By Suvir Saran
Author of Indian Home Cooking, American Masala and Masala Farm
In this richly flavored book on the household cooking of Kerala and its many vegetarian marvels, Ammini Ramachandran takes us into a journey that even tour guides driving you through Kerala’s many vistas would be unable to share. How fortunate and blessed I feel to be able to introduce and perpetuate this brilliance. These are recipes gathered over a long, heartfelt, and celebrated lifetime. That Ammini calls Dallas, Texas, her home should be no surprise; hers is a passion and respect for the native land that only someone living outside of it can have. Lucky for us!
I first met Ammini through online chat forums that I moderated and that she contributed to. Always generous, never one to take credit, she posted meticulous and detailed missives on the magic of her region’s culinary traditions. I was smitten at reading her first post.The rest is history. Her works soon became the stuff of midnight yearning. When hungry for good food, and being lazy to cook or eat, I found myself sating my hunger with the aromas that wafted through the computer screen as I read her writing. How exciting it is to finally see her passion in print, enabling us to cook like her, live her history, and celebrate her Kerala.
Having aristocratic blood from her father—yes, he was the son of the maharaja of Kochi (Cochin)—she found herself living in her mother’s matrilineal family home at the age of eight. Her father had sadly passed away in a plane crash en route to New Delhi. Living in a joint family gave Ammini a new abundance that one can find peppered through the head notes that come with each recipe. A household of twenty-one family members made for great conversations, diverse tastes and palates, and, to the advantage of us readers, a cookbook that finds itself richer for it. Even a favorite recipe from her favorite chef at the family home finds itself into the curry section (Varutharacha Sambar).
Having grown up vegetarian, Ammini was disappointed by the lack of vegetarian options shared in books of Kerala’s cuisine. She was challenged by her husband, while waiting in a traffic jam over the Williamsburg Bridge in New York, to stop complaining and write her own book of favorite recipes. Fortunately for us, she has never been lazy, and here, after years of reflection, introspection, testing, and cooking, she has spilled her vast knowledge onto the pages of this book. And all of us, Malayali (people of Kerala) or not, Indian or not, shall be forever filled with great vegetarian options that not only give us healthful dishes to bring to our table, but flavorful foods, prepared in our modern kitchens, with respect for the past, true to authentic flavors, and never compromised.
Having grown up in New Delhi, I was delighted to see so many of our traditions find common practice across the different regions. The kitchen was the sanctum sanctorum in Ammini’s home, just as it was in mine. And it was here that she found love, respect, intrigue, and a lifelong fascination with food. Daily fare, festival dishes, and puddings all enthralled her, as did the picking of sea salt from the uppumarava (wooden salt box), which kept the salt moisture free, even in the humid environs of Kerala. Homesick in the United States, having become a member of a cooking club, finding success in recipe development and creating, she submitted a recipe for her mother’s coconut rice in a contest held by Woman’s Day magazine. It should be no surprise that she won first place and found herself, a few weeks later, cooking coconut pancakes with the food editor of The Providence Journal, who then featured her recipes and story in an article in the food section the following week. Soon, recipes that came along with letters sent weekly by her mother in India found their way into a journal, and now these pages. Her two decades in the world of finance (and its exacting standards) have found their way into her recipes. The recipes from her mom, which had pinches and fistfuls and other not-so-precise adjectives, have been replaced with streamlined measurements and clear instructions. Even the clumsy amongst us can follow these recipes to roaring success.
If you crave coconut milk but want it to be healthy and flavorful at once, try the recipe for Oolan. Vegetables easily found in your supermarket will acquire a nod of sophistication, guided by Ammini. Okra will not be slimy again if you make the Okra Kichadi (fried okra in a coconut and mustard sauce); even you who love slime in okra will enjoy this for the aromatics that only add to the overall enjoyment. Could onion soup ever take on new heirs and flavors? Yes, and in the recipe for Mulaku Varutha Puli, Ammini empowers it with the fire of green chilies, the sourness of tamarind, and the comfort of savory shallots. That mustard seeds and curry leaves are in the recipe only adds to the overall decadence of this simple-to-prepare soup that shall replace any cravings you have for the most mundane, classic rendering of an onion soup. Any table, any time of the year will do well to have the recipe for Mottakoozu Thoran placed atop it. A great side dish, cabbage has never ever tasted the same in any other version. Indians are masters of treating cabbage well, and this recipe is a great specimen of their prowess. Fans of rice pudding will find a wonderful Kerala version of this comforting dessert in the recipe for Neypaayasam. With brown sugar in it, it is still wonderfully rich and different; if you use the jaggery Ammini suggests, you will have yourself holding a bowl of deeply flavored rice pudding that has texture and flavor, and that leaves a lasting, scintillating taste on your tongue that shall bring you back to flirt with these pages in your kitchen.
Foods that celebrate the gods, foods that celebrate mere mortals, and foods that celebrate mortal ancestors—all find a place in the pages Ammini has shared with us. Traditional dishes prepared for the days of the dead, dishes prepared to celebrate festivals in different seasons and regions, recipes from temples—all find places of pride in her repertoire and now in yours. You only need to cook from these pages, and you shall find yourself living traditions and cultures that you wish could have been yours in tender years. Evocative introductions, brilliant descriptions of flavors, and rich interplays of spices and aromatics never cease to excite the mind and coax you into trying these recipes, most of which, even to this Indian, are foreign and exotic. You will find yourself cooking these recipes in no time; and tasting these flavors, you will find yourself hooked on classics of Kerala, favorites of Ammini and tastes of an era that is dying and would be lost forever if it were not for this tome.
This book will portend the coming of age of Malayali cuisine. With the same ceremony that was attached to Ammini’s Thirandu Kalyaanam (as you will read about in great detail in Chapter 12), Ammini has ensured that the passage of time has not deprived any of us of the magic that takes place around every moment of Kerala life. The dishes that marked the four-day celebration of her coming of age shall become yours and mine, just by our reading the intricacies shared here. She was bathed and jeweled in celebration, and for us, she has cleansed age-old recipes of bygone terminology but bedecked them with prose and instruction that at once relate them to the past and yet keep them fresh and meaningful to lives today. Ceremonies of the past have lost their social significance, as she tells us in this chapter and across the many other stories shared; but through these pages, you will find yourself reliving history, cooking delicious meals, and most of all, living Kerala without drama, right in your own kitchen and home.
May there always be Nagaswaram (drums and wind instruments) bands and men holding valum parichayum (swords and shields) for every young girl that comes of age in Kerala—and, even better, all over the world. I also wish every man could learn a lesson or two. The world then would be even better for it. We would be poorer if more Amminis are not able to share their magic with us. And to Ammini Ramachandran I give salutations for a book well written and long overdue, and for being a modest but powerful voice in the world of food and culture. I certainly cannot resist having this book perched on my kitchen counter, cooking and eating my way through the vegetarian jewels of Kerala.