Learn about Kunchacko’s romance with food as he narrates interesting anecdotes from his life.
After a recent injury during a film shooting, Kunchacko has been recuperating at his wife’s house in Thiruvananthapuram, enjoying the well -deserved break from a hectic schedule. An enticing aroma wafts out of the kitchen. His wife Priya is busy rustling up something special in the kitchen. “My cooking trials have always ended in disaster,” he reminisces. “During my college days, I once went to my friend Avinash’s house for combined studies. By 2 am, we were very thirsty and longed for a hot cup of tea. We quietly crept into the kitchen, took the milk from the fridge and kept it to boil. A long while later, the milk showed no signs of boiling. That’s when I realized something was amiss. We tasted it and realized that it was curd and not milk that we were trying to boil! We made a quick exit before Avinash’s mother came into the kitchen, hearing the commotion. That was my first and last experiment with cooking. Nowadays, it’s all talking and no cooking,” he laughs.
Hearing this, his wife Priya had something to add, “True, he doesn’t cook, but if he is at home he supports me wholeheartedly in the kitchen. He is a pro when it comes to chopping onions. The only problem is that he insists on creating various shapes from the poori dough to fry. I can count on him for any help while cooking. But he is extremely particular about hygiene in the kitchen. Each and every item must be in its designated place after use. He is an ardent food lover and relishes tasty preparations. If he feels that he is putting on too much weight, he goes on a vegetarian diet and maintains this till he sheds off the excess pounds.”
“I enjoy good food, but my preferences keep changing with time. Right now, my favourite is fish curry made with the heads of fish. It should be equally spicy and tangy. One mouthful of the fish curry and I am in another world!” One can see the craving on his face as he describes it.
Nostalgic Memories of Mariamma Cheduthi’s Cooking
The credit for making Chackochen (as he is fondly referred to by all) a food lover, goes to his mother and Mariamma Cheduthi, who was his mother Molly’s able assistant. It was the time when Udaya Studio, was at the peak of its fame in the Malayalam film industry. The food for the leading film stars of the time was prepared at his house in Alappuzha. The kitchen was always busy, with the sounds and smells of frying and sautéing filling the air. The varied delicacies including meats, fresh fish from the backwaters, shrimp, crabs and squid were prepared under the watchful eye of Mariamma Cheduthi. “She was the undisputed star of the kitchen,” he remembers. “She was such a skilled cook that all her dishes were par excellence. Even if fifty people arrived unannounced, an elaborate meal would be ready for them in no time. She even remembered the personal preferences of each film star and cooked for them accordingly. We would hear her hurry about saying, “Nazir Sir is coming for lunch. I must get the karimeen ready. He prefers it deep fried....”
“Her chammanthi was her masterpiece. The taste is unforgettable. She would roast coconut slivers on firewood along with shallots, tamarind and salt and then grind it to a paste using the traditional grinding stone. It tasted best when served with kanji. What a mouth-watering chammanthi it was! She would make it for us when we were down with the flu and our appetite would return in a trice. Cheduthi’s chicken roast, beef ularthiyathu, appam and karimeen stew are all classics. Simply thinking about it makes my mouth water,” Chackochen remembers fondly.
Now here’s the best part - Chackochen knows the secret of her tasty preparations – she would only cook on firewood. It was ‘no entry’ for gas stoves. The spices and masalas for the curries would only be ground on the grinding stone. Freshly prepared coconut oil was a must. Chilli, coriander and other spices were dried and freshly ground. Pure, fresh and unadulterated ingredients were used to make healthy and tasty preparations. Bakery items were never allowed into the house. Tea-time snacks were home-made banana fritters, vada and his all-time favourite, egg bajji.
His mother’s special preparation was chaala vattichathu, a sardines dish. “She would cook it on a clay pot on firewood. Once, Priya made it in a clay pot at our apartment in Ernakulam, using my mother’s original recipe.”
“My mother’s chilly chicken, Ammachi’s vattayappam, dried prawns with irumban puli, dried beef roast, and a curry made from mangoes in brine had a special, unique taste.” His face lights up again as he turns to Priya and says, “We have mangoes here, don’t we? Make the same mango curry tomorrow for me.”
When travelling, Chackochen loves to try different kinds of cuisine. Biriyani from Paragon at Kozhikode, Thai grilled prawns, tender mutton preparation from Samarkhand at Bangalore, sliced beef with burnt garlic sauce from Avenue Regent at Kochi, karimeen pollichathu from Karimpinkala at Kottayam, prawn roast from Thottapally Kalpakavadi in Alappuzha…the list is endless. During his college days, even if he could not make it to college on some days, he was a regular at the Indian Coffee House, both in the mornings and evenings.
Whenever he goes to Alappuzha, he zooms off in his car to his favourite destination to buy fresh karimeen and prawns on the Alappuzha-Changanasseri Road. “I am very particular that all meals should be tasty and well prepared.” He loves karimeen cooked in any form. “But I can’t stand its bones. Eating it is such a hassle,” he complains.
Despite being a foodie, Chackochen doesn’t make a fuss if the food is not tasty. Food at the shooting locations almost always tastes the same. One gets tired of it after two days. But he is very accommodative and never makes a fuss about it. He is also an expert at reviewing the food that his friends cook. “Kavya is an excellent cook. Her bread pudding is a favourite of mine. If Achu Oommen (Oommen Chandy’s daughter), Priya and I say we are coming over, she will immediately make chocolate mousse for us. I can go on eating it”, he says.
Ask him about festival mealtimes, and his mind is filled with the sweetness of Christmas cakes. “Christmas and Easter are two occasions when we eat till we are stuffed. Christmas is when the celebration is more elaborate. The house is filled with more than forty people, comprising of cousins and family members. The atmosphere is more like that of a food festival. The cooking preparations begin two days earlier, on the 23rd itself. Cutlets, veg rolls, cakes, wine are kept ready in advance. After returning from the Church service on the 24th, we rush home to be welcomed with an elaborate feast on the dining table. Appam, bread, puttu, chicken, beef, mutton, duck … just waiting to be eaten,” he recalls excitedly.
“Not only Christmas, but we also celebrate Onam in a grand way,” adds Priya. “We serve the traditional Onasadya on banana leaf. Then we all settle down in front of the television to watch a movie. If it is Chackochen’s movie then we have a laugh riot. He is the target of all comments and jokes,” she says, unable to control her laughter.
On Priya’s Cooking …
“When I got married, I did not even know to make a cup of tea,” recalls Priya, with a twinge of regret. “That’s an old, forgotten story”, says Kunchacko, interrupting her. “Now she can effortlessly cook all my favourite dishes in no time. Chocolate lava cake and peach pudding are her masterpieces. Once after enjoying duck curry and strawberry shake from our house, actor Salim Kumar told Priya, ‘You must start a restaurant.’ She was so thrilled after receiving the compliment.”
Chackochen loves to try out new and different kinds of dishes. He enjoys new recipes that Priya tries out from cookery books and encourages her by giving her feedback on it. When travelling abroad especially, he enjoys trying out new cuisine. “Once I visited a seafood restaurant in America. While eating the mixed seafood platter there, I saw an exotic item on the menu - alligator. I tried it out right away. Priya found it disgusting. Another time I fell flat was when I tried out pork ribs in Vienna. But my choices of food when travelling abroad are never quite successful. Whatever I order turns out to be horrid. That’s when I start stealing from Priya’s plate!” he grins.