Why do I like it? As a child, I loved two things about Asthram. Its distinct tangy taste from the raw mango chunks, and the chalky flavour (it was good enough for my young palate) of jackfruit seeds. These may not figure in a standard Asthram recipe, but my mother used them. Raw mangoes is something I use in my dishes as well. I prefer to use it in Avial (instead of yoghurt), and in fish curry (in place of tamarind).
Asthram: A food memory from my childhood
My favourite food? There are far too many. Traditional Kerala dishes like sambar, avial and ulli theeyal are right at the top. But a rather uncommon dish occupies a sentimental corner of my heart. Asthram. Uncommon? Yes, you don’t normally hear about it. You wouldn’t see it at feasts. I haven’t seen it anywhere except in my home. That too when I was growing up. So I presume it’s not popular.
A humble dish, asthram does not have the aroma and the goulash of sensations of a well-made sambar. It also lacks the character and layers of tastes presented by theeyal. It’s simple: not many vegetables, no masalas. Most of the ingredients can be found in a kitchen garden.
For me, it’s a dish that triggers a tidal wave of memories. Memories of my mother and her amazing cooking. Memories of my younger days at our home in rain-swept Thiruvananthapuram. Asthram, that’s what my mother called it. It’s quite different from the traditional asthram. But the taste of my mother’s asthram lingers in memory.
In our home, asthram was mostly made in summer. Days when the aroma of jackfruits and mangoes wafted across the yard. Jackfruit seeds are one of the ingredients. And I love jackfruit seeds; fried or cooked, it didn’t matter. Not a good idea if you have gastritis.
Jackfruit seeds in Asthram? Yes, you won’t find that in standard recipes. It’s either yam or colocasia (taro root, to some). Well, that’s what makes my mother’s asthram different. And it’s white, not yellow like the regular fare.
Whenever I returned home from Bangalore, Doha or Dubai — the places I lived and worked — I would ask her about the recipe. And she would reel out from her memory, a memory that held a thousand recipes.
The problem was quantifying it. Half a coconut, that’s okay although the sizes can vary. How much is a pinch or a little bit? I realised it was more an instinct. I gave up the idea of writing down the recipe.
Asthram would appear at the lunch table, at least once during my visits. If it wasn’t summer, jackfruit seeds wouldn’t be there. It would just be colocasia. No turmeric, no red chillies (except for tempering). There were big pale green chillies, they are not spicy. Peppercorns floated. And chunks of raw mango — they provide a distinct tangy taste. Were there raw bananas? I’m not so sure. What I’m absolutely sure is the taste.
Lunch was always parboiled rice. There would be at least three curries — two vegetarian dishes and, of course, a fish curry. Asthram is a sauce, a bit viscous. When it was served I didn’t need the other curries. I could wolf down rice with asthram alone. And I would always have a second helping of rice on such occasions.
My mother is no longer with us. Her recipes live on in my sister. A working woman who travels long distances every day, she can’t be too worried about the variety of food she puts on the table. Asthram is not a regular fare in her house either. But she tried to help me with the recipe. And soon I realised that she too was like my mother. Some peppercorns, a pinch of cumin, couple of cloves of shallots…!
How do I write the recipe? Make it myself using my sister’s direction. And a bit of help from a friend. After a couple of tries and tweaks, I made an Asthram that resembles my mother’s.
Is it good enough? I think so.
My Asthram recipe
- 250 gms colocasia or taro root (chembu)
- 100 gms jackfruit seeds (chakka kuru)
- 1 cup fresh grated coconut
- 4 big pale green chillies
- 2 small green chillies
- 8 peppercorns
- 2 shallots
- ½ a raw mango (it has to be very tangy)
- 1 tsp cumin seeds (zeera)
- Salt to taste
- 3 tsp coconut oil
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 2 shallots (thinly sliced)
- 2 dried red chillies cut into big pieces
- 2 sprigs of curry leaves
- Peel the outer skin of colocasia and cut into small cubes.
- Remove the shell of jackfruit seeds and scrape the skin. Halve the seeds.
- Peel the mango and cut into small pieces
- Cook colocasia pieces, jackfruit seeds and raw mango pieces together in a pan with enough water to cover the ingredients. Add a pinch of salt as well.
- Bring it to a boil and add the big pale green chillies. Lower the flame and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes till the colocasia pieces are tender and well cooked.
- Put the scrapped coconut with cumin seeds, green chillies and shallots in a blender. Add a small amount of water and grind it to a fine paste,
- Pour the paste into the pan with colocasia and jackfruit seeds. Cook for another five minutes (low flame). Add salt, if required. Add water, if necessary to maintain consistency. Do not allow it to boil over. As the foam rises to the top, turn off the flame.
- Seasoning: Heat the oil in a small pan and splutter mustard seeds. Add the red chillies, followed by curry leaves and thinly sliced shallots. Fry them lightly and add to the curry.
Tip: If the green mango is not tangy enough, stir in a few spoons of yoghurt before you switch off the flame. Make sure it does not boil over.
Sourcing the ingredients in the UAE
Most ingredients are available locally throughout the year in most supermarkets in the UAE. But jackfruits are seasonal, so jackfruits seeds are available only in summer. After that you only get the shrivelled ones, which don’t taste the same.
About the dish
Asthram is an authentic Kerala dish. Colocasia (taro root, chembu in Malayalam) and yam (chena) grow abundantly in the southern Indian state, so it’s little surprise that the two tubers form the main ingredient in the two popular variations of Asthram. Jackfruit seeds, raw plantains and other vegetables are also used in the other variations.
A traditional dish, Asthram’s origins are obscure. Its recipe reveals a close link to Puzhukku (mashed tubers).
Puzhukku can be made with any tuber – tapioca, Chinese potato, yam or purple yam (kachil). Jackfruit and bread fruit can also be used for puzhukku. The ingredients in the coconut paste used for Asthram and Puzhukku are identical. So Asthram could well be a forerunner of Puzhukku. It’s just that Asthram is a sauce and puzhukku is thicker in consistency.
If Asthram and Puzhukku are related, it could date back to the 9th century. Puzhukku is central to the Thiruvathira (event marking the day the Hindu deity Shiva accepted Parvati as an equal partner) festivities on the full moon day in Dhanu month (December/January) of the Malayalam calendar. Historical records refer to the Hindu festival 1,200 years ago. Asthram could well have predated that.
It’s rare to find Asthram in most parts of Kerala these days. But it continues to flourish in the kitchens of Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, where it’s served as a side dish to kanji (rice gruel/porridge). Its lack of appeal could be attributed to its poor versatility. Being a sauce, it’s best as an accompaniment to rice. It doesn’t work as a side dish to chappathis, appams or dosa.
Asthram has firm links to a myth about the Sree Bhagavathi Temple in Chettikulangara, Alapuzha district, in Kerala. The deity is said to have had a meal of rice gruel, muthira Puzhukku (a dish with horse gram cereal) and Asthram after her arrival at the temple premises. So, Asthram continues to be served as part of the offerings to the temple deity during the annual thanksgiving Kumbha Bharani festival.