Thursday, August 6, 2009

People: The village savoury maker

Her name was Anna. Most people added a suffix ‘cheduthi’ (elder sister) while addressing her, as an expression of respect. She was rather thin, fair and with aristocratic looks.

Anna cheduthi and her children lived quite close to our house. I don’t remember her husband. He had died when I was very young. I think he was a descendant of one of the men our family had recruited to fight Lebba Pokker Moosa (see: A unique prayer.).

They had an oil expeller made of wood, which was operated either manually or by a bull. It was good business those days. Cherthala and Allepey towns had big mechanized oil mills. But small land owners mainly depended on wooden expellers like the one Anna cheduthi had.

In our case, the regular copra was sold to the mills. For cooking, special copra was made by cutting the coconut kernel into thin pieces, drying them covered by a net so that crows and other birds wouldn’t mess with it and the oil extracted in the wooden expeller. For medicinal and special uses the oil was obtained by boiling coconut milk – the wet process which produces the purest oil.

Anna cheduthi’s forte, however, was making traditional palaharams (savouries and sweets). During those days everything had to be made at home even for big functions like marriages. That is, everything except items like cakes, bread and buns, which were supplied by Pachico’s, a bakery run by people who were of dutch or Prtuguese strain.

A few days before the event, Anna cheduthi would make her grand entrance and take over. I believe that a critical part in making some items like churut (which I have described briefly in Weddings, then and now) is the thin, crispy outer and this lady was an expert at it.

There was a long list of palaharams. It included ovulos unda, ari unda, Achappam, cheeda, kuzhal appam, and more. She also ventured into 'diamond cuts' and burfi, as a concession to changing times.

A favourite, however, was malar churut. This was made with crushed popped rice (like popcorn) and sugar, packed in an outer layer, folded and fried.

A team of women would be assisting the lady in preparing everything. Sometimes Ammachi (Oru Desathinte Amma.) would briefly join them, but clearly, it was Anna cheduthi’s domain.

Once, back home from college for summer holidays, I asked Anna cheduthi’s son who was in our service, how his mother was. He gave me a perplexed look and responded, ‘Didn’t you know? She died two months back’. I felt so bad.

But the feeling passed and the memory of her faded. That is the way of the world. Only yesterday when there was some talk about savouries did I think of her again.

Anna cheduthi’s great-grandson is a priest, at a Gujarat church. A nice person. He visits us when he comes home for holidays.


Kamini said...

Such a charming post, and it made my mouth water. I suppose ladies like Anna are getting increasingly rare these days, with people opting to buy store-made palaharams. This is sad, because it can never match the freshness and taste of the ones made by people like Anna.

Maddy said...

Thanks abe - you triggered a memory with this nice blog - watch out for my next release

Anand Antony said...

Excellent article. These Cheduthis are culinary experts and palaharams are their forte. If I had my way there would be a new reality TV show "Battle of the Cheduthis" (on the lines of Iron Chef series) showcasing their expertise and the winner crowned "Iron Cheduthy Kerala"! My memory goes back to around 22 years and a Cheduthy had a successful business of marketing home-made churttu and other palaharams in a suburb of Kottayam. She became so successful that similar businesses sprung up - many of them by genuine Cheduthis. Finally I want to share with your readers the inspiring story of another Cheduthy - you may find this unreal and hard to believe. She was Mariamma Cheduthy
who was a sweeper at SB College, Changanacherry. Unknown to others, she had a veritable fountain of knowledge on many of the forgotten folklores of Kerala. This was discovered by Prof. Sebastian Vattamattom, Mathematcis Professor and literacy activist from the same college. Subsequently Mariamma Cheduthy resigned from her job and was appointed as a consultant to the Malayalam department in the college! She used to take classes to the PG students on folklore.She passed away last year. More detailes can be found in (the info in this Wikipedia is correct and I have seen it in other Malayalam sources).

Maddy said...

hi Abe..
your blog inspired me to write about the cookers.. take a look

PN Subramanian said...

Very very interesting. Anna Chetatthi(this is how I used to spell) was great. Was she of Jewish strain? In Maharashtra there are jews who operate oil expellers drawn by Bullocks.

Nebu said...

The post brought back old memories of Eettickal Sankaran and Vayalil Moniee. Sankaran vanished without a trace in the eighties. Accidently I happened to read the report of Sankaran’s wife’s death in the obituary column of July 31st. I am surprised that none of them informed any of us. They don’t realize how fondly we regard them even now.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Kamini, you are so right. Bought out palaharams are nowhere near the homemade ones.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Maddy, shall read 'cookers' and get back to you.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Anand Antony, thank you for the interesting comment and the amazing story of Mariammacheduthi.

Abraham Tharakan said...

PN Subramanian, 'chettathi', 'cheduthi', 'eattathi' are regional variations.

Your question of Jewish strain is interesting. Itmay have historical implications.

I didn't know that some Jews in Maharashtra operate bullock drawn oil expellers.

There is a view among some historians that the first converts to Christianity in Kerala would have been from among the Jews who had settled there for trade.

Another relevant point is that many such expellers were operated by some of the old Christian families of Kerala. Traditionally, there were the suppliers of oil to the temples.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Nebu, I remember Shankaran and Monee very well. Thanks for bringing back memories of them.