108 Curries in one: Annamma Kochamma’s cookbooks are like family heirloom

Annamma Kochamma's cookbooks on Kerala cuisine are, like a family heirloom, passed down generations.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Published: October 8, 2017 12:13 am
Masala pomfret (R) and puttu.

Sometimes, you go searching for flavours, sometimes the flavours come looking for you. When I was gifted Mrs KM Mathew’s book, Kerala Cookery, with my trousseau was packed the thickness of a meen vevichathu (red fish curry), the lightness of a cheera (spinach) thoren, the creaminess of a liver curry and the vinegar-laden onion web of egg roast.

Mrs Mathew, known to everyone as Annamma Kochamma, was the wife of KM Mathew, chief editor, Malayala Manorama. In a book he wrote in memory of his wife, Mathew records how she took cooking classes from a Mrs Dastur in Bombay, where they lived in the early 1950s. Her journey into flavours took her to different restaurants in the city. She combed menus and picked tips from chefs, only to return home and try them out. When she was on a visit to Kottayam, Kerala, her father-in-law, KC Mammen Mappillai, then editor of Malayala Manorama, prompted her to write a column, which he named Pachaka Vidhi (the method of cooking).

Annamma Kochamma’s preparation for the column would begin as early at 4 am, when she would write and rewrite recipes, test them to a fault, before she sent her final draft. When they finally moved to Kottayam, and she became editor of Vanitha in the mid-70s, she was already a household name. “My wedding was in Kottayam in 1994, and Mrs KM Mathew gifted us her set of cookery books. Her books on easy cooking were in English, they had simplified recipes for basic meals, such as sambar, avial, thoren and pachidi. It also had these rare recipes like jackfruit seed and mango, which possibly only my grandmother made. Such books are something I can pass on to my daughter, who is fond of traditional Kerala food, but will not find them at restaurants,” says Delhi-based architect Susan George.

Mrs Mathew’s cookbook.

In the same breath that foodies swear by Mrs Mathew’s cookbooks, they recall BF Varghese, who authored several books, including those for festivals, and young mothers. “She was an authority on puddings and cakes. I recall my holidays in Adoor, in my grandmother’s house where I would read her books as a child. Way back then, she had pineapple upside down and lemon meringue recipes and they would include substitutes for ingredients easily available even in the small towns of Kerala. Her recipes have helped me understand how ingredients behave,” says Thomas Fenn, co-founder, Mahabelly, which serves Kerala cuisine in Delhi.

Mrs Mathew’s Kerala Cookery Book, in its sixth edition, has illustrations for moulds and cauldrons required for different dishes. Considering new brides may move to north India or closer home to Madras, the book also has a list of ingredients in four languages, including Hindi and Tamil. Her hints are practical: Do not stir with spoon or ladle while cooking fish, it will break the pieces. Twist and turn the pan to stir the curry.

KM Mathew recounts an instance when they visited a home in Tiruvalla, Kerala, where biryani was made. It had been smoked too much, rendering it dry and flavourless. Annamma Kochamma entered the kitchen, heated ghee with roasted garlic and poured it over the rice, and salvaged an almost lost meal.

For someone who left indelible imprints of her cooking on the ceiling, and once served tea with split milk, I have been made to look good on several occasions by Mrs Mathew’s book. It has softened the eye of the uncle, who is known to reject an avial if the vegetables are not cut in similar length, or pleased a grandmother who liked a mean red fish curry.

Can it make me perfect the inji curry, known in Kerala as the one equal to 108 curries? No Onam sadya is complete without a dot of the chutney that ripples through the palate with the sweetness of jaggery, the sourness of tamarind, and the tongue-numbing ginger. It was a staple in my grandmother’s kitchen, like in almost every Kerala home.

Making an inji curry is like crafting a noir film, where the side can smoke up a storm in your mouth. It gets so dark in there, you never know who else is there in the dish. So here’s the recipe. Try it?

Inji Curry by Mrs KM Mathew
(Serves 4)
Ingredients:
150g – Ginger (minced)
2 dtsp (double teaspoon) – Shallots chopped
1 dtsp – Green chillies (chopped fine)
2 tsp – Chilli powder
A pinch of turmeric powder
Oil, as required
Tamarind, as required
A few sprigs of curry leaves
1 tsp – Mustard seeds
2 – Dried red chillies
1 dtsp – Jaggery
1 tsp – Rice flour

Method:
* Add the rice flour and turmeric powder to the minced ginger and mix well.

* In a pan, pour oil. When hot, put in the minced ginger mix and saute until it turns a deep brown and keep aside.

* In the same pan, pour oil, add mustard seeds, red chillies, curry leaves, shallots, green chillies. Saute until they turn brown.

* Now, add the red chilli powder. Meanwhile, dry grind the minced ginger to a powder. Add it to the pan and saute well.

* Add the tamarind-soaked water, as per taste. Put in the jaggery. Add salt, and let it boil for a while. This will thicken when it cools.

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