I would like to call this my duck story. It was November, and my family and I were travelling through Alleppey. I must have been around 11. We chanced upon beautiful ducks in the market and simply had to take four back home to Thiruvananthapuram. The seller told us the male duck was best for cooking since its taste was best suited to curry—that statement has stayed with me.
The ducks were meant for the Christmas feast and I was put in charge of their well-being. I would feed them rice and bran before school and put them in the pond. They needed to grow in a water body so the meat would not be smelly. On my return, I would drive them to their shelter at home. One day, I opened the door to their shelter and found two ducks missing. I was in tears. The culprits were soon discovered—the foxes, which would usually come for the chickens, had found the plump ducks to whet their appetite. From then, I was protective about the remaining ducks.
Soon, November gave way to December, and with it came Advent— the period of abstinence. For 25 days, we would not have non-vegetarian food. My brothers were counting the days to the Christmas feast. Finally, the day dawned and Ammachi (mother) started preparing the dishes. When the ducks were made into a curry to be had with appams—a Christmas speciality in my household—there was no end to my sorrow.
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Ammachi, moved by my long face, decided to make a chicken roast for me. At the table, my brothers were devouring the curry. I looked at them in anger, refusing to have even a morsel of the dish made with my duck friends.
For 12 years, I stayed away from the duck mappas. But in 1992, just before I joined the hospitality industry, Ammachi whipped up a feast on Christmas, as she always did. I decided to try the dish. And when I had the duck mappas, a beautifully flavoured dish, it hit me just what I had been missing out on. From then on, though, I never got a chance to celebrate Christmas at home with my family; the festival is a busy time for chefs. But my mother would always send the masalas to me so I could make the dish myself.
So when I opened Kappa Chakka Kandhari in Bengaluru and Chennai, I just knew the duck mappas and appam had to be on the menu. I based it on my mother’s recipe, she would use the spices grown in our backyard. There was always this extra flavour of coriander seed and fresh coconut milk that made her dish simply outstanding.
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The place you source the duck from is important. Even now, I buy duck that has grown in deep waters, only from Kuttanadu. And I insist on the male duck. This Christmas, we have tried to recreate a Syrian Christian wedding meal at Kappa Chakka Kandhari. We will start with a plum cake, followed by chicken roast and the borma bread that is made in country-style ovens in Kerala. It is slightly sweet and soft. Then there is Vattayappam with duck mappas, chicken cutlet with beetroot sauce and salad, a free-range spring chicken fry and duck egg roast. We also have kalappam, made with fermented rice batter, with fish curry.
These are all dishes we would have at home on Christmas. What I also miss sorely from Ammachi’s feast is the Christmas cake, made in a gravel oven that had two trays—the bottom one would be filled with sand gravel. She would start a wood fire, put the cake mould inside and cover it with one more dish, topped with coal. That remains the cake of my lifetime, one that can’t be replicated.
Regi Mathew is culinary director and co-owner, Kappa Chakka Kandhari.
As told to Avantika Bhuyan