How the spice route changed Kerala’s culinary history: Intv with author Tanya Abraham

Tanya Abraham’s new book ‘Eating With History: Ancient Trade-Influenced Cuisines of Kerala’ takes a historical culinary journey through the state.
Tanya Abraham
Tanya Abraham
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While eating Kozhukkattai or Achappam in an evening, have you ever wondered from where they would have originated? Or who decided the ingredients and shape? Writer, art curator and journalist Tanya Abraham’s new book Eating With History: Ancient Trade-Influenced Cuisines of Kerala answers them by taking readers on a historical culinary journey. The book documents how various food items that are currently an integral part of our lifestyle made their way to the shores of Kerala along the spice route centuries ago. It narrates how the arrival of St Thomas Christians, Arabs, Malabari Jews, Paradesi Jews and Portuguese and Catholicism influenced the Kerala cuisine. The book has recipes Tanya collected from her sources along with the photograph of the dish and a brief history. 

“A little over a hundred recipes have been included,” says Tanya, a native of Fort Kochi who is deeply interested in heritage, culture and food. She was intrigued by the fact that a variety of cuisines and communities emerged from a single route – the spice trade route and she decided to write about it. “The love for pepper and the money brought traders which threw open doors to indelible impressions on the society of Kerala. Cultures are about people. They bind and blend to create new cultures. The real impact happens when identity is intertwined with it and when something as deep as marriage and children happen. Then cultures move from a space of influence to a space of impact. I found this interesting.”

Walking through the culinary history was not a cakewalk for Tanya. She had to read and research as much as possible and then connect the dots -- between the foreign influences, the ingredients brought to Kerala, what exists of them today in communities, customs and the like. “Scholars who had noted details down during their research on other aspects of the spice trade in Kerala and its indirect understanding of food culture were interviewed. Dr Pius Malaekandathil, a professor at Jawaharlal University in New Delhi and a scholar on ancient Kerala and the spice trade, proof-read the final writing based on my research. I had requested this of him to ensure that there were no errors,” explains the author. 

She completed the book within three years alongside her other projects.

The recipes in her book substantiate her research. “It is to offer support to the research work and provide a varied aspect of interest to the recipes,” she says. Some of them are pretty familiar to readers. However, a touch a history can bring new meaning in readers’ mind.  

Another task during her research was to collect recipes from sources including the late Sarah Cohen of the Paradesi Jewish community. “Sarah Cohen and Queenie Hallegua of the Paradesi Jewish community belong to Jew Town in Mattancherry. Our families were close friends because my family hails from adjacent Fort Kochi. Others like the Malabari Jews, I contacted my friends and acquaintances in Israel to trace Cochini Jews who had migrated to Israel after the State of Israel was formed in 1949,” says Tanya. 

While approaching contributors, she explained the reason behind the book before sourcing recipes. “Sometimes, to find the right families or women who could share old recipes that have not been tampered with was not that easy. There have been instances that clues were picked up during a regular conversation with families I visited which made me go back and research. Sometimes the differences in dishes were subtle, but that subtlety means a lot. It is not by accident. Perhaps an ingredient was avoided or a new one added. Nothing is without a reason. Sometimes minute changes in recipes are present simply because one family prepares it differently from the other. But the base of the recipe remains the same,” explains Tanya. 

Sometimes, it took time for her to convince people as food remains an intimate aspect of a family. “Some matriarchs don't relish sharing their recipes very much. They hold on to them preciously, like a family inheritance. However, I was always welcomed in warmth,” she adds.

One of her interesting findings was that starkly different communities have similar items. “For instance, the Mappila community (descendants of Arabs) and the Jews have similar items, like the sweet, muttamala. It is popularly known as a Mappila sweet in Kerala, not a dish of the Jewish community. It could have happened as communities lived in neighbouring regions in Kerala or because of close interactions of the latter with Arab traders.”

While researching, she focused on spice-trading regions like Fort Kochi, Chendamangalam, Calicut and Quilon. Those were the places where locals mingled and married traders. "Also, religions like Islam and Christianity docked on the shores of Kerala. It was much later that these communities moved to the interiors of Kerala. It was easier for me to work and research based on the old sea-port towns. A million historical stories can still be unearthed there," says Tanya.

Tanya cites the Anglo Indian community that has Portuguese ancestry as an instance to explain the beginning of foreign influence with religion, marriage and customs of living. “They spoke a creole of Portuguese and Malayalam and ate food that came from that union. The use of red chilli in Kerala and vinegar as a cooking ingredient came through the Portuguese. Steaming and baking were techniques we never really used in ancient days. Bormas were ovens heated with coal that the Portuguese set up to bake bread. Puttu is powdered rice that they steamed and found to be an easy staple to make on long ship voyages from Kerala. The Portuguese pickled dried meats in vinegar and paprika. It is how certain pickles emerged in Kerala,” she says.  

When it comes to appam, it is said to have been introduced by the Jews and later adopted, improvised and popularised by the Syrian Christian Community. “When the Jews were a flourishing community in Kerala, raisins used for making wine were reused to make chorka (vinegar). This vinegar was special (made from raisins) and Jewish women sold them in local markets. The history of the Jews in Kerala dates back to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. One of the twelve tribes that fled is said to have reached the shores of Muziris through the spice trade route. Jewish and Arab traders frequented Kerala earlier, but foreign settlement took place with a community of Jews finding a home in Kerala. What is unique is how their recipes took upon a different twist because of local ingredients. Dishes were improvised and reinvented based on them. Because their religion remained within their fold only and Jews did not marry locals, Jewish customs spread only as much as they shared it with others. But Christianity and Islam converted locals, and foreign traders and conquerors raised families with local women. Here, thus, is the emergence of a whole new culture as new generations of these communities were propagated. One can imagine how deep the influence thus is.”

Religions too have played a role in influencing the food culture of Kerala. After their arrival, food like metas that were not eaten before began to be consumed, new ingredients were brought to the coast of Kerala, cooking techniques were shared and religion called for the use of certain ingredients, and certain food was cooked only for specific occasions. “Whilst religion is not an element of identity that can be shared with others, food is. Culture can be shared through food. When we deconstruct a dish, there will be so many stories attached to it. Arab descendants in Kerala make special food for each of the forty days of a wedding celebration. Fasting and feasting in communities both call for various kinds of food,” she explains. 

“It is thus natural that already existing traditions take upon new avatars with cooking influences from afar. We see the Mediterranean influence in Paradesi Jewish food, Portuguese in Catholic and so on. What exists shifts and brings forth new flavours, techniques and thus unique representations of communities through food. Food memories are a wonderful way to document a family's or community's history. And food is something which (almost) everyone identifies with,” she adds. 

Now, it is difficult to say that the cuisines in the book don't belong to Kerala’s traditional cooking. The communities have become Keralites in their ways. But the book tells how the spice route made contributions that lasted for centuries. “It was also interesting for me to take this journey because the kitchen is often the soul of a home. What it churns out spell secrets otherwise unknown. Just like in my family, and yours,” she concludes. 

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