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Cooking Kerala-style Indian heritage dishes

Cooking Kerala-style Indian heritage dishes

Sharmini Ann Jacob’s large kitchen hosts a treasure trove of heirloom cookware and crockery, passed down from her grandmother and mother, both of whom hailed from the south Indian state of Kerala.

“We went to Kerala for Christmas one year and my mother said, ‘I need a claypot’. And Amachi (grandmother) went to her cupboard, took it out and said, ‘Will this do?’ And she wrapped it up and gave it to my mother. So that’s easily 40 years old. And if you pull out other things from the kitchen, chances are they are from India because everything you see in the kitchen, I’ve inherited from my mother,” she says.

Sharmini is a warm, articulate woman who grew up in the bosom of a large extended family in Klang, where she still lives. Her mother was an excellent cook who moved to Malaysia where she got married (Sharmini’s father must have really liked her because she was the 17th woman he saw before he agreed to get married!).

As a child, Sharmini had fond memories of people constantly popping in to sample her mother’s food.

“My mum was a really good cook. She was one of those people who would walk into a restaurant, taste the food and the next week, it would be on our table – she had really good taste buds,” she says.

Growing up, Sharmini went with her mother nearly ever year to visit her grandmother and other relatives in Kerala. There, she relished the many home-cooked dishes that were made especially for their arrival.

“My grandmother cooked anything we wanted. In hindsight, I thoroughly enjoyed it – I ate all the good food and my mother never scolded me when I was there because my grandmother would scold her if she scolded me!” she says, laughing.

Sharmini’s cookware consists of many old-fashioned pots and pans that she inherited from her mother. She enjoys cooking and cooks often despite holding down a full-time job.

When Sharmini and her siblings went abroad to university in the 1980s, her mother wrote down her recipes and passed them down to her children. She died a few years later and Sharmini has since taken on the mantle of cooking her mother’s Kerala staples.

“Since then, I have further developed my cooking skills by calling up various aunts. I’ll tell them ‘This recipe didn’t quite turn out well, the taste is not right – what did I do wrong?’ They’d give me instructions over the phone and I’d go and re-do it,” she says.

Some of the Kerala staples that Sharmini continues to make include meen vevitchu (fish curry) a slightly spicy, light curry that is a family favourite.

“This fish curry actually has only chilli powder and turmeric and puli, which is dried, smoked tamarind that you only get in Kerala. Typically if you think of a curry, it has coconut milk in it or some form of milk. This one has no milk in it, so that’s the main difference,” she says.

Sharmini says she has tried looking for puli in the Klang Valley but hasn’t been able to find it.

Thankfully, she has a regular “supplier” in Kerala who orders it for her in bulk every time she visits.

“Mummy’s brother is still there and he and his wife are my puli suppliers. When I call and say I’m coming to Kerala, they’ll have a kilo ready for me,” she says, laughing.

Normally, when Sharmini makes meen vevitchu, she also makes kappa, a starchy, grated-coconut laced tapioca dish to accompany it, as she says the two dishes pair well together.

“Kappa and fish curry are my eldest brother’s favourite. He always wants them for his birthday, because these are dishes that combine well,” says Sharmini.

Sharmini’s mother also used to make kacha morru (yoghurt curry) a smooth, almost drinkable curry that has that the tanginess of yoghurt alongside a spice-laden undercurrent. “This is a very Malayalee dish that is essentially just a yoghurt curry with turmeric and some tempered ingredients thrown in,” she says.

Sharmini’s father Jacob (middle) says that his daughters Kerala-style food is as good as his wife. On his left is Sharmini’s older brother Suchit John Jacob, who also says his sisters food is pretty close to what his mother used to make.

One of the mainstays that Sharmini also continues to make is the family favourite pork vindaloo, which actually originates from Goa, but has become a much loved staple in Sharmini’s family.

“The recipe is pretty much true to how mummy taught me to make it. This is one of the simplest dishes you can make, it looks very complicated, but if you read the recipe, it’s very simple. And that’s one of the reasons mummy taught us how to make pork vindaloo – because it’s fairly simple. You just basically dump everything in and let it cook down,” she says.

Although Sharmini works full-time as the director of people and change in KPMG Malaysia, she says she always makes time to cook because not only does she love cooking, it also sparks memories of her mother.

Every time I’m in the kitchen, I think of my mother. And I enjoy cooking and seeing the raw ingredients and end results. I don’t know why, but I find great satisfaction from that actually,” she says.

These days, Sharmini’s culinary talents are so sought after by family members that she even conducted a cooking class when the family was in Melbourne to attend a cousin’s wedding.

“I had a cooking session with my cousins there. They wanted to learn how to make kappa, fish curry and kacha morru. So we all went to one of my cousin’s houses in Melbourne – everyone was there and I showed them how to make these dishes and they wrote down the recipes,” she says.

