Karkidakam in Kerala is almost amoebic in its state.
The season is usually marked by restless climatic conditions served with a complimentary side of troubling ailments- particularly those targeting joints. Kitchens everywhere therefore, wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to preparing dishes fortified with medicinal herbs. Bowl upon bowl of Karkidaka Kanji and vaal adi soup make their soothing rounds.
Thinned down from its rather unctuous ancestor, the vaal adi or oxtail soup my mother prepares at home is almost consomme like in appearance; the otherwise reflective surface concealed by a layer of caramelized onions, curry leaves and bites of ginger. Even after the hardened fat deposit is removed, the ensuing broth is rich, peppery and comforting.
Vaal adi soup first made its appearance in my food memories in the cheerful form of Georgettan and his trusty earthen pot. Donning a kaili mundu, a pristine white vest, a thin, vibrant head wrap and a substantial moustache (below which sat an indulgent smile), Georgettan and his soup pot was a sight to behold.
As soon as zebra stripes of light and shadow stretch across the length of the street, neighbours start trickling out of their homes; a couple mid argument, grandparents carrying plump little cherubs, children of every age weaving through minuscule lanes, small time businessmen engaged in talks of trade and clutches of women revelling in a myriad topics.
The congregation pools into the badminton court right opposite my ancestral home. Almost like clockwork, Georgettan’s wiry frame adds to the rows of shadows as he makes his way down the road. On his right, he carries his hefty pear shaped pot of soup strung on a wire frame. The wire frame is then cleverly suspended above glowing embers of coal and whiskers of straw. The soup sloshes and bubbles eagerly within the pot, lulling the accompanying aromatics in gentle tumbles; slowly releasing their potency into the fatty bone broth. Chiming merrily on his left is a laudable collection of cutting chai glasses. A wrung out, rather spent grey wash cloth hangs down his waist.
One particularly harsh monsoon saw to the uprooting of several trees including our neighbour’s beloved coconut tree. Given the sentimental attachment the tree enjoyed, rather than being chopped up and thrown away, it was adopted as a makeshift seating arrangement in the badminton court. Given the duration of the evening exchange, this suited the crowd just fine. Georgeettan settles his pot of soup and himself on the coconut tree, whilst the humming horde surrounds him in anticipation.
A mouthwatering, piquant aroma fills the air as the soup pot reveals its inners. Picking up a freshly washed glass, Georgettan pours a generous ladleful of the vaal adi soup into it. The liquid is a glittering shade of amber with bites of onion and meat swirling in its vortex. Golden globules of fat crown the steaming soup and a halo of steam surrounds the mouth of the glass.
He serves the children and elderly first and they happily mill around him warming their hands on the toasty glasses. An inimitable natural networking of sorts happens where differences of all manner are tossed aside and people came together, heartened by their love of food and everything happy it entails. A large pot filled with water is placed near the coconut tree to rinse the glasses after use- this became a necessity what with the inundation of customers. After an hour or two punctuated by the steady buzz of conversation, farewell greetings are exchanged and people make their way back to their homes, swatting carelessly at curious bugs.
Georgeettan collects his empty pot and strings up the wet glasses. He raises his hand in a final farewell and slowly melts into twilight along with the last rays of the sun.
The badminton court sits in anticipation, echoing of footsteps and peace, dialogue and unity.