I’ve always held on to the belief that if one were to make a list of the OG flag bearing Indian cookbook authors of all time, there would certainly be a three way tussle for that coveted top spot. Making up that triumvirate would be the late greats: Tarla Dalal, Thangam E. Philip and Mrs. K. M. Mathew. Each of them writing iconic cookbooks whose relevance is as important now as they were when they were first published. All this, as we witness a resurgence of themes in the F&B world like vintage, comfort food and more importantly local and regional that are truly the flavour of the season.
And it is the last mentioned lady who’s latest book, Mrs K M Mathew’s Finest Recipes (Penguin Random House India; ₹ 599), I’ve been poring over since the last two weeks. Testing, trying and of course, ultimately tasting a few recipes therefrom in order to write this book review. For, this is the only way I’ve ever reviewed cook books and recipe sections of larger food books. Coming to the book, although this one sees the author's recipes over the years collated into a proper structured format--with relevant sections and places for each--the book is far from seeming like a hastily put together pastiche of incongruity. There is a certain ease and flow of the recipes that not just pay homage to the cuisine of Kerala, but to several other regional Indian dishes and even a few from around the world. Like the delicious sounding veal roast with brown gravy and mashed potatoes (pg.62).
For the uninitiated, the late author of this posthumous collection of her all-time top recipes, Mrs. K. M. Mathew (1922-2003), was a champion of not just the cuisine of her native Kerala and beyond, but she also wore many hats. Chief of them being the author of several food columns and of 27 cook books. Mostly written in Malayalam with five in English. She was also the founder editor of Vanitha, the leading Malayalam magazine for women.
In fact, it is widely believed that her cook book Nadan Pachakarama (2010) was the de facto Bible for scores of people when they had just started their married life and were learning to cook from scratch. It is that very same ease and simplicity that I found brilliantly reflected in this collection of just under 200 recipes, divided into 10 sections. Encompassing everything from snacks and the expected pescatarian delights of Kerala's coast, to one devoted exclusively to condiments like jams, pickles and chutneys. This one can be found at the very end of the 228-pages book like an unexpected little treat. Read: a range of divine pachadis like pineapple (pg.142), pickled mango (pg.143), regular mango (pg.145) and yellow cucumber (pg.144) that’s made with curd and coconut for an unusual flavour.
Reading this book for me was like taking a trip down memory lane, guided by a loving, indulgent aunt. One who’d insist I try “just one more achappam” (pg.3). Yes, that same sweet and crispy deep-fried cookie made with rice flour and coconut milk that I know as rose de kokies. Or trying my hand—rather successfully—at making her version of jackfruit preserve (pg.15) from the passed summer’s jackfruit pulp I had stashed away in the freezer. Rather foresightedly, I may add.
While the book has a few expected ‘Greatest hits of Kerala’ in the form of avials (mildly spiced white coconut and vegetable stew) and olans (another equally popular coconut milk-based stew made with ash gourd and cowpeas) (pg.136 and 137, respectively), there is also a wide berth of hitherto unheard of ones. Well, by me at least. Take the ney pathiri (pg.39) for instance. The book tells us that this deep fried spiced rice pancake delicacy is more common in North Kerala and is made especially for Iftar, during the holy month of Ramzan.
Common Portuguese colonial influences between my home state of Goa and Kerala show up in wonderful renditions of dishes like the mildly spiced, coconut milk-based fish molee (pg.102), pork vindaloo (pg.72) and mutton bafath (pg.55). Dishes that made their way to India along with Portuguese explorers. With vindaloo becoming a favourite in the central region of Kerala. The bafath, we are told, was one of the author’s early recipes that made its debut in the then newly launched cookery column in Malayalam Manorama that started way back in 1953, when the author was credited as Mrs. Annamma Mathew.
On page 114, I also got the sweetest revenge on a neighbour who resolutely refuses to share with me the recipe for her yummy pressure cooker made sardines that are a dead ringer for my favourite tinned sardines. The recipe given in this book is not just easy to prep for and ultimately, execute, but resulted in a spot on rendition of the dish. One that I dare say is better than any tinned sardines I’ve ever tasted. The neighbour’s included.
Now, how can any book or a review thereof be complete without mentioning the best part of a meal. Well, for me at least. Dessert. Harvested from Mrs. K. M. Mathew's large cache of sweets and puddings, they score a perfect 10. These range from the comfort-inducing pal payasam (pg.173) and the lentils-based parippu payasam (pg.174) to more exotic offerings like the delicate tender coconut soufflé (pg.176) and the Thai pudding with jaggery syrup. (pg.177). The last ingredient linking someplace as incongruous as Thailand with Kerala in the sweetest way possible.
But then, that’s truly what this wonderfully simple and unpretentious cookbook is all about. The old and the new along with the far and the close. All in a delicious mélange like no other.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.