“’Good morning Anoop’, is what the fresh whiff of crisp ghee dosa in the air seems to say every morning as I emerge from my bedroom at home in Kozhikode. I hurry to brush my teeth, grab a steel plate and sit near the hearth where my grandmother is making dosas for breakfast. She turns her head to look at me, her eyes filled with love as she serves me small hot dosas. My grandmother was the one who first introduced me to delicious thattu dosas.” Anoop remains silent for a while lost in old memories of his home.
Good food = Mother, is an equation propounded by Anoop. He believes that the effort and love that mothers put into preparing food, working hard day and night for their family, is their magic ingredient to good taste.
“While my father, sister and I are under our blankets in the early hours of the day, my mother would be already busy making breakfast and packing our lunch boxes, which is why I always tell my mother that the food she cooks tastes superb. You should see her face glow when I appreciate her cooking and then I feel, all mothers are like that.”
“As a policy, I do not criticise food, whoever makes it. Even when the food in a hotel is not up to the mark, I call the waiter in private and tell him to take more care next time.”
The taste of love
“When I think of food, what runs through my mind is the illustration in a text book which showed a boy at the dining table being served bread and vegetables by his mother. The vegetables looked so colourful and the bread so delicious that I left school that day dreaming my mother would serve me the same for dinner. Mother had cooked my favourite fish curry that day. I was thoroughly disappointed and made a huge fuss for bread and vegetables. My mother was surprised at my stubbornness but sweet as she is, immediately brought me a plate with a few slices of Modern bread, chopped carrots and capsicum, exactly resembling the meal in the picture. That day I learnt a lesson … that such food looks good in pictures only!”
“I love to savour the food I eat, enjoying every bite, but tend to get bored of repetition if the same dishes are served regularly. There are two things I can never be tired of. One is a dish of long beans and raw plantains cooked with coconut oil called kaya payar mezhukkupuratti and the other is fried pomfret. The mezhukkupuratti and some garlic pickle is a feast as far as I am concerned. My other favourites are the olan, fried seer fish and fish curry made with crushed red chilli and my mother makes them so well too!”
Anoop picked up his mobile and dialled his mother, “Hi Amma, tell me now, how do you make your superb fish curry?” He talked to her for a little while and then hung up turning to us with more information about his favourite dishes.
“I came from Trivandrum to Ernakulam today and didn’t get time to have lunch at home. Despite all my protests Amma packed lunch for me the way I love it; all wrapped up in the banana leaf which as you know, we fondly call pothichoru. On the way my stomach was growling. I opened up my lunch packet and had lunch right in the car. Guess what all she had packed … rice with roasted prawns, raw mango chutney, roasted long bean and my favourite garlic pickle! You can imagine how overwhelming it was to feel Amma’s love right there in the car.”
Now, what actually is dieting?
The very mention of dieting brought a frown to Anoop’s brow. “Food is not on to be restricted to a bowl of fruits or vegetables. Every meal should be a feast and celebrated like a festival is what I personally feel. Food is a celebration of tastes, of ingredients, of variety! Heavy breakfasts and light dinners are not my cup of tea. I eat the way I like. I enjoy my dinner thoroughly and so generally have a heavy dinner. I’m not one to skip meals and fast and I don’t believe that this can make you look better and even if it does you won’t get me doing it.”
Anoop does not venture into cooking, not even for the fun of it. “Cooking is an art….” He says “and I don’t want to meddle with it. An egg bullseye is the best I can do. Nothing more. When I’m ravished, I do experiment though, but I don’t think that can be called cooking. A hand for cooking and the interest and patience to do it is important. Not even my mother can match the delicious Kerala special snacks like ariyunda and aval vilayichathu that my grandmother used to prepare.” For that matter whatever Ammama made, even if it was only roasted pappad, was simply delicious.”
“Yet another person who has an excellent hand for cooking is Jayasurya’s wife’s Saritha’s grandmother. When in Ernakulam I call him up and appeal to his sentiments, ‘Eda, there are no restaurants functioning today and I’m famished’. Though he’s sure I’m bluffing, the poor fellow always sends me some food.”
“Jayan has a superb cook at home. His name is Srikumar, but we call him Srikutty. From the traditional fish curry made with Kerala special cocum to five star fish dishes of any taste and variety, Srikutty is an expert at it all!”
“When studying in Law College, my best friend Shankar Ramakrishnan (of Urumi script fame) and I bunked college and went to Peerumedu. We reached Peerumedu at 5.00am and it was ice cold. We were starved too and the excitement of the adventure was slowly wearing out. With lot of difficulty we found a small tea shop open. A Philipose chettan was the owner of the shop. The taste of the steaming hot puttu and kadala we had with egg roast and black coffee in the early hours of the frosty morning watching the mist clear, still stands. That was an unforgettable incident.”
In Law College, Anoop loved hanging out with his friends at the Indian Coffee shop near the Secretariat.
“Those days, Shankar and I were dreaming of cinema but were not sure of getting there and I still remember, we used to spend hours at the coffee house. Our favourite dishes were beef omelettes and coffee. The parippuvada served in the canteen was another weakness of mine. In the first years at the law college one was only allowed to wish for parippuvadas. They were always reserved for the seniors. When we became seniors, we would even fight for those parippuvadas. And if we went to the Public Library, it was to eat banana fritters or vazhakka appam made by Hariannan. Even before the snack came its aroma would reach us. Delicious yellow coloured fritters deep fried in coconut oil. It was just heavenly to sink one’s teeth into them and if you really want to savour them you should have it with your eyes closed.”
“When studying in Law College I was a regular visitor to my friends’ house and made a hobby of ranking my friends’ mothers’ cooking. Shankar’s mother made delicious vegetarian dishes and the special fish curry she makes with ground coconut is absolutely fantastic!”
“Yet another friend Vishal’s mother used to make an absolutely ravishing dish with chicken skin. She would fry it with lots of black pepper and the very thought of it makes my mouth water. Her chicken curry which she prepared in the pressure cooker was also equally good and to be frank I’ve never tasted any better chicken curry to date. She would serve the curry in the cooker itself and in a few minutes, the cooker would be empty.”
A journey through various tastes
Wherever he travels, Anoop makes it a point to taste all the special dishes in the area. “Once I went with my friends for a trekking tour to Kazhakhstan. Amidst the snow covered mountains, we saw a wooden house, warm and cozy, and where we were served chicken with sheesh leekh made of a variety of meats and buttered bread. That was an unbeatable combination!”
“My friend Mahesh was the one who first introduced me to Galadhari, a restaurant in Colombo. That is the biggest buffet hotel I’ve ever come across till date. On one side one can see live cooking going on and on the other a huge variety of different kinds of breads and dishes of meat cooked in different ways. The spread of fruits is unbelievable; from kiwis to figs they are all available there. We were in by 8.00am and after trying out almost everything were able to leave only by 9.00pm!”
“It was when I went to Bangkok, that I realized the value of food. What looked delicious and served on the roadsides could turn out to be fried cockroaches or even roasted millipedes! The only thing one could eat without fear was fruits. It was then that I realized that even fruits could taste so good!”
“An onion soup I tasted on a trip still lingers on my tongue. More than the taste, it was the way in which it was served that attracted me more. The soup was served in carved round bread. Once the soup gets over, the soaked bread could be scooped out and eaten and it tasted heavenly too!”
East or west, home is best
This is very true in the case of food. Of course, when travelling it is fun to try out the different tastes in different places, but that is for a maximum of one or two days. Trust me, none of it comes anywhere near the traditional Kerala sadya served with our very own olan and kalan.
“On the Balaramapuram – Kovalam route there is a small hotel in Kattachakuzhi. The chicken dishes kozhithoran and the kozhipirattan are in great demand there. These dishes get over by lunch time. My other Trivandrum favourites are the Kethan chicken in Chala and Masala dosa of Aryanivas. If you ask me to name a sweet one can have without getting fed up of; I would say it is the jilebi. A small bite and your mouth fills up with sweet syrup which can be compared to honey. It is this craze for the jilebi that prompted me to make my character sell jilebis in the movie ‘Beautiful’. I do not know why, there are no places that sell really good jilebis, these days.”
“When you go North of Trivandrum, there is an eatery run by Subair ikka called Cream Corner in Mullakkal, Alleppey. Even foreigners flock the place as the food served is too good. Equally good is the tandoori chicken of restaurant Chillac in Ernakulam and the pomfret fry and ‘meals’ at the Amma Restaurant in Kozhikode. The Amma Hotel is in the courtyard of a house and is covered by a thatched roof. The food there is so homely that you feel that you are at home.”
“The best arikkadukka is the one made by Sainuthatha of Kozhikode. She stuffs raw rice and masala in mussels and deep fries them to make these delicious arikkadukkas. When I feel the food at the location is getting a little monotonous, I only need to think of Baby chechi’s vegetarian dishes, Noorjahan chechi and Shybu chechi’s master dishes kozhinirachathu and erachipathiri to cheer up.”
Anoop may not be a religious fanatic but talk of the food served in temples and you will see a sparkle in his eyes. That is the only time he feels a tinge of jealousy against the Gods. “How delicious are the snacks offered to them! It’s not fair.” Talk of prasadham(snacks blessed in the temple), and what runs through Anoop’s mind are the sugar strewn unniappams of the Ganapathy temple at Kottarakkara, the pal payasam of the Ambalapuzha temple and the vadamalais of the Hanuman temple at PMG.
A café for dreams and cinema
A meeting point of taste, cinema and intellectual discussions is a dream of Anoop’s.
“To be able to serve good food is a blessing. I must also start a cafe. The idea is already forming in my mind. It will not be an ordinary restaurant, but a place where new tastes and new looking dishes will be experimented on and served. Besides, people must flock in not only for good food, but to dream and to think intelligently. Good movies must be born from there, just like the Indian Coffee House from where Priyadarshan and Lalettan dreamt of cinema.”