Monday, April 28, 2008

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Memories: Of a birthday and tandoori chicken

Yesterday morning I phoned my daughter Rosemary to convey birthday greetings. A few hours later I found the latest CGH Earth communiqué in the morning’s post. What caught my immediate attention were the memories of ME Augustine, who worked in the CGH chain’s Casino Hotel Cochin for 40 years, and particularly his words “The tandoori chicken… was the most famous dish”.

My mind raced back to April 25,1962, five years before Augustine had joined Casino (See Dominic Joseph checks out) My wife Annie had been admitted to the Lissie Hospital that morning for her first delivery. I had to rush to the airport to pick up an important client. After lunch at Malabar Hotel (now Taj Malabar) the client asked me why I was so preoccupied. When I told him about Annie he said something like: Please go and come back with good news.

When I returned to the hotel in the evening my client was playing snooker with an American he had befriended – the Chief Officer of a ship that was in the port. I announced the arrival of my first child and the three of us went over to Casino for dinner to celebrate. The guests left the ordering to me and I chose tandoori chicken.

Those days Casino used to serve this delicious dish on a bed of ‘masala’ that included a generous quantity of cashew nuts, mashed eggs and other things that went well with the chicken. I have never come across this accompaniment to tandoori anywhere else. It used to be so tasty too.

But there was a problem. The American refused to touch the food, which looked chili hot. It took a great deal of persuasion from the two of us to make him taste a tiny piece.

Then man rolled his eyes, smiled and went after the chicken with gusto. We had an enjoyable dinner and washed it down with some fine Cognac.

I don’t know how much Casino charged for the tandoori chicken in 1962. Augustine says that it was priced Rs.8 in 1967. May be I should visit Casino to compare the current price and taste with that of the past.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dancing girls of Olavipe

The dancing starts a little ahead of noon when breeze rises from the Olavipe Lake. The yellow skirted ‘girls’ begin moving in rhythm. The tempo picks up as the wind becomes stronger. The performance continues till sunset when the breeze dies down.

I am talking about the orchids known as Dancing Girls/Lady. The Latin name is oncidium splendidum. It is also called Golden Shower orchid. What we have at Olavipe is yellow. The sprays of yellow and brown flowers are small and give an image of dancing girls in skirts. Given below is a photo I took recently.

Click on image for enlarged view

Feel the flowers are out of focus? I think differently. Most of the photos of orchids I looked up were cut flowers or still plants. When I took this picture the girls were dancing in the strong afternoon breeze. Perhaps that resulted in the ethereal impression. I consider it is appropriate and brings out the spirit of the dancing girls.

Oncidiums are easy to grow and do not require a great deal of care. Our Dancing girls are potted in dried coconut husk filled with broken clay tiles and charcoal. They are hung on the coconut palm seen on the left of the photo. Watering and indirect sunlight are required. It has tolerance to altitudes and temperatures.

Have a few Dancing Girls at home. They are beautiful.


Also see:

An orchid from Olavipe

Photos: Flowers from Switzerland

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Kerala Brahmins – moving with the times

Kerala Brahmins are called Nampoothiris. How long have they been present in this small State in the southwestern corner of India? The legend is that Lord Parasurama created Kerala from the sea and settled several Brahmin families in the new land. Another view is that Kerala emerged from the waters of the Arabian Sea due to some geophysical phenomena in the distant past.

Whatever that might be, undoubtedly the Nampoothiri presence in the State goes back at least a millennium. It is believed that stringent caste system was introduced in Kerala around 9c CE. All through their known history the Nampoothiris have made great contributions in many fields.

During the centuries that have passed the rituals, practices and conventions of the Nampoothiri community remained more or less stagnant. This naturally led to practical difficulties as times changed. Eight years back a committee of fifteen acharayas was formed by the Yogakshema Sabha Vidika Parishad to look into the problem. After in-depth studies and intense debates this peer group modified and codified the traditional practices and rituals of the community.

This alteration covers sixteen major areas including Nompoothiri veli (marriage). This function, which was spread over four days, has now been recast into four kriyas conducted in a single day.

I understand that the reformation is done without disturbing or compromising the traditional conventions, convictions and canons. The revision is based on the belief that Brahmin culture is established by the sages for the good of mankind and the ultimate objective of blending with the Paramatma.

Azhuvancheri Thamprakkal, who is the doyen of the Nampoothiri community, announced the new code earlier this month. In my humble opinion, this is a great stride in bringing the nampoothiris in fusion with modern times without diluting the basics.

(This is based on a report in Malayala Manorama of April 13, 2008.)


Also see:

Vedas, Syrian Christians

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Forum of Love

In my village, Olavipe, there is an exclusive club where I am not yet eligible to join - Sneha Sadasse (Forum of Love). Only people of the village who have attained the age of 75 and their spouses can become members.

My younger brother Jacob Tharakan who is the incumbent at Thekkanattu Parayil (see: OLAVIPE: Heritage Home of Thekkanattu Parayil Tharakans.) mooted the idea. He noticed some of the difficulties faced by the old people of Olavipe and decided to do something about it.

A major problem of the senior citizens is loneliness. Most of them in our village are not literate. Therefore reading to pass time is limited to a handful. Even in the few households with TV the choice of programs is decided by the younger generations. Social visits are not part of the local culture. Lack of mobility compounds the problem for the elders.

