Every Sunday, a food memory takes me back in time to when I was just 10.
A busy kitchen. My mother's strong hands chopping off chunks of kappa (cassava), freshly uprooted from our backyard. My father and uncle, busy cleaning pieces of beef (its meat, ribs, and bones), which were bought fresh every Sunday by my father, on our way back from church, after the morning mass.
Hungry from not having eaten all morning, we would wait, my four siblings and I, as the aroma of spices roasting in oil, filled our huge, very earthy, rustic kitchen, in our home in Mammoodu, a small village in Kerala's Kottayam district. Added to our hunger was the week-long built-up anticipation for the Sunday special, a family feast of ellum kappayum (cassava cooked with spicy, curried beef ribs).
Though this memory is from over 50 years ago, my tummy still rumbles when I think of the kappa pieces boiling in a giant vessel over a fire stove.
As the kappa boiled to softness, every few minutes, my mother would return to shift the firewood and keep the fire lit, blowing into it through a hollow pipe. All of five feet tall, she was the best cook I have known.
The old kitchen
Kitchens in that part of the world were very different at the time. Firewood was the fuel that would keep the stove burning. During the monsoons, it would be hard to keep the firewood dry, and I remember the adults of the family struggling to start a fire. Sometimes, smoke would fill the entire kitchen.
Refrigerators had already reached India 10 years before that, but not all houses had them. Moreover, the weather in the area where we lived, did not really warrant the need for one. There were enough members in the family who would happily finish the day's food. The only two dishes that would be kept for the next day were the fish curry (which, without fail, tasted better on the second day), and the leftover rice, to which fresh water was added and kept overnight in an earthen pot to make pazhankanji or congee.
Packed with nutrition, pazhankanji had become the working man's favourite breakfast in Kerala. Next morning, if we were early enough to wake up before dad and uncle left for work, we would get to taste the delicious mix with some crunchy bird's-eye chillies, fresh shallots pounded using the stone iddi kuzhavi (mortar and pestle), and beaten curd. If mum was up for it, there was an extra side of coconut chutney. It was heavenly.
The kitchen was our favourite place to be. When I was not in school or playing outside with friends, I was in the kitchen. Mum was always there, and on days she was not busy, there was an endless supply of treats. It was not just the place where the whole family gathered for meals on the huge wooden table, it was the busiest room in our house at any given time during the day. My favourite place to sit was a huge trunk we had in which we would store grains. Some mornings, I would eat sitting on it, and lie down and fall asleep right away. Who would want to leave a warm cozy kitchen that smells like mum, and walk many kilometers to school instead?
Meaning no offence to shorter people, what was also great about mum's height was that things kept on shelves within her reach, were also accessible to my siblings and me. I have countless memories of running away with pieces of jaggery, sugar or bananas, while my mother was not watching. My elder sister, who was 12 at that time, was my partner in crime.
To say we both loved food, is an understatement. We would spend hours watching our mum cook and try to experiment, too. Once, when our parents had to go to another town for a whole day, my sister decided we would try and make kozhukattai (steamed dumplings made with rice flour dough), one of our favourite snacks mum often made. We had seen her making it and were confident that we would achieve the simple feat.
We got together, two hungry minds and four small hands, and made the rice flour dough, ready to be put in water. Faces and hands covered with flour, as we slowly put the dough balls in water and put the vessel on the stove, little did we realise that the water should have been boiling before the balls were dropped in. In the end, we stood defeated with some gooey rice paste. We both looked at each other, still unsure of what had happened. Thankfully, mum found it hilarious when she returned.
Of all memories... our Sunday ritual of the entire family pitching in, to make ellum kappayum, is my favourite. To this day, I go back to it every Sunday, on my way home from church.
But, of all memories, the smoky smell of the earthen stove to the sight of my elder sister grinding the garlic and ginger to paste on the arakallu (Malayalam for grinding stone), our Sunday ritual of the entire family pitching in, to make ellum kappayum, is my favourite. To this day, I go back to it every Sunday, on my way home from church.
How food can trigger memories
So, can the taste or thought of your favourite food transport you back to childhood? Science says yes. Dubai-based clinical psychologist Urmimala Sinha explained: "Food memories involve a lot of senses thus creating a powerful effect giving rise to associative memories. Associative memory is defined as the ability to remember the relationship between unrelated items. Thus eating a particular food can trigger memories of the place, setting and the feeling of eating it the first time, creating nostalgia in us."
