Tanya Abraham in conversation with Catalina-Ioana Pavel about her book: "Eating with History: Ancient Trade - Influenced Cuisines of Kerala"

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Tanya Abraham is the curator of Kashi Art Gallery in Kochi, Kerala, and the founder of the NGO The Art Outreach Society. Tanya was born and raised in Fort Kochi, a town of multicultural flavour and antiquity, where her family has been living for the past eight generations. Originally from the region of the famed ancient port of Muziris and born to parents of two different Christian communities, the differences in traditions and religious influences based on history always fascinated her. Tanya Abraham worked as a journalist for the last fifteen years .She wrote a book on the history of Fort Kochi. Eating with History: Ancient Trade - Influenced Cuisines of Kerala is her second book.
In your book Eating with History: Ancient Trade - Influenced Cuisines of Kerala, you take the reader on a culinary journey around Kerala and, at the same time, you bring up your own childhood experience, growing up in a society influenced by multiple cuisines and belonging to parents from two different Christian communities. I know that in Kerala there are different communities of Christians; could you tell us more about their different cuisines and how did you experience the coming together of two different ways of thinking about religion and, implicitly, two different ways of connecting to food?

Kerala is a melting pot of cultures and religious influences which translates into a melting pot of cuisines as well. The food trail is extensive. In the past, spice trade brought many communities to the shores of Malabar Coast because pepper was regarded as an asset even more valuable than gold. It was actually called “the black gold.” I come from a Christian background but on one side I have Syrian Christian roots and on the other side, Catholic ones.

“I am unable to separate memories from my writing. I search for the soul of what makes people who they are. I found that food is an expression of identities and histories, of people’s families and experiences.” 

Kerala's unique food heritage | Talk by Tanya Abraham | Kochi Art Week | FoodPlus
Kerala's unique food heritage | Talk by Tanya Abraham | Kochi Art Week | FoodPlus

In the tharavadu (ancestral home) where I grew up, my grandmother’s kusinchya (kitchen) was the epicentre of my world. It was the place that kept the home alive and stirred my imagination through the various foods from different corners of the world that combined with our local food habits. For example, I remember her between stone jars of pickles, the smell of firewood and burning coal, dressed in chatta and mundu, the traditional attire of a Syrian Christian woman. I remember the pepper roast chicken, a Latin Catholic dish, the Breudher, a Dutch bread which is still made in Fort Kochin even after two centuries. In a Kerala kitchen it is never about combining different food cultures, they are already so intertwined that it is hard to find the origins. The marrying of different spices and cooking traditions gave birth to what we call today as Kerala cuisine and food remains even nowadays an expression of our identity, of our cosmopolitan history and culture.

The southern Indian state of Kerala is known to be a melting pot of cultures because of the extensive trade that was going on for centuries. Despite being so diverse, do communities share dishes or are there spices that are used and dishes that are cooked only within one community?

The cultural identities which developed through foreign contact, in spite of the tolerant climate that prevailed, held tightly to identities in the form of rituals, religious practices and specific food habits. Specific types of food remained closely attached to specific cultures. For examples, Syrian Christians are known for their variety of breads (appams): palappam, neiappam, kaluappam, etc. Jews would never mix meat and milk and they had their different dishes that would be cooked and eaten only within the community (for example, Koubbah, meatballs cooked in a gravy rich with spices and curry leaves, a dish that is eaten during the Festival of Lights). Similarly, Muslims are fond of dishes based on beef while these could never be found in a Hindu household.

There is one quote from your book: “I am unable to separate memories from my writing. I search for the soul of what makes people who they are. I found that food is an expression of identities and histories, of people’s families and experiences.” What can you tell us about your identity and how did it shape the way you think about food?

I fell in love with flavours in my grandmother’s kitchen. My ammama believed the family remained nourished from the fires burning in her kitchen. Her food was largely Latin Catholic. She had an array of cuisines to the large joint family and this is how my interest for new flavours picked. I loved her pada, a pickled made of coconut vinegar, red chilli powder and garlic. Then, the steamed appam with coconut milk and ripe Kerala banana or her vindaloo (a Portuguese-influenced dish); these are dishes that we continue to make at home and are part of our identity, of our memories. Through taste and smell, just like the tasting of the madeleine in Proust’s novel, we can instantly travel back in time, to our childhood.

While mentioning your childhood in Kerala, you talked about the inspiration you got from your grandmother. “It made me think of all the women like her, who ran households and brought to life recipes passed down generations in their kitchen.” We can notice that women held an important role in a tarawad (ancestral home). How did women exert their authority in the kitchen?

The kitchen is the main artery of a household. Cooking was always like a festival back in my childhood days. My grandmother always reminded me of the importance of wise dining, she taught me to use cutlery and chew my food slowly while she was forming cutlets with one palm, throwing them in hot fat in a continuous rhythm while stirring curry with the other, and simultaneously monitoring the cooking for at least forty people at any given time. Annie Burleigh, my grandmother, was not only a culinary expert, but also a freedom fighter, founder of the Mahila Samajam in Kerala and a municipal councillor. Whilst the men of the household dedicated themselves to business and Indian Independence, she preserved the household, the base for the freedom movements in Cochin for more than half a century, keeping it nourished every day. Women were the ones organizing and conducting feasts and events, their dishes had the power to unite people, to make them come back, to connect and stir new ideas for the future.

What are some innovative and unique cooking methods or food habits that were brought by traders to the shores of Kerala?

One of the many innovations brought by the traders is the borma, the oven. Kerala did not have a tradition of baking things. It came with the Dutch who were used to bake their famous bread. That is how Breudher, a Dutch bread, can still be found even nowadays in Kochi, where Dutch people resided for some centuries. Another example is the habit of making pickles. Vinegar was never used in our cooking before the Portuguese came. Red chilli, pineapple, custard apple or tamarinds were also products brought by the Portuguese. Eating habits changed as well. Natives who ate from the banana leaf began using utensils of porcelain and sat on chairs in special dining areas, eating at a table and not on the kitchen floors.

How is religion an identity factor that marked certain food traditions in Kerala? Are there any religious taboos regarding cooking or eating some particular dishes?

Religion did play an important part regarding the cuisines of various communities. For example, Jews never mix milk and meat. Coconut milk was used instead for the cooking. A Jewish recipe found a new flavour by using a local ingredient: coconut milk. Therefore, their original recipes got enriched with local ingredients that could be found only in Kerala and this created a fusion between very different food cultures.

At some point in your book, you are describing the preparations that used to take place for the Christmas period. It was very interesting for me to read about your Ammama’s special vanilla ice cream spiced with orange-rind. Could you describe maybe once again the special preparations that used to take place in the kitchen at that time? What were the usual dishes and how did the ingredients change for that occasion?

When Christmas drew near, everything changed in the kitchen, from the ingredients on the shelves to the number of people helping my grandmother. Pork was salted, fresh fruit preserved in sugar syrup. Halwa, cakes, and wines from different fruits were churned out incessantly, wrapped in decorative paper and sent cycling to neighbouring houses. The lawns were decorated with white and blue lights, crockery hired and bearers wore starched white uniforms. Cooking was shifted to the temporary open-air kitchen and a kokie (cook, a derivative from Portuguese) was hired in order to help with the preparations for the big event. The dining table would be filled with delicious dishes like suckling pig, leg of ham or traditional Latin Catholic curries. Ice cream was a rarity in those days, but my grandmother was famous for her own vanilla ice cream spiced with orange rind. Her Christmas parties were always the talk of the town.







Tanya is a curator at Kashi Art Gallery and author of the book Fort Kochi, History. Working on Jewish history with the artists is, to her, the bringing alive of a past closely attached to the fabric of Kochi’s society.



Catalina is interested in the history of Malabar region, spice routes and anything related to the Islamic history in India. She studies Arabic, Hindi and Malayalam language.



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