It was breakfast time as usual at Jayaram’s house in Valsaravakkaom. The kitchen was fragrant with the heady aroma of Malli Sambar. Former celluloid sweetheart Parvathi aka Aswathi was shining in her role as the heroine of this kitchen. When she is busy in the kitchen, she does not entertain any interruptions, even if it is that of her husband, Padmashri Jayaram.
As she served thin dosas and chilli chutney on the plantain leaf on the steel plate, Parvathi said, “Things don’t work out well, if both of us are in the kitchen together. I like order in everything. If I take a plate I want it to go back to the exact same place that I took it from. If Jayaram enters the kitchen, this will turn into a battlefield in no time. On days that he is free, he enters the kitchen with promises of help. He starts chopping vegetables claiming that it will be ready in a jiffy. But his efficiency and enthusiasm does not last long. Especially as he does this once in a blue moon. He gradually slows down. On such occasions I enter the kitchen only after he leaves.”
By this time, Jayaram who finished his prayers in the puja room reached there. The framed photograph of yesteryear moviemaker Padmarajan placed beside Guruvayoorappan and Chottanikkarayamma piques one’s interest. Jayaram had debuted in Padmarajan’s movie before he went on to become the star that he is today.
Along with his favourite deities, Jayaram seeks the blessings of his Guru Pappettan every morning. As he ate his breakfast, Jayaram recounted a past that was filled with flavours stored in his heart.
The Dosa Alarm
“I grew up in a joint family on a 5 acre plot in Perumbavoor which accommodated three family houses . The swishing sound of the Dosa being spread was my wakeup call every day. There were more than ten cows in our house. There was a long room next to the cattle shed that was designated as the study. This was my uncle Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s reading room. Milk, ghee and curds are smells from my childhood. I did not become a vegetarian out of choice. Growing up in a Brahmin household ensured that one did not even dare to think of another kind of diet.”
“Nowadays I eat a bit of nonvegetarian. But I can’t truly say that I relish this kind of food. I eat the gravy from fish curry. But the fish piece is still difficult for me. I have visited many places, tried a wide variety of cuisines but my comfort food has always been Thayiru Sadam. However, my kids are different.”
“Their exposure and upbringing is different”, Parvathi quickly added.
“At home we rarely make nonveg. This is something you can eat from outside. Kalidasan’s favourite dish is Karimeen baked in plantain leaf. Malavika loves Italian cuisine. When we eat out she always asks for pasta,” explained Jayaram with much amusement.
“Different times, different tastes, the West has taken over...what else can one say.” Jayaram mimics Sreenivasan’s character in the movie Sandesham.
“When my kids used to visit Kerala they would be full of wonder. They had seen bablimas fruit, mangoes and lololikkas only in shops. My memories would travel to my childhood in Perumbavoor at these instances. Though our property would abound in mangoes there was a strange pleasure in stealing mangoes from somebody else’s orchard. During holidays I could always be found on treetops. When I came back from school my mother would be waiting with some snack. This snack was an ada made from several cereals powdered together. This is my favourite snack.”
“As my mother hails from Thanjavoor her cooking was Tamil Style. She would make an accompaniment for this ada that was a concoction of potatoes, tomatoes and jaggery. As I had a sweet tooth, this was Amma’s secret to making me eat as much as food as possible. Once when Jagathi Srikumar visited my home, Amma served him this ada and he really liked it. He said that he had never eaten such a lovely ada and made my mother promise that she would send the recipe with me. Whenever we met next he would remind me of this promise and complain that he had not received the recipe.”
“Years have passed but this still remains an unfulfilled promise. Actually, I remember the promise only when I see him. As he knows that I am forgetful by nature this has become a sort of joke whenever we meet. He no longer has to complain. I just have to give him a copy of Vanitha Pachakam which has this recipe.”
“Ilayada, kozhukkatta, boli, pal payasam ... these kinds of snacks are my favourites. Our house had a big serpent grove. And a ritual tulsi plant in our courtyard. After the evening lamp is lit, we keep an offering at both these places. It would be milk and sugar at the serpent grove and sometimes a raisin near the tulsi plant.”
