I don’t have any Mallu friends. It is the only reason I can think of for not knowing anything substantial about food from ‘God’s Own Country’. Further absolving myself of all responsibility, I also blame Bombay. With barely a handful of Keralite restaurants, the city is seriously lacking in culinary representation from the spice capital of India.
So when I heard about an economist from Kerala, living in Bombay, wanting to invite ten strangers to share a dining table for a taste of her traditional home cooking… I would have been a fool to say no.
Sneha Nair’s recipes and kitchen tricks are the result of long-distance phone calls with her mother and peering over her aunt’s shoulder as she cooked. Sneha may be a self-taught cook, but my introduction to this glorious cuisine could not have been more perfect. My first ever Keralite meal was – a sadya, the traditional, all-vegetarian feast served at festivals and celebrations.
That Sunday afternoon, ten strangers picked their own banana leaf to eat on, arranged themselves on the floor, and waited for feast to begin. Sneha served us each dish herself, suggesting the ‘correct’ way to eat each item but also encouraging us not to get too distracted by custom.
First came eight chutneys and sides including the raw mango chutney manga peraku, a sweet and sour puliyinchi, lime pickle vadukapuli achar, banana chips, raw jackfruit chips and the moreish banana and jaggery sarkara upperi. The crowd pleaser was most definitely the pachadi, pineapple, coconut and yoghurt transformed into a tangy creation.
Then arrived the vegetables, a riot of colours dancing on my bright green leaf – avial, kaalan, kootcurry, carrot and bean thoran, cabbage thoran; and olan, where two of my favourite ingredients – pumpkin and coconut milk – come together in a delicately textured mild curry.
Next we were served a daal with ghee, aubergine and okra sambhar and pineapple rasam. And last, the delicious payasam ada pradhaman a classic combination of rice flakes, jaggery, milk and roasted cashews.
I was lost in a trance of unfamiliar delicacies, each dish designed to coax the flavours out of the others. There was a time when a sadya used to consist of 64 dishes and I think I speak for everyone when I say we were relieved that Sneha only chose 20! The trick while eating a sadya is to eat the rice sparingly and my only disappointment was that Sneha chose basmati rice instead of rosematta (red) rice that I was later told was more traditional.
When the meal is completed, one is meant to fold the banana leaf. The direction in which we fold the leaf is a signal of our enjoyment of the meal – folding it away is a compliment to the chef.
Even though her mother grew up in a house with three kitchens and spent her summers making banana chips and jackfruit jam, Sneha never cooked in these kitchens. She may have dabbled in some cooking as a teenager, but it wasn’t until she moved to Scotland for a few years in 2010 that her tryst with Keralite food really began.
You never know when your calling hits you, and Sneha can’t pinpoint the exact moment when she thought cooking for others was a good idea. Whatever the reason behind Sneha’s Poppadum supper clubs, Bombay is certainly a better place for it.
This article was first written for burrp!
Photographs courtesy the lovely Vaydehi Khandelwal.