Basheer’s Birikanjo to Anita Nair’s food alphabet: A book about food in literature

‘Vayikku Ruchiyode’ is written by journalist and writer Sreejith Perunthachan, with each chapter dedicated to a writer and their works on food.
Sreejith Perunthachan
Sreejith Perunthachan
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On a day that he read a story on Booker winner Arundhati Roy, Sreejith Perunthachan sat musing about a conversation mentioned in it. Arundhati, the story said, once asked her brother Lalit, who was in the hotel industry, why not start a place that sold food described only in novels. Sreejith thought the idea was fantastic. It brought to his mind the many lines about food in literature that he had read and enjoyed. A journalist and writer in Kerala, Sreejith began a column in a popular Malayalam magazine and described the food that writers he adored wrote about in their fiction. He has now collected it all together in a book called Vayikku Ruchiyode.

That can be a pun in Malayalam – 'vayikku' could mean ‘read’ or ‘for the mouth’ and 'ruchiyode' means tastefully, Sreejith says. He is known for choosing curious themes for the books he writes – an earlier one called Peraya Ninneyiha was about stories behind titles of many popular Malayalam movies.

“I think the idea about food in literature came to me on reading that interview of Arundhati. Another time I was talking to MT Vasudevan Nair (Jnanpith award winning writer) and he spoke of turning points in many European films and novels having two people sit around their coffee or some sort of food or drink in between them. Now I am not much of a follower of recipe books though they sell a lot. But I do read literature and the parts about food stick to your mind,” Sreejith says.

Book cover

Basheer’s Birikanjo and VKN’s dosa machine

He has written 11 chapters, each dedicated to a writer and their works that describe food. Basheer, one of the most popular writers of Malayalam literature, was known for his ‘Sulaimani’ (black tea) kept in a big flask at the house that he shared with visitors. Food came into his famously-simple literature too. Sreejith chose to write about ‘Birikanjo’, a name one of Basheer’s characters gives to a badly made biriyani which tasted like a mix of kanji and biriyani. “But then they love the taste because they are all hungry and anything would have tasted good,” Sreejith says.

Vadakkke Koottala Narayanankutty Nair or VKN, as the famous Malayalam humour writer is known, also features in Sreejith’s book. In one of his popular ‘Payyan’ series,  a character who is fond of dosa wishes that he could have them made in a conveyor belt and watch them roll out like freshly printed newspapers, one after the other. In another VKN story, a character asks another, how is the taste of the banana, and the reply is, ‘oru nana kuravundu’ – meaning the banana plant had not been watered one day.

“People can be that sensitive to food!” Sreejith laughs. In his quest to find out the food interests of authors, he spoke to some of them, emailed, and got inputs from researchers.

Oil on head like voting ink!

An interesting story comes in SK Pottekatt’s Jnanpith award winning book Oru Deshathinte Katha. A village near Mukkam in Kozhikode had the strange custom of putting oil on the heads of people who came to have a ‘sadya’ at functions like weddings.

“This was like ink on your finger on voting day. It was to stop some people who have their fill and then secretly come in for a second helping. So the sadya organisers put oil on their heads to identify who’s already had the meals. This comes in Pottekatt’s largely autobiographical novel,” Sreejith says.

Alphabet of dishes and a guide to North Indian food

Perhaps the most obvious of the food references he has chosen is in Anita Nair’s Alphabet Soup for Lovers. Sreejith writes in his book that once, when Anita could not decide on how to proceed with a story, she went and made jam with lemons she picked up from a tour to Himachal. By the time the jam was ready, her story was too. In the Alphabet Soup, a woman learns the English language by connecting every letter of the alphabet to the name of a dish or a vegetable.

Madhavikutty (Kamala Surayya), Punathil Kunjabdulla, Sara Joseph, M Mukundan, Kunjunni Master and KP Ramanunni are the other authors Sreejith has written about. Among these he speaks of M Mukundan’s book Delhi Gadhakal, which is a ‘sure shot guide’ for a middle class person planning to move to New Delhi, on where to buy their food. “There is all about the markets and which days you get what fish and meat. What will you find in a North Indian market, you’d know. After reading it, you can go to Delhi without worrying about your food,” Sreejith says.

He can’t end the many ‘food’ tales he heard and read and wrote about. “And Sarah Joseph wrote about a hotel that sold eagle fry!” he says, eager to add more.

But then, these fascinating tales can be read in their entirety in Sreejith’s book, which will be published next week by Thrissur Current Books. 

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