But perhaps the greatest acknowledgement comes from Sharmini’s father, octogenarian Jacob Chacko whose eyes still sparkle when he speaks about his late wife.

“My wife was a good cook from day one. And I don’t know – somehow or rather, Sharmini got used to cooking and now her food tastes more or less like her mother’s food,” he says, smiling.


Kerala style dishes - meen vevitchu

MEEN VEVITCHU

Serves 5 to 6

1 tsp turmeric powder
3 tbsp chilli powder
2 to 3 tbsp oil
1 tbsp gingelly oil (Indian sesame oil)
½ tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp fenugreek
3 sprigs curry leaves
200g shallots, chopped fine
2 inch ginger, chopped fine
5 to 6 cloves garlic, diced
2 cups water
2 pieces puli, soaked in a bowl of warm water (can be replaced with 1 tbsp lime juice from key lime)
salt to taste
1kg tenggiri, cut into 2 inch pieces (can be replaced with red snapper)

To make

In a bowl, combine turmeric powder and chilli powder with a little bit of water until it resembles a paste. Set aside.

In a large pot, heat oil(s) on medium heat. Add mustard seeds and fenugreek, and when mustard seeds start spluttering, add curry leaves, shallots, ginger and garlic and fry till lightly browned.

Add spice paste and fry till oil separates, the mixture should be a deep, dark red at this point. Add water and the bowl of puli and salt to taste. Bring to a boil.

Once boiling, lower heat and add fish pieces, one at a time in a circular fashion into pot. Cook till fish is tender – do not stir as this will break the fish pieces. Serve hot.


Kerala style dishes - kacha morru

KACHA MORRU

Serves 10

For pounding together in pestle and mortar
1 tsp fenugreek
1 tsp cumin
¼ inch ginger
1 clove garlic
2 shallots

For making the curry
2 tbsp oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
2 sprigs curry leaves
2 shallots, chopped fine
3 to 4 dried chillies, cut to 1/2 inch pieces
1½ cups hot water
salt to taste
1 tsp turmeric powder
3 cups fresh plain yoghurt

To make

Pound ingredients for pounding together and set aside.

In a frying pan, heat oil on medium heat and add mustard seeds. When seeds splutter, add curry leaves, shallots and dried chillies. Fry till light brown, then add pounded ingredients. Fry for a while, then remove from the heat.

In a bowl, mix hot water, salt and turmeric powder together.

Put yoghurt in another bowl or pot and slowly add the water mixture to the yoghurt. Stir constantly so that there are no lumps of yoghurt. Add the fried ingredients to the mixture and serve.


Kerala style dishes - pork vindaloo

PORK VINDALOO

Serves 6 to 8

For blending together with a little water
4 large tomatoes (tomatoes should be firm and a little green)
½ inch ginger
4 to 5 cloves garlic
3 large red onions

For cooking
3 to 4 tsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
3 sprigs curry leaves
½ tbsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp chilli powder
1kg pork, diced to bite-size pieces (must have fat)
salt to taste
1 litre water (more if necessary)

To make

Blend together all the ingredients for blending with some water until you get a paste. Set aside.

In a large wok, heat oil on medium heat and add mustard seeds. Once the mustard seeds start spluttering, add curry leaves and stir for a while. Add blended ingredients; once the mixture bubbles, add turmeric and chilli powder.

Cook for 5 minutes, then add pork and salt. Mix well, and add water. Once it bubbles, reduce heat to low and cover wok. Cook till meat is tender, stirring occasionally. This should take about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the pork pieces. You may have to add more water if the water has reduced and the meat is not tender yet.

Once meat is tender, remove lid, increase heat and cook till water evaporates and the pork fat starts rendering. Remove from heat and serve hot.


Kerala style dishes - Kappa

KAPPA

Serves 4 to 5

To blend
half a coconut, grated
2 cili padi
2 cloves garlic
5 to 6 shallots
1 tsp turmeric powder
water, as needed

For cooking
1kg tapioca, skinned and cubed, stem in the centre removed
1½ tbsp ghee
½ tsp mustard seeds
2 sprigs curry leaves
2 to 3 shallots, chopped fine
½ cup grated coconut
salt to taste

To make

Blend together all the ingredients for blending with some water until it resembles a paste. Set aside.

In a pot, boil tapioca until soft but not too mushy. Drain excess water, make well in tapioca, put blended ingredients and cover the pot with a lid.

Cook on low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a small pan, heat ghee and add mustard seeds. Once the seeds splutter, add curry leaves and shallots. When slightly browned, add grated coconut and cook till coconut is golden brown.

Add fried ingredients to pot with tapioca and add salt to taste. Mash tapioca and mix all the ingredients together until combined.

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