Food and Family: Turning back the clock

I love travelling back in time. I love going back to tiny details and beautiful moments that in today’s world are precious beyond compare. My mum and her four sisters enjoy reminiscing…often with me hanging around them itching for every single detail! They love talking about the time when they were kids, all the games they played, about their childhood friends; but what I enjoy listening to the most are their hilarious and downright mouth-watering food stories.
The hustle and bustle of activities at home started right at the crack of dawn. My grandmother used to prepare a huge milk pail filled with milk and water. This was kept alongside yet another huge milk cooker full of black tea. Even after the number of people at home dwindled, my grandmother would prepare the same amount of tea, leave it till evening, wash the cooker at night and repeat the process the next day.
The 5 sisters would be prodded up to study (which they claim they rarely did! A couple of them slept with books spread on their faces) and given a steaming tumbler filled with sweet, piping hot tea sprinkled with cracked black pepper. My grandmother claimed it was very god for the throat but my youngest aunty claims that it helped her sleep, all stretched out on the cane chair, a lot better!
Kanji and Payar

My grandmother was a school teacher and she had to leave to classes pretty early as the school was a long walk and a boat ride away. The wood fired stoves would be lit and once hot enough, a big pot of kanji (rice gruel) was cooked along with a side of different types of lentils every day. The family had their own paddy fields at the time and the rice was the kuthari variety (unpolished, with the coat intact) which was highly nutritious and absolutely delicious! The grains would be stored in huge granaries at home and when the time came, they would be boiled, pounded, de husked and then used at home. Each bowl of breakfast kanji would be served with a big blob of unctuous homemade ghee. My mother was majorly into athletics and she would have a glass of beaten milk, sugar and egg (I don’t know how in the world she even managed to eat that!) along with her kanji and lentils.
Packing the school lunch was done assembly style as the 5 sisters had their horde of cousins stay over as well. Steel lunch boxes would be arranged age wise from eldest to youngest. Huge helpings of rice would be put into the boxes followed by a vegetable and curries ranging from a spicy prawn ularthiyathu, a coconutty fish curry or an aromatic beef fry. On days my granny doesn’t have time to prepare veges, she would pile the boxes with banana chips and my aunts swear that rice and banana chips were a combination made in heaven! Banana chips were not lavishly available so my mum and aunts always looked forward to no veges day. 
Kuthari Rice
Beef was the most commonly available non vegetarian item at home as it was quite cheap. In fact my mum remembers 6-7 kgs of beef being brought home in a large bucket. Saturday through Tuesday were 4 days dedicated to beef. Beef was available at the butchers only from Saturday on. As usual a piled bucket gets home and Saturday would be a feast of boiled beef, Sunday would be beef with vegetables and since school starts on Monday, grandma would prepare minced beef. And no there were no processors during the time! The meat would be laid out thinly on a plank and then chopped by hand using a sharp knife. A gruelling process with delightful results! Sometimes, they would have a rich beef curry with bread. When the sisters look at the readily available loaves of bread in bakeries, they laugh! During their time, bread was hand delivered door to door only on Sundays by a chettan who rides a clunky cycle with huge boxes fixed on either side.
Chicken was an ever bigger delicacy! In fact it was brought out in curried or fried form when there were important guests in the house or on a very special occasion or festival, say Christmas. The season of Easter was the season of delicious duck roast and since my mum didn’t like duck (I can’t even believe I am her daughter!), chicken would be cooked as well.
Food never lasted over a day and fresh meals were prepared every day. In fact, the first fridge was bought when the youngest sister turned 7! And even then, they didn’t have excess food to store in the fridge. The fridge was kind of like a “cold garbage disposal” where they put in curries and food items which were meant to be forgotten and ultimately thrown away.
Of everything that was consumed, rice played the role of the hero. Everyone ate a lot of rice (and still remained stick thin!) Once the grains were threshed and the hay separated, all the hay was collected and threshed a final time to get the grains that were missed during the 1st session. These grains were then ground to a fine powder, mixed with smashed mango seed inners and jaggery and made into appams and happily eaten. The combination boggles the mind but the joy on the sister’s faces were indescribable. Quite evident that they enjoyed it!
Madhama pullu
This lead the discussion into the world of evening palaharams. Maniputtu was quite a favourite. It was made from rice flour mixed to form the same consistency as that of idiyappam flour. The flour was then shaped by hand to form tiny nodules, pressed into the puttu cooker and steamed. This was eaten with sweet coconut milk flavoured with elaichi. From the most loved to the most hated we go. Idlis they voiced all together! When we think idlis, we think of the soft, fluffy variety. In those days, there was no readily available batter. It was handmade at home and the resulting idli was so heavy and chunky, it could well be used as a murder weapon! Sometimes, the sisters used to throw it at each other to see who could duck the fastest! On some days, the evening tea would be met with a green gram payasam or another item called the rotti which was as despised as the idlis. Usually when the sisters heard the word rotti, they would conjure up images of pillowy soft, sweet slices of bread and would rush into the house after school only to find a hand pressed flat cake made from wheat flour, jiggery, coconut and banana. I’ve tried this several times and thought it was delicious. So I figure the disappointment of not getting actual bread conditioned them into hating rotti!
Naranga mittayi

