Karkidakam: Kerala's Unique Monsoon Culinary Practices
Image Credit: Kerala Cafe, Vasai

In the southwestern coastal regions of the Western ghats, the monsoons last for the entire span of June to September. When the highest rainfall occurs in the months of July-August, local communities face a scarcity of resources, given the harsh weather conditions. Since this period is also a lull time where no festivals or auspicious occasions, as per the solar calendar take place, austere culinary practices are observed, as a way of abstinence.

Known as aadi maasam in Tamil Nadu and karkidakam in Kerala – this monsoon ritual was foremost born out of the regions’ climatic realities, that encouraged local communities to eat local and seasonal produce. Since the time period is the ‘darkest’ month as per the solar calendar – where the sun hardly shines and the monsoon showers are relentless, forcing people to remain indoors. One of the culinary practices as part of karkidakam, is to prepare a pathila thoran – or a dry preparation made with ten different foraged, locally found monsoon greens.

Since the recipe for the thoran involves cooking with greens that are wildly growing locally, it might be hard to pinpoint the species of plants used in the making. What this practice also reinforces is man’s relationship with his immediate environment and a symbiotic relationship where both elements are mutually supported. This also enables a deeper understanding of history and ancient culinary relationships that each culture establishes.

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Other preparations like dried fish, brined vegetables and light meals of rice porridge, are typically the choices that are utilised during the month. Regular salt is swapped with rock salt, in order to imbibe nutrition from the minerals present in them. In Northern Kerala, meat-based dishes like oxtail and chicken, are cooked into warming dishes like soups and stews, to derive nutrition from the cartilage and warm up the insides when the weather is cooler.

To add to this, there is also a culinary practice that involves consuming kashayam – a herbal solution made by pressing together medicinal plants and spices. This pungent, sometimes bitter tasting liquid is meant to be consumed in order to fortify the body against common ailments and infections, boosting immunity during the monsoon season. This oushadha kanji also prepares the digestive system and offers protection against water-borne diseases.