In Palakkad Palate, A Transfer Of A Legacy Of Regional Cuisine
Image Credit: Zesty South Indian Kitchen

For Jayalakshmi Ramdas, or Jayam Amma as she is fondly known, growing up in Palakkad along the banks of the river Bharathapuzha, meant a childhood happily spent in the company of eight siblings enjoying all the tranquilities that her village offered. She recalls bathing in the river every morning before heading off to the temple and attending temple festivals in her lush heritage village Kalpathy Agraharam.

Cover of Jayam Amma's cookbook, Palakkad Palate.

What Amma recalls most vividly are memories of the days spent with her mother in the kitchen. Amma's mother worked around the clock to run their large household and being the fifth of nine siblings, she took it upon herself early on to lend her mother a helping hand. In doing so, acquired a treasure trove of recipes that are synonymous with local Palakkad cultures and flavours. Although Amma left Palakkad when she was 20, she carried with her native recipes that continued to be passed down from generation to generation.

In a new book titled Palakkad Palate, Jayam Amma writes down all the regional and heirloom recipes that she learnt in her hometown in Kerala, documenting what are now dishes and ingredients largely thrust into obscurity. Jayam Amma's book rekindles the flame of the chula that would burn bright in her own home in preparation of several local dishes like sambars, kootans and fried foods called pachadis as well the side dishes or poduthuvals made from beans and leafy greens.

Amma reminds us that all these regional delicacies are a product of what grows locally and seasonally in the coastal provinces and preserving these recipes is as much about holding on to our roots as about consuming foods that are healthy and easy to make. In doing so, she makes one think of their own grandmothers sitting alert in a kitchen chair as the younger generation potters about, learning from the experienced cook the techniques of making local, traditional repasts.

Reading Palakkad Palate is then almost reminiscent of Amma's own childhood spent with her mother in the kitchen, cooking large quantities of food for her massive household, a habit she has tried to kick off as she spends more and more time with her daughter Pushpa's four-member family. 

Navigating the book, one would locate chapters devoted to sambars and kootans, exploring regional varieties of payasam and other sweet treats like sweet pongal, almond kheer and moong dal kanji. The book delineates 200 detailed recipes and lists of ingredients along with Amma's insight into the cultural significance of making certain dishes on auspicious occasions and her pro tips to source authentic southern Indian ingredients.

In a heart warming conversation with Slurrp, Jayam Amma shares her fond memories of growing up in a large household, of learning culinary tricks and techniques and of the need to pass on the culinary legacies of local, regional cooking.

Edited Excerpts:

Could you share with us your memories of a childhood spent in Palakkad with eight siblings in the house? What was the food culture like in such a big household?

My childhood was spent with 9 siblings, we were very happy, laughed all the time. We fought sometimes, but it was fun. My mother used to work 24-hours for the family. Seeing that, I started helping her in my early age, 8-9, I think. She would call me in the kitchen and teach me. In the beginning, I naturally made a lot of mistakes but afterwards with a little experience, I learnt how to properly make a particular dish, what all ingredients should be put,  all from my mother. Those days, there was no gas, only firewood or chula in our house so I also know how to cook on that.

For a large family you have to cook so much rice, sambar, rasam, keerai molagootal in big, big vessels — so many varieties in Palakkad cuisine — we would prepare them and have one side dish or poduthuval with beans and so many fresh leafy vegetables.

Breakfast was a practice not followed at that time. My mother would pour water in leftover rice at night and the next morning she would drain water, put dahi and salt and we used to have that early morning with one pickle before going to school.  And our school was very near, so we could come home for lunch. We got 1.5-hour breaks and we had fresh-cooked food — sambar, papad, beans and rice. In whatever little time was left, I would help my mother to grind [batter] for dosa and idli for evening tiffin. Those days there was no mixie, only grinding stone.

Could you elaborate on how your book, Palakkad Palate came about?

Before the pandemic, my granddaughter Kavya, didn’t enter the kitchen. But the pandemic taught us self-reliance, and everybody had to work. So, even she entered the kitchen and I taught her to do simple, simple dishes. Then she took interest in that and started learning from me. Pushpa, my daughter encouraged me, she said, “You know so many things, why don’t you write a book? It would be helpful for everybody, for us, for your grandchildren and for the next generation.” So, I started to write this book. And when I started, things came in my head in a flow, I collected all the recipes from deep in my heart.

Which are some of the signature ingredients used in Palakkad’s regional cuisine? As well, which are among some of your favourite dishes?

Palakkad cuisine mainly has coconut and for some dishes we use pepper instead of dried chillies. And we used to cook in coconut oil only, during that time. All the Keralite people used coconut oil. Now, doctors are saying cold-pressed coconut oil is very good for your health.

This cuisine is very easily digestible and you won’t get any stomach ache or anything, it is very healthy. I am eating that same food till today. I like keerai molagootal, that is palak molagootal and the fried dish, awla pachadi… and sambar with sambar onions. This is a special south Indian sambar onion you will get in south Indian stores.

And sweet payasam. I prepared payasam first. I was scared because it should not stick to the bottom, I was very careful. You have to stir and stir and stir till that is made. You have to stand in kitchen with patience to do that. When the milk gets a pink colour, and when it thickens, that’s when you switch off the fire and put eelaichi and ghee and it will taste so good!

How did a culinary journey begin for you that took cooking beyond an every day activity to an art form?

Because I am a housewife, after marriage I had to look after my family. I went to Bangalore with my husband, started our life. At that time, one by one, reading recipes in papers and magazines, I learnt new dishes. Staying in Karnataka I learnt how to make bisibele bhat, Mysore rasam. I always loved cooking and, in the evening, when my husband and children returned from school, I would make different types of tiffins for them.

Could you elaborate on what it means to pass on these culinary legacies to the next generation? What was your experience of teaching your granddaughter to cook during the pandemic?

I sat in the kitchen in a kursi and she would ask me what all ingredients, how much imli should I take, how much mirchi should I take and I taught her everything. Kavya, she first prepared sambar.

I was so excited, I praised her so much! My little girl had started cooking!

Once, I started making dosa and it was not coming out properly, it was breaking, breaking in between and I was so scared of my mother I put the broken pieces in the fire. When I learnt how to make round, round dosa, only then I showed them to her, [otherwise] she would scold me. That was the beginning, it was so fun but little scary too.

It is same, practice makes perfection. When Kavya was also learning how to make dosa, I told her, cut two pieces of onion, put little oil in the tava, rub it with onion and put the atta in and spread it. That way, it won’t break. I learnt that trick myself. There are tricks and there are techniques in cooking. Cooking is an art.

At a time when traditional culinary recipes are being forgotten, what is the significance of preserving them in a book and passing on these legacies?

The younger generation actually doesn’t know traditional food. Traditional food should not disappear. All over the globe there are Palakkad people, newly married couples…they don’t know about all these dishes. It [the book] will be helpful for everybody. With that thought, we made this. Traditional food won’t harm you in any way. So many people are using preserved food, they are working and have to go to office, they say they don’t have time for cooking. But keep one hour for cooking every day, that will be enough. There are so many simple dishes in my book. At least on Saturday-Sunday you can try making them.

Palakkad Palatte written by Jayam Amma is published by Invincible Publication Pvt. Ltd.