When you think of Malayalis, what’s the first fruit that comes to mind?
Chances are that you’re thinking of bananas. I’d think of that too, especially since cherupazham is the first thing we buy when my father’s side of the family comes to stay.
But isn’t it funny how we don’t think of coconuts? Even though they’re botanically classified as fruits, just as peaches and olives are? We never eat them the we way we eat mangoes, sliced and peeled or eaten with something like ice-cream. Is it that we think of coconuts as vegetables, because we cook them?But then again, coconuts aren’t the only fruits that Mallus use while cooking.
Google ‘sugar babies’ and you won’t be surprised by the results but ask for one in the market, and you’ll get a mango. Chakarakutty mangoes as they’re called in Malayalam. Small, round and green on the outside, these are the mangoes we use in maanga-morucurry. Peeled and cooked whole in the curd based curry, these mangoes add a sweet and often, slightly sour flavour. At home, once we have eaten all the soft, yellow pulp, Acha turns the leftover seeds in his plate into crazy haired troll-doll faces, shaping the fibrous bit and using kadugu seeds for eyes.
Speaking of morucurry, it’s got to be one of the best Mallu curries ever because you can put literally anything into it. We’ve made it with vellarikka, with vendakka, with chena, with kaaya, with maanga as I just told you and even with pineapple. Yes, little translucent squares of pineapple. At home we call everything morucurry but depending on which part of Kerala you’re from, you may know this as a pulissery or pachadi.
I don’t know what it is about fruits and women in Tamil and Malayalam songs but an entire thesis ought to be dedicated to that topic. My father doesn’t sing much (the dogs get up and leave the room when he does) but around the time when I was obsessed with Surya’s Kannukulle number, he got hooked onto this one line from it and would walk around the house singing “aay strawberry baby aah robbery panna paakura”. It was disturbing.
Similarly in Malayalam there’s a song from one of Prithviraj’s early films called Pineapple Penne and oh god Pen Pineapple Apple Pen is nothing compared to this violation of everything.
Moving on from sugar babies and pineapple girls.
If there is one fruit more central to Malayali cuisine than coconuts or bananas, it is jackfruit. When Ammuma comes to stay with us in the summer, we declare an all-out jackfruit festival. She only needs one fruit, one raw chakka from the single tree in our garden, and she will turn that into a hundred different dishes.
If you’ve ever cleaned jackfruit before, you know how much of a pain it is, but Ammuma doesn’t mind. She says there isn’t much to do in our house anyway. Oiling her fingers to keep the sticky stuff at bay, she settles down at the table with her incredibly small kitchen kaththi and begins right after breakfast; cleaning, slicing, peeling, separating and cooking until somehow by lunchtime she has the entire spread laid out for us. All that’s left to throw away is the outermost layer of protective, prickly green.
The raw fruit itself is made into chakka puzhukku while the seeds are cut in half and cooked into a raw maanga-curry. Even the thin, sliced-cabbage like fibers and the off-white chunks that divide the fruit in the middle are used, and made into thoran.
This only works with raw chakka though and Ammuma isn’t so fond of the fruit once it ripens. That’s only nowadays. Before, when the heavy stirring and long hours of slow cooking weren’t so strenuous for her, Ammuma used to make chakka varatti. That beautiful, heavenly thing.
No other halwa can even lift a finger to it. Not firm but mushy, chakka varatti can’t be cut into thick blocks and arranged on a plate when guests arrive. It has to be pulled apart with your fingers. It’s warm and gooey and although the sweetness is its flavour, the consistency is everything. That’s the thing that holds it together, the thing that you unravel and fold over and over with your tongue, making each little bit last until it just melts.
Born and brought up in Bangalore, I’ve often had very Kenny Sebastian like problems with my Malayaliness. My accent completely disappears when I attempt Malayalam, leaving me sounding like an aash-boosh, pronouncing each word distinctly and utterly unable to say something in a one rapid rush like kaapikudikkyarayo or onasamsakal. It’s always been the food that has saved me from doubting my Malluness.
Food and Nivin Pauly of course.