“But once this offering is made, I used to quickly steal it even before the crows could get it. Once a year, there is an offering of noorum palum at the serpent grove on ayilyam. There would be pal payasam on that day. I would coax my mother into making bolis as well. With bolis and pal payasam, it would be a celebration.” These childhood memories make Jayaram, who is passionate about majestic elephants and skysoaring chenda rhythms, wax poetic.
The First Slip
“I first ate biriyani when I was in the 10th standard. When I went with my friends to Ernakulam to watch a movie they ordered what they claimed was a great vegetarian dish for me. A friend described it as, ‘Vegetables cooked in masala. There’s no vegetarian dish that holds comparison to this.”
“But when I ate it I thought there was something unusual about the taste. When I left the hotel I sniffed my hand. My friends asked: ‘Did you like it?”
“I didn’t know such a dish existed. It was great.”But my happiness did not last long. When my friends let the cat out of the bag I was shocked.”
“What you ate was no vegetarian dish. It was chicken biriyani...”
“As soon as I heard that, I felt sick. But I sniffed my hand again. My mind was filled with those flavours again. I thought to myself that Chicken biriyani was really something.”
Ashwathi’s Kitchen Skills
“Though Ashwathi eats non vegetarian her favourite food is aviyal. She is happy if she gets aviyal and thoren at lunchtime. I am happy if I get a bit of mango pullissery. If not mango, then banana. Ashwathi is equally adept as my mother in making my favourite.”
“Ashwathi cooks paneer beautifully. I exercise my ‘likes’ only when I am at home. Once I go out I adjust to whatever food I get. However, this is not always possible. There’s a place where we all admitted defeat. I don’t have much experience eating nonvegetarian. But they are not like that. During my first visit to Scotland where all hotels seemed to have only a variety of meat dishes and the cooking is so different from ours, I survived the first few days on salads and fruits.”
“Though the hotel where we stayed at had only this kind of fare I was determined to find a restaurant that served Indian style food and started searching with the help of my Scottish guide. Though I went to several restaurants recommended by my guide I was not happy. Finally, Ashwathi asked him: ‘Where can one buy rice here?”
“Our search ended at a Pakistani store from where we bought rice. We were not allowed to cook in our hotel room. So we created a makeshift kitchen in the backyard of our star hotel with the help of the staff where Ashwathi cooked rice braving the chilly weather. The memory of that incident now makes it seem tastier.”
A Monster Called Chemballi
“Tamil actor Ajith and his wife Shalini are our family friends. Ajith loves Kerala cuisine. Whenever we invite them for dinner Ashwathi makes a Central Travancore style spicy hot fish curry.
Once when I was getting ready to go to Chennai from Kochi, Ajith called saying that they would visit us in the evening. I wanted to serve him something special for dinner, so I called one of my friends in Kerala and asked him to help me.”
He said, ‘Just got some fresh Chemballi. I’ll pack it in ice and deliver it at the airport.’ I was thrilled beyond limit. I rang up Ajith and told him, “Don’t eat a lot during the day, I am getting some great stuff for dinner.”
“Then I rang up Ashwathi and informed her that Ajith and Shalini were coming over for dinner. She laughed when she heard that the guest of honour that night would be Chemballi.”
“But things started going wrong from the moment, I reached Chennai airport. The ice pack with fish started dripping at the airport, letting out a disgusting smell. I acted as if this smell did not emanate from what I carried at all and kept walking. When I reached home and opened the ice pack, Ashwathi had a shock. The fish weighed around 4 kilograms. I suggested to Ashwathi that we could grill this fish and I would also help so that we could finish the job before our guests arrived. Our grill could not hold such a big fish. So when the grilling did not work out the way we planned, we thought of boiling it. By the time we somehow managed to cook this, Ajith and Shalini came.”
Ajith said, ‘I am really famished. Let’s eat first and talk later.’ He sat down for dinner.
“How could I tell him that things had gone wrong? As I sat down glumly, Ashwathi was busy in the kitchen with her experiment. The grilled fish metamorphosed into fish cutlets in half an hour. The part of the fish which was boiled was jazzed up with olive oil and vegetables and turned into a fish salad. I grit my teeth without anyone watching when I thought of how we got of a tricky situation. I did not tell them anything till we finished dinner. After that incident, whenever Ajith visits he asks whether we are planning to serve something innovative like the Chemballi dish.”Jayaram narrated this incident where what he feared would be a flop became a hit and closed his journal of flavours.