If you were from Kerala, or spoke Malayalam, you would be sure to win the Chechis’ favour – you could come away with an extra papad, and on the weekly 'sweet day', you could be rewarded with an extra ‘apple cake’ – these were restricted to one per student, unlike the sambar and rasam which we could have any amount of but didn’t really want.
My introduction to Kerala and its food was largely at this hostel. In a college where Kottayam was called The Homeland and our Malayali friends introduced us to many treats from their tuck boxes, I first heard of aappam. “Think of it as an idli with frill,” said my roommate from Changanachery. Then there was the meat pickle which only later I found out was beef and not mutton, the diamond cuts, the prawn and fish pickles, a novelty to me, and the rose cookies flavoured with coconut milk. Evening tea once in a while featured a cold, grey pancake with bits of coconut in it. To someone who was not exposed to Kerala food, it was a mildly sugary ootappam!
The main meals, however, did not feature much Kerala food. I don’t remember if the rice was of the parboiled variety but it was the simplest of food, and also the most flavourless. (I came to appreciate its goodness only after I moved to another hostel which offered much tastier food but also gave me a month or two of tummy trouble.)
I don’t even remember if we got avial in that mess, the first one. What we did get was the whole green gram curry. Or a very dry sauté, as it was made there. I would be completely clueless as to the method of eating it - in general, people from Andhra don't treat vegetables, even dry preparations, as side dishes for sambar rice or rasam rice. They are eaten mixed with the rice, usually with some ghee. I used to think it was something the chef would rustle up every week when he fell short of vegetables at the right price; little did I know it was a traditional item. We also used to get a few vegetable preparations that were spectacularly unidentifiable and undistinguishable in looks and taste to a person such as I who had had no exposure to cooking and kitchens – I ate them for three years thinking they were such-and-such but they turned out to be something else totally.
I do have that mess to thank for a good habit, though – the lack of choice made me eat whatever was available and now I don’t dislike any vegetable.
The stew, however, is a different story. I only came across it much later in a book on Kerala cooking but didn’t really probe. I don’t remember where I first tasted it, or when I had my first aappam. Friends of ours invited us for lunch, and something like this featured in the menu. They had a nifty little tool which helped them cut the carrots and potatoes into wavy shapes, and the stew, with a peppercorn or two peeking through, dotted with orange and pale yellow and green from the beans has been one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever seen.
Here we go then, from memories to now:
Carrots, 1-inch pieces: 100 gm
Potato, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces: 150 gm
French beans: 6-7, cut into 1-inch pieces
Onion – 1, sliced
Green chilli – 1, sliced
Ginger – ¼ inch, peeled and chopped
Coconut milk – 1 pack of 200 ml
Crushed pepper – 1 tsp
Green cardamom – 2
Cinnamon – ½ inch
Cloves - 2
Curry leaves - 4-5
Oil (I used coconut) – 1 tsp
Salt – to taste
Boil the vegetables till they are tender – they should hold their shape and not get squashed. (I used a pressure cooker, put about half a cup of water, and let it hiss once.)
Heat the oil in a pan, sauté the cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
Add the onions, ginger, curry leaves and the green chilli, sauté till onion is transparent.
Now add the vegetables and salt. Mix gently.
Reduce the heat to the minimum. Pour in the coconut milk and heat for a minute or two. Add the crushed pepper, remove from fire.
I’m not sure if this is the way it’s made traditionally, this is made from the memory of a recipe, but it tasted very similar to what I have had in Kerala homes and restaurants.
RCI-Kerala Vegetable Stew Potatoes Coconut Milk Humour