Kitchens of Kerala

Kitchens of Kerala
Food offers one the ultimate comforts in life, believes Lathika George, author of The Suriani Kitchen. Although she watched her mother dole out some excellent Kerala dishes during her growing up years in Mumbai, Lathika wasn’t always a foodie. “We would have traditional Kerala food for lunch everyday and Goan or Western food in the evenings. My mother was a great cook,” she says nostalgically.

It was only after marriage that cooking started to interest her. “My husband is a chemical engineer and we were in Kuwait for the first three years of our marriage. Missing India and our families, we gravitated towards the foods that reminded us of home — the cuisine of Kerala. That’s when you realise how the ordinary flavours of home cooking make the best memories and form lifelong connections. Writing about my culinary heritage was, I guess, a natural step towards documenting these food memories for my children and for anyone interested in the culture and cuisine of the Syrian Christian community.”

Initially, Lathika’s creative instincts as a designer took precedence over flavour, as she was more worried about the presentation of the food than taste. “While entertaining friends, I would plan elaborate menus and table settings, often forgetting to check if the dishes were cooked perfectly or well flavoured. Once before a party, my husband tried to get the message across subtly, ‘Why don’t you make some simple dishes, just basic home food, no frills?’,” she laughs. That’s when she realised that she needed to master the basics of cooking — before attempting complicated recipes; for simplicity is the key to success for a beginner.

A taste of tradition
The Syrian Kitchen takes you on a journey across the beautiful backwaters of God’s own country. Featuring over 150 recipes from the Syrian Christian community of Kerala, the book was first published by Hippocrene Books in 2009 as The Kerala Kitchen in the US and then by Westland Publications in 2010 as The Suriani Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala in India. It was relaunched by Penguin Random House in 2017.

Also a freelance writer and landscape designer, Lathika had never considered writing a cookbook. But it all began in 2009 during a visit to the US, she recollects. “I was visiting my daughter in New York when I met a publisher who was curious about the Syrian Christian community after a trip to Kerala. He asked me to write about the cuisine and culture of the community, so the reader could engage with the book. But all I could think was, ‘Who would want to read about this small obscure community in the US?’ Even in India, we were relatively unknown. But I got down to writing the book, getting more enthusiastic as I wrote.” To her surprise, the book was received well and went on to win the Gourmand Awards for the ‘Best Asian Cookbook’ at the Paris Cookbook fair. And the rest is history!

“While some of the recipes are my own, I have also taken recipes from friends and family — dishes that I truly love. Pick any dish and each person will have a different way of preparing it. For instance, the classic Kerala fish curry has so many interpretations. In my own extended family, everyone has a different variation of it! The same holds true for the Onam sadhya which is also in the book. Some of the older recipes are extremely labour-intensive and I documented them merely for posterity. But I was surprised to hear from readers who liked the idea of making these old favourites from scratch.”

Travel bug
Travel has played an important role in her culinary journey as she says, “While in Paris for the Gourmand Awards, I learnt a lot as I encountered a whole new world — chefs, food professionals, restaurateurs and other cookbook authors like me.”

Travelling to places within the country has been an enriching experience for her as well. “Soon after the book was published, I was invited for a Suriani food festival at a five-star hotel. I had my doubts — what could I — a home cook teach professionally trained hotel chefs? In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, working in a five star kitchen with a large team of sous chefs!”

Good old times
Asked her about the flurry of food trends in the industry she says, “Yes, trends like fusion food are interesting. There are many innovative new techniques and combination of flavours but after a point, the palate gets jaded and one likes to go back to traditional foods.” Speaking of traditional cooking, her favourite food is the simple dal apart from the Arabic and Turkish cuisine that she grew to love during her days in the Middle East.

Any advice she has for the budding cooks out there? “It’s a great feeling to be able to cook for yourself. Be bold and don’t hesitate to try new recipes, though from experience I would also advise you to learn the basics first — be it sautéing onions till they are just right, preparing a simple seasoning for dal, perfecting a béchamel sauce or even poaching an egg. Use your senses — even if you follow a recipe; for the sense of taste, smell and sight are your best guides. But above all, enjoy the process of creating a meal — even if it is just for yourself.”
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