Sweets were a secret affair. The youngest sister would get 25paise as pocket money whilst the older ones 10paise each. The 10paise was bigger than the 25paise and one of elder sisters would trick the youngest one by comparing sizes and saying “See! I gave you the big coin. I only have the small one now!” and the youngest sister would grin with happiness! Handfulls of naranga mittayi (sugar candy in the shape of lemon wedges) would be divided just outside the shop. Sometimes the ice lolly chettan would come down the road ringing the bell, sometimes it was the madhama pullu chettan (angel hair/ soan papadi). The madhama pullu would be stored in a huge mason jar, stuffed into newspaper cones and given to the customers. These were forbidden treats and the sisters used to go via their backyard, through the neighbours houses and over a wall to buy those little delights! Another such treat was the venna biscuit (butter biscuit) which neither had nor tasted like butter! It was called butter biscuit because it looked like a luscious lump of creamy, white butter. 
Avalose Unda
They used to watch (with drool dripping down their mouths) the way their great grandmother used to soak these biscuits in a big bowl of milk and have it for dinner. The sisters got it only when they had fever. So yes, fever was again looked forward to!
The store room was a room of bounty! I remember the store room from when I was a child. It was made of wood and stood right next to the kitchen area. There were 3 long wooden slabs attached to the wall. A variety of vegetables were spread on gunny bags. Huge onions, fingers of ginger, bulbs of garlic and rotund potatoes hung down in huge steel bowl hangers. Jars and jars of sugar, salt, flour and jaggery And I can still remember at least 5 stalks of a variety of bananas hanging down from the ceiling! Play time is when the bananas were made use of the most. It makes me envious to hear of the number of games my mum and aunts used to play! And in between they would rush into the storeroom, tear bananas off the stalk, have their fill, throw the peels right there and rush off to play again!
There was definite snacking while playing as well! Sometimes my grandfather would buy fresh boondi ladoos and keep it above the fridge in an ice pail and sometimes during Christmas, the royal icing would be broken off the plum cake and kept in the pail. Neither item lasted very long! The back yards and neighbours yards provided a food haven for the sisters and their friends. 
Dried Otupuli
Ripe ottu puli falling from the trees would be mixed with crushed green chili, salt, chili powder and oil and gulped down! Sometimes green mangoes plucked fresh off the trees replaced the puli. The walls separating most of the houses back then were dried and weaved coconut leaves. They last for a year and during November and December, kaachil (a type of yam) starts growing all over it. The children would pluck the smaller ones on top of the plant and roast them over an open fire. There were abundant cashew trees planted as well and once my aunt threw a brick at the ripe fruit. It landed right back on her head! The fruit of the cashew would be eaten and the nuts cooked on a small bonfire. This was their all-time favourite snack while at play.
Festivals played a huge part in our Christian household. Christmas was an apt time for homemade palaharam. There were 6 main ones that were prepared: Diamond cuts (maida hand rolled and hand cut into diamond shapes, fried and dressed with sugar syrup), Kaarayappam (a sweet concoction of rice and jiggery), Cherupaniyaram (a form of appam in a variety of shapes), avalose unda (fried, sweet rice balls), acchappam (also known as rose cookies, they are fried and mildly sweet) and kozhalapam (deep fried rice cannoli tubes). 
Diamond cuts
The night before Christmas, every household stirs and makes a lot of noise preparing a huge number of appams to be enjoyed with thick meaty stew in the morning.
So much love, care and hard work went into preparing each meal every single day. I love the way everything nature had to offer was enjoyed with carefree delight and how each portion of food consumed was given its due appreciation and respect.
The musings ended with my mum and aunts deciding to make maniputtu for breakfast tomorrow. I can’t wait to see their faces aglow with delight!

 *all pictures were sourced from Google

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *