Cookbooks usually belong to the “humble literature of complex civilizations,” the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai once observed. But they tell “unusual cultural tales” by pitching themselves at one of three typical levels: the vernacular, the national, and the regional or “gastroethnic.” Authors writing for foreign or other audiences unfamiliar with Indian food, invariably seeking breadth, wrestle with the problem of how to convey the distinctiveness of this subcontinent’s vast offerings in single cookbooks. Here at home, by contrast, whether in regional languages or in English, the task of spanning the subcontinent seems less urgent. Instead, regionalism reigns—and not just that of linguistic states, but regionalism in concentric formations of increasing specificity: the contributions of sub-regions, communities, families, and even individuals to the development of cuisine. There is the challenge of balancing breadth and depth in the representation of Indian food, and a writers’ positioning along these two axes defines not only the scope of their undertaking, but to whom their work might most effectively speak.
Enter Paachakam, author Sabita Radhakrishna’s second cookbook. “Paachakam” means "cooking,” but the word implies Kerala paachakam, or Kerala cookery: the book promises to deliver the state’s heritage cuisine. Her first book was Annapurni, on “heritage cuisine from Tamil Nadu” and it set the mould that Paachakam would later follow and expand. Radhakrishna started from home, her mother’s own traditional Mudaliar family recipes, but widened her purview from there. Her concern was not “Tamil-centricity,” but rather the foodways of all those who have gathered and settled in Tamil country. That, and the age of their recipes: 50 years at least, maybe 75 or more. The introductory text to Paachakam does not make this explicit, but the same logic seems to apply, and this foray into Kerala cuisine is indeed a widening that began with Annapurni to the next concentric (and contiguous) set of gastroethnicities. For the “region” in Radhakrishna’s reckoning is marked not so much by state boundaries as by the communities historically gathered there, and “heritage” is not ancient or indigenous but simply old enough to conserve. As an old shopkeeper once said when I inquired on the age of a certain statue, wanting neither to exaggerate its value nor to undermine it: “venerable.”
Like Annapurni, then, Paachakam chooses breadth over depth, offering snatches and glimpses of venerable community-based cuisine but this time in Kerala. Nairs, Syrian Christians, Thiyas, Moplahs (Mappilas), Cochin Jews, and Nambuthiris and Poduvals are all represented. Each community gets a short introduction—too short, some might say, and more cursory than what we saw for the Tamil Nadu communities represented in Annapurni. Other notable Kerala cookbooks like Ammini Ramachandran’s Grains, Greens and Grated Coconut (2008) and Tanya Abraham’s Eating With History (2020) place far greater emphasis on the trade exchanges that have shaped both communities and their foodways, but this context is largely absent from Paachakam. What exactly should an introduction to a community’s cuisine in a cookbook like this really cover? Radhakrishna seems to be feeling still for the best answer, but has settled this time for only the quickest highlights of each group’s cultural history, favoured ingredients, and other sundry details.
The centrepiece of this cookbook is decidedly not storytelling. Paachakam’s unusual cultural tales are told through its array of recipes, both known and uncommon, interspersed with Nupur Panemanglor’s evocative illustrations. Both transport us into a landscape studded with coconut and bulging with jackfruit, waters teeming with fish and trees garlanded with emerald pepper strands. These ingredients provide commonality to the recipes as much as they provide distinction: the use of fresh coconut here or just oil there or its absence entirely makes a good part of the difference between a Kannur Thiya kozhi (chicken) biryani or the Mappila fish and Thalassery biryanis. Jackfruit is special every where, but a connective thread for the Nairs more than others perhaps. Appams are universal, but each community has its take: Nairs steam kumbiliappams (jackfruit cakes), the Syrian Christians fry the achappams and steam the vattayappams that claim universal adulation, and the Moplahs have the pudding-like kinathappam at Iftar during Ramadan. Forms cut across communities, but ingredients and methods create specializations.
Radhakrishna thus alerts us to overlaps in cooking practices between communities and to the multiple claimants to common dishes like the “sambar.” A community-based approach to culinary organization may be appealing and even sometimes apt, but it remains ultimately imperfect, all the more in this age of intermarriage, migration, and the general melding of diverse cultural practices in our everyday foods. Dishes like the thoran, rasam, sambar are easily cross-regional. Others like elaneer payasam (a tender coconut pudding really) are made in coastal Karnataka as much as in parts of Tamil Nadu. Many recipes are impossible to segregate accurately “with so much of fusion,” Radhakrishna admits while appending a “Classic Favourites” section. The classic onam sadya is the grand unifier, visually and conceptually—an empty banana leaf visual opens the book, the same leaf with a numbered guide to dish placement follows the recipes like an invitation to feast, and a folded leaf, the sign of a meal finished, closes the book. It is Vijayan Kannampilly’s Essential Kerala Cookbook (2003) and not Paachakam, however, that tells us how, thanks to the work of reformers like Sree Narayana Guru, the classic Namputhiri-Nair form of the feast, the onam sadya, lost its caste exclusivity and became the very quintessence of Malayali food: a grand, elaborate vegetarian feast that everyone claims as their own.
If Sree Narayana Guru challenged late 19th century orthodoxies by reclaiming vegetarianism for all, Radhakrishna follows 21st century compulsions in re-placing non-vegetarianism more at the centre of communal cookery. This is an obvious objective; Paachakam is an avowedly non-vegetarian cookbook. A more tacit but equally understandable aim is to make Kerala recipes intelligible to non-South-Indian cooks, but Paachakam tackles language and translation awkwardly at best. The book has a Malayalam-English-Hindi glossary but Hindi names for common spices and vegetables nevertheless interrupt each recipe. At the same time, the index of Malayali-named recipes is far less helpful than an index of all names and ingredients would have been, especially for the non-Malayali speaker. The issue isn’t that Radhakrishna retains local names (“muringayilai” for instance remains thankfully just “drumstick leaves”), but that she provides inconsistent supports to aid in learning them.
The best of regional cookbooks are confident exhortations to leave our safe corners, learn new vocabularies, and expand into those other concentric layers of our Indian selves. Paachakam is a beautifully designed book with intriguing recipes, but with socio-historical context thinly laid and language supports faltering, the windows it creates onto Kerala heritage fare can only swing open so wide.
A ‘mahashais’ recipe
Mahashais, or onion “leaves” stuffed with mincemeat: a Cochini Jewish recipe adapted from Paachakam.
4-5 large onions
Coconut oil to shallow-fry
For the stuffing
6-8 garlic cloves
1-inch piece ginger
1 dry red chilli
1 green chilli
1 generous bunch coriander leaves
Half lb minced lamb, beef or chicken
1 tbsp basmati or other aromatic rice
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp salt
Half cup malt or fruit vinegar
1 tsp powdered jaggery
Clean the onions, remove the papery skin, and trim tops and bottoms. Make a vertical incision down the length of one side, cutting only through one-two layers. Working gently with your fingers to loosen the onion leaves, prise them off the rest of the onion. Repeat the process for one additional layer, and then for the other onions. Set the hollow onion “leaves” aside. Reserve any unused onion cores for another use.
Finely mince the garlic, ginger, red and green chilli and coriander leaves. Mix well with the minced meat and the remaining ingredients for the stuffing.
Divide the stuffing into small balls and fill the onion skins. Do not overstuff—the rice needs room to expand as it cooks. Heat coconut oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and gently fry the stuffed onion skins until lightly browned. Transfer to a baking dish. Mix the vinegar and jaggery together and spoon over the mahashais. Cover lightly with foil and bake in an oven preheated to 325 degrees Fahrenheit/170 degrees Celsius for about 30 minutes.
Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist and researcher with the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She blogs about food and culture on Paticheri.com.