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The Suriani Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala Book by Lathika George

Book: "The Suriani Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of Kerala"; Publisher: Westland Ltd; Author: Lathika George; Price: Rs.450
A traditional Syrian Christian Malayali kitchen captures the essence of a home and the spicy cuisine of the community, which had converted to Christianity when the first missionaries from the West arrived in southern India.

The book - a travelogue woven around food - chronicles the culinary legacy of the Syrian Christian community of Kerala through its kitchen lores, 150 traditional recipes and memoirs that carry the reader to the backwaters, palm groves, talking doves, toddy shops, travelling chefs, aromatic spices and killer coconuts.

The kitchen centres on the hearth which has six "adupu" or stoves, where the heat is controlled by the amount of wood placed on the fire, writes Syrian Christian designer Lathika George in her new book.

George paints a vivid picture of the Syrian kitchen through its different fires - a vigorous fire for the swiftly prepared shrimp "olathiathu" (fried), a slow burning flame for the fish curry that will need to simmer in a "meen chatti" (special pot) and glowing embers of the smallest "adupu" from which a few live coals may be lifted to be placed on the lid of the "appa chatti" (rice pancake griddle). The flames take up the centre of the kitchen, but the rest of the kitchen is sparse and functional.

Herbs, salted meat and fish are hung to dry over the hearth and a jar of gooseberries may be left to smoke for days by the backburner.

The scent of history in the Syrian kitchen - that goes back to the arrival of the Christian apostle St. Thomas in 52 AD - is heightened by its layout.

The kitchen table - as in the old European Christian homes - is used for chopping and preparing food. Vegetables are diced with little wood-handled knives and the larger cleaver is reserved for chopping meat and seafood. The pots and pans are scrubbed in a deep stone sink after cooking, George says.

A "chembru", made of brass or copper, is used for steaming rice and broth while the "puttu kuti" that has a round base with a cylindrical tube above is used for making "puttu".

"Cheema Chatti" or the Chinese pot is used for deep frying eggs, vegetables and meat.

Food is either simmered, quickly stir-fried or sauteed, steamed or roasted. Statistics cite that 80 percent of the state still uses firewood for cooking.

The fare lives up to the complex equation of pots. "The diet is predominantly non-vegetarian with much enthusiasm for seafood, which is plentiful. Even the most humble home can be assured of a handful of sardines or tiny shrimps. Chicken, eggs and beef are consumed often; whereas pork and duck are reserved for weddings and festivals " writes George.

The staple dessert is coconut in various forms - fresh, ground, roasted or as coconut milk. It is the preferred medium of oil as well.

Post-globalization, however, there have been changes in the Syrian kitchen. In the early 1990s, when the fine art of icing elaborate cakes had taken the community by storm, Syrian Christian housewives vied to outdo each other. In the process, confectionery found a place on the menu.

The best toddy shop in Kerala, George says, can be found off highway 47 on the road to Alleppey. A pot-holed mud road leads through the marsh to a large shack perched on stilts near the edge of the water.

Most toddy shops in the state are licensed to sell the sour country brew that is freshly tapped each morning from coconut palms all over Kerala, George writes.

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