coffee, tea and fried snacks and there were ‘meals only hotels’ serving vegetarian fare. The non-brahmin ‘meals hotels’ served rice with fried fish and meat curries, and military hotels were the most famous for biriyanis and non veg curries with chapatis.

Cooking styles and vessels changed, hearths made way to gas stoves, stone, clay and copper vessels were replaced by iron pots, steel and aluminum. Tastes too started to change in tune with the mobile population, the concept of 3 meals came about, more after office routines set in, perhaps matching the European three meal and teatime habit. 

The Malayali girth started to increase, gone was the bony lithe frame and the pregnant look set in as the consumption of oily food, maida porottas and a lot of meat increased, coupled with a lack of any type of exercise.

And then came the gym’s and the ‘back to the roots’ organic food wave…

Castes and tribes of Southern India – Thurston
The Cochin tribes and castes – LA Krishna Iyer
19 am Nootandile Keralam – P Bhaskaran Unny
Ruby of Cochin – Ruby Daniel
Ente Smaranakal – Kanippayur Sankaran Namboothiripad
Portuguese in Malabar, a social history – Charles Diaz
Food, Memory, Community: Kerala as both ‘Indian Ocean’ Zone and as Agricultural Homeland - Caroline Osella, Filippo Osella (South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, n.s., Vol.XXXI, no.1, April 2008)
Maddy's Ramblings - The story of Aviyal

This article was inspired after listening to Manjusha's recent Kootam Koodal session. Manjusha takes us back to those days through her blog