Feature: The Tea-times of Childhood
Remembrance of teatimes past
Looking back at 4 pm food memories
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that young persons forced to spend a whole hot and humid month in their `native place,` will be forever restless, forever hungry.
Back in the Eighties, our large brood of siblings and cousins were no different when we landed up in Palghat for our summer holidays.
The days were spent endlessly prowling about the sprawling grounds of my grandmother`s house, dislodging many a sleeping snake in the stacked-stone compound wall, going for long walks on noodle-thin paths set among paddy fields, playing cricket on a sandy patch nearby, sneaking ciggies by the pond overhung by a lush weeping willow at the far end of the house, and suchlike.
And migawd, it was all about food. We`d gorge on everything the wildly overgrown orchard had to offer: gooseberries, mango, jackfruit, chikoo, the cashew fruit and nuts, badam, coconut. We`d munch salted tapioca chips all day long, sneering at its poorer cousin the kaya varuthathu, banana chips, both to be found in giant Mason jars kept, strangely, inside a bedroom cupboard.
However, tea-time was the highlight of the holidays. Oh, all mealtimes at Brindaban, my grandma`s house, were veritable feasts, given that her head cook/major domo/ family retainer Kesavan Nair (KP) was a culinary whiz who raised the bar on sambar, mezhukkupuratti, an ishtew or a chakka pradhaman, to impossibly high levels.
Once you`d had KP`s food, all other Malabar dishes were sternly judged and invariably found wanting.
Tea-time, though, was in a league all of its own. Everything was that much more delectable because of our enforced imprisonment, within the cool confines of closed doors and drawn curtains, between lunch and tea.
The elders would doze off, the house slowly filling with the far- from- mellifluous sound of snoring. Some of us kids would pull down Amma`s 1950s bound copies of Woman and Home and study the recipes of scones, crumpets and mince pies with rapt concentration. One or two brave souls would sneak into the pantry, pull the stoppers off the giant stone baranis and sample the hottest mango pickle ever.
Yet others would sit by the window alcoves and hold long spirited discussions — in stage whispers, though — on whether the ari nellika they had eaten platefuls of, with chilli powder, was the reason their tummies were cramping now. A few would stretch out on the many divans and discuss what KP would offer when the clock struck four. It was always all about food.
And when the clock struck four, we`d troop eagerly to the dining room. KP and his assistant cook (there was a procession of young cheerful boy who`d stay a few years and then move on seeking fresher pastures but always returning to visit) would have taken the fine china teacups and saucers down from the giant dumbwaiter that ran the length of the dining room, and poured hot tea into them. The fine china was for the adults, of course; we got our tea in glass tumblers.
But it was not the liquid we were there for. From the smoky confines of a then-gasless kitchen, where the musical sounds of an iron pipe aimed at the chulha could be heard, would come the palaharam that accompanied the cups of tea.
The standard was two cooked snacks and one crunchy snack every evening, but the range was a mind-boggling one.
Topping the list was banana fritters, the oil glistening lightly atop the wonderfully caramelised sides of the nendrapazham, golden bananas. Another spin on the fruit was the pazham nurriki, banana pieces boiled in their skins.
In yet another variation, KP`d score a deep cut down the length of a ripe nendrapazham, grill it over hot coals, drizzle ghee over it and dust it with a coating of granulated sugar. Served hot, the flavours of smoked pazham, ghee and sugar made for an ambrosial mix!
There was ele ada, the jaggery and grated coconut filling wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed; sukhiyan that had a delish mix of mung bean (cherupayar), coconut and jaggery as filling; and on days when KP didn’t feel particularly inspired, we`d get bondas or vadas, the uzhunnu or the parrippu versions where the peppercorns, green chillis and fried onions exploded in a sensory rush inside our mouths.
There were plates of beaten rice, aval, lightly tossed in ghee and gur. There was neyappam, made from rice flour and stuffed with jaggery, roasted coconut pieces, cardamom, as also unniappams, where the filling was mashed bananas, jaggery and roasted coconut pieces. KP`s kozhukatta range spanned the regular kozhukatta, the upma (rava) kozhukatta and the ellu (sesame kozhukatta.
The crunchy- munchies were not made by KP but were truly sublime. Brindaban was one road away from one of Palghat`s famed agraharams and my grandmother would regularly order in fried snacks, especially when we were around.
The Brahmin women would come home with large stainless steel containers full of murrukkus, kuzhalappam, thattai (the Mallu version of Karnataka`s nipattu) , cheeda, muthusaram, manoharam; savouries as well as sweets, and all made with rice flour.
My father`s family would visit often, from the deep south of the state. Tea-times then would turn interesting, with the appearance of snacks that were a nod to southern tastes like kappa and chamanthi, achappams ( rose cookies), and the to-die-for chakka varatti, a jackfruit spread that carried within it the taste of heaven.
All good things come to an end, of course. Amma passed away, KP passed away and as for us, we grew up. Those wondrous tea-times at Brindaban too, passed into gilded memory.
Over the years, many of us have tried our hand at making the snacks we used to enjoy at Amma`s table. Only, it isn`t KP making them, so they never really taste as good.
SUNDAY RECIPE: ELLU KOZHUKATTA
Ingredients (makes 12):
1 large cup rice flour
1 to 1 ½ cup boiling water
Salt, a pinch
1 tsp sesame oil (coconut oil overpowers other flavours)
1/2 cup white or black dry- roasted sesame seeds
1/2 cup grated jaggery
2 tablespoons grated coconut
Cardamom powder, a pinch
1 tbsp ghee
Boil the water adding salt and oil. Add the boiling water little by little to the rice flour and make into a smooth but not sticky dough.
Grind the roasted sesame, add the grated jaggery and coconut and heat on stove till jiggery has melted. Add ghee and cardamom powder to the mix, roll into small balls and keep aside.
Roll the dough into medium- sized balls and flatten them with your palm. Don`t make them too thin or else it will crack while steaming. Put the filling inside and close up the ball.
Steam cook the kozhukatta in an idli cooker for about 8-10 minutes or till done. When cooked, the kozhukattas take on a shine.
Serve hot or cold, it`s delicious either way.
This ran in THE HINDU of 28 July 2019.
Links to other Palakkad pieces: