Saturday, June 28, 2008
Syrian Christian cooking
The Syrian Christians are an old community in the state of Kerala, on the southwest coast of India. Christianity came to Kerala from the middle east; in the old days, the Kerala Orthodox church fell under the control of the Patriarch of Antioch in Syria -- hence the name.
Kerala cooking has received its share of kudos recently, but most people would be surprised by the consistency of its values -- perfectly cooked, tender fish and meat, vegetables with bite, short grained, unpolished red rice, and a variety of breads. Many Indians are careless about texture and bite -- does that ring true about your favourite local Indian restaurant? -- but not in Kerala. The spicing is in some ways characteristically Indian Ocean. Usually, one starts curries by thoroughly cooking the spice base, which is turmeric and red chilli that you find in most of India, plus coriander seed in place of the cumin that they use in North India. Usually the ratio is turmeric:coriander:red chilli as 1:2:4. After the spice base, comes the fresh base: ginger and garlic made into a paste. On this foundation of spices and fresh aromatics comes whatever makes a dish different: the fish or meat and the special flavours -- very often coconut milk is used as the liquid and thickener.
The fish curry shown above is the emblematic meen vevichathu, commonly known as Kerala Red Fish Curry. I took the photograph from a good recipe at http://sairaboby.wordpress.com/2007/06/26/meen-vevichathukerala-fish-curry/. (Saira's sauce is slightly lighter in colour and thinner than you would find in my family.) The characteristic ingredient in this dish is kudam puli -- the large black pieces in the photo -- a fruit which imparts a somewhat taramindy taste to the curry, giving it an attractive complexity of flavour -- it's a hot curry, with a characteristic back-of-the-mouth sharpness. (I don't know where one would get kudam puli in North America.) The fish is generally dense, not flaky -- a big fish like sea-bass or halibut -- the local equivalents, of course -- not a flat fish. Syrian Christians are good at cooking fish just right -- it's cooked (not raw, as in Japan), but still tender and moist. (Grilled flatfish is divine in Kerala -- I am sorry to my Croatian friends for saying so, but Dubrovnik doesn't have anything to match it.)
This is a Syrian Christian banquet:
You get a glimpse of the red rice on the right edge of the table, three dishes from the bottom. The meen vevichathu is at the back: here is a closer look -- in the long dish:
It's served with a dense fibrous starch, often kuppa or tapioca, but here breadfruit (just above the fish).
Below we have a bread known as appam -- the rice flour is raised with fermented coconut milk and yeast, and eaten with a light coconut milk chicken curry:
Kerala cuisine is complex and varied. Syrian Christians have the best of it, I think -- though the dishes are closely related to those other Malayalis make, there is a refinement in their flavours which surpasses the rest. It is probably not the easiest cuisine to get into -- the flavours are unfamiliar, and the routines and rituals of combination and order and what to eat when are complex. (For instance, you never eat yoghurt until right at the end -- you use it to sop up the left over gravies on your plate.) As a child, I preferred other things. Now, I think it's one of the best country cuisines -- i.e., it's not to be compared with the showy metropolitan cuisines you find in Delhi or Instanbul or Paris -- the world has to offer.