Research has shown that the taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative. Food is an effective trigger of deeper memories of feelings and emotions, and the internal states of the mind and body.
The most important trigger in food is the scent. There is an intimate connection between emotions, memories and scents. Rachel Herz, author and an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University in Rhode Island, US, was quoted in a livescience.com article, as saying: "...memories triggered by scents as opposed to other senses are experienced as more emotional and more evocative."
A scent is a chemical particle that floats in through the nose and into the brain's olfactory bulbs, where the sensation is first processed into a form that's readable by the brain. Brain cells then carry that information to a tiny area of the brain called the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and then to the adjoining hippocampus, where learning and memory formation take place.
In the same report, John McGann, an associate professor in the psychology department of Rutgers University in New Jersey explained another interesting observation about scents and the fast and easy route they have to the memory centers of the brain. He said: "Scents are the only sensations that travel such a direct path to the emotional and memory centers of the brain. All other senses first travel to a brain region called the thalamus, which acts like a 'switchboard', relaying information about the things we see, hear or feel to the rest of the brain. But scents bypass the thalamus and reach the amygdala and the hippocampus in a synapse or two."
Making Ellum Kappayum
Ellum kappayum, a dish that has its roots in Kottayam and Idukki, spread to every part of the world as people from those districts started travelling out, looking for work and opportunities. It got adapted and was given new names, some called it irachiyum kappayum (meat and cassava) and Malayali restaurants started serving it as kappa biryani. In some areas of Kerala, like Ernakulam, it is also called Asiad.
Sunday rituals are no longer followed. My wife and I now live in Kollam, a coastal city in Kerala. Occasionally, on Sundays, I take over our kitchen to make ellum kappayum, following the recipe my parents handed down to me.
When my elder daughter (who forces me into making it every time she visits home from Dubai) asked me if I would share the recipe with Gulf News readers, I could not stop myself. So, here is the simple, yet delicious, recipe that's over 50 years old. A special delight for those who enjoy Kerala cuisine.
Serves: 7-8 people
2 - 2½kg kappa (chopped into small pieces)
1kg beef pieces (with bone, cut in medium 2-inch pieces)
For the dry spices:
- 1 to 1½ tbsp chilli powder (depending on spice tolerance)
- 1½ tbsp coriander powder
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- 1½ tsp black pepper
- 2-3 pieces of cardamom
- 3-4 pieces of clove (a spice)
- 2 pieces of cinnamon (1 inch long)
- 1 tbsp fennel
Note: Grind the spices together. Instead of the last four ingredients, you can use 1½ tbsp of five-spices powder that you can buy at supermarkets in the UAE.
For marinade and tempering:
- 1 medium piece ginger (peeled and crushed)
- ½ a pod of garlic (peeled and crushed)
- 1 cup of chopped pearl onions (shallots)
- 1 large red onion (chopped)
- Curry leaves
- 3-4 green chillies split in the middle
- Coconut oil
- Salt to taste
1. Wash the meat thoroughly. Squeeze to remove excess water.
2. To the meat, add half of all the dry spices (powder), 1½ spoon of coconut oil and some curry leaves, salt. Also add half of the marinade ingredients to the meat and mix with clean hands. Aim to coat the meat evenly. Set aside for 30-40 minutes.
3. After the marination time, in a deep vessel on low flame, slowly cook the meat. (If you lack patience or time for this and are using a pressure cooker instead, cook it for 10-15 minutes, reduce the flame to minimum after the first whistle. Then, turn off the flame and set aside without opening the lid).
4. As the meat releases water and gets cooked slowly, it's time to take care of the cassava (Some people also call it tapioca, which is actually the starch extracted from the cassava root through a process of washing and pulping).
5. Wash the diced cassava two to three times till water runs clean. Put it in a suitable vessel. Add enough water to completely cover the cassava pieces.
6. Add salt to taste, and boil it till the pieces become fork tender. Strain to remove the water.
7. In a separate pan, sauté the remaining onions, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, green peppers, till the onion becomes slightly golden. Add the remaining dry masala powders and temper till the raw smell of th spices disappears, and oil separates.
8. Add the tempered mix into the cooked tapioca.
9. Check whether the meat is tender and well done. There should be enough gravy to mix it well with the tapioca. If there is excess gravy, cook the meat on slightly high flame without the lid, till the gravy reduces.
10. Mix everything using a heavy spoon (this requires some forearm strength), till evenly combined.
Garnish with chopped onions and curry leaves, and enjoy the ellum kappayum, steaming hot.