Jacob started Sneha Sadasse during Vishu (April 14) 2007. The launch and continued operation of the scheme was made possible by the some young men of Olavipe who volunteered to contribute their time and effort. They identified about 90 eligible people in the village, most of them women, and brought them together, cutting across religion, caste and economic status.

The group meets on the last Saturday of every month, usually at a pandal (a large tent) in our compound, for tea and snacks and fellowship. Useful programs like free medical consultation are also linked to the event. There are also common birthday celebrations.

Sneha Sadasse had two special programs last year. One was a picnic to Cochin, which the elders thoroughly enjoyed. Another event was a meeting of the senior citizens and children of the local school (see: Autobiography of a School). The young ones sang songs for the senior citizens, read stories to them and asked them many questions about their childhood.

The old people, in turn rendered popular songs of their youth, taught the children how to make toys from coconut tree fronds and other locally available materials, and so on. One Brahmin lady gave a talk about seeing Mahatma Gandhi when she was a kid.

Recently a scheme for elders to cultivate medicinal herbs for their own use has been initiated. This done under the guidance of qualified Ayurveda physicians.

The members of Sneha Sadasse are all excited about their next picnic, on May 4. Many of them have not seen airplanes take off or land. The excursion includes a visit to the Cochin International Airport. Jacob and his team of volunteers are busy organizing it.

Have a good time, elders of Olavipe.


Also see:

Old age care

Old age care contd.

Senior Citizens, blogging is a passport to good health

Monday, April 14, 2008

Happy Vishu

Photos of ‘kani konna’, (Golden Shower, cassia fistula)

from Olavipe by Abraham Tharakan. Anyone may use them free

provided due acknowledgement is given.

Also see: Vishu: Did God Create Earth on This Day?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sapper caste, ‘doopta’, Cotton Maha Prabhu.

India is a land of castes and sub-castes. But have you heard of Sapper caste?

In Bangalore last week I came across a well-produced and touching book, The Madras Sappers – An Enduring Legacy edited by Madhavi Mahadevan. It is the story of the Madras Engineering Group (MEG).

From the many true stories narrated in the book: Once an inspecting officer asked a Madras Sapper what his caste was. The answer cam promptly, “Sapper caste, sir”. Even for a marriage alliance a Sapper family would seek similar background.

It is incredible how Hindu, Muslim and Christian Sappers worked and lived together eating food from the same cauldron. One instance mentioned in the book is how a Muslim, Abdul Karim, officiated as company pundit in the absence of Krishnaswamy, the regular one.

Lt. Gen. DSR Sahni (Retd) has the following comment on this “…our Thambis have only one religion. Thy are all Madras Sappers”. (Thambi is an affectionate term used for South Indian soldiers.)

The official raising day of the unit is September 30, 1780. It has seen action meritoriously on three continents and including the two World Wars. It has won several individual and group battle honors.

In the 1843 Meanee War in Sind, the Sappers with their paltry weapons spontaneously charged against the enemy in support of the Cheshire Regiment. In appreciation of the brave act, the British soldiers exchanged their caps, ‘doopta’ with the Thambis. With some modifications, it is still the headdress of the Sappers. The officers of the 22 Cheshire Regiment are, even today, honorary members of the Madras Sappers’ Officer’s Mess.

The Sappers have made commendable contributions during peacetime as well. Col. Sir Arthur Cotton (1803 – 1899) who was Chief Engineer of the Madras Presidency was distressed at the repeated famines in the Godavari District. To provide irrigation he decided to build a 5000 yards long anicut across the river.

The Sappers who were then stationed in Coorg were moved to the site and they did the job to perfection. The Chief Engineer came to be known reverently as ‘Cotton Maha Prabhu (Cotton Great Lord).

The book contains much more about the great achievements of the Madras Sappers in various fields. It is fascinating. The photos, paintings and drawings are also excellent.

A personal note: The MEG has been the cause of a disappointment to me. During my days in St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore (1951-1955) our dream of beating the MEG in hockey was never realized.


Also see: Hockey days in Bangalore

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Kerala Cuisine: Manga thera (mango mat) recipe

Now is the season for making manga thera. Here is the description of how we make this delicacy at Olavipe.

Thera is produced by spreading (by hand) several layers of mango pulp thinly on mats made from kaitha (pandanus or screw pine) leaves, and then sun drying it. This can also be done on muram, an almost flat grain winnowing pallet woven from bamboo strips, or panampu (bamboo mat). In all these, the nice pattern of weaving would show on the bottom layer of the thera.

Cots or benches are put out in the sun, on which the mats are placed. The drying is done during the hottest time of the day, say, from 11 AM to 4 PM. Flies and insects won’t be around in the heat. But one has to go out in the sun to do the spreading. The advantage with muram is that it can be brought in to add new layers and put out again.

Usually smaller, juicy nattu manga (native mango) and not the larger table fruits are used. (See: Mango Memories). These are pounded in wooden mortars with the skin on and the pulp taken and sieved. It should be viscose enough to spread thin and even. If required, a little water can be added.

The first three or four layers should be mango pulp only. This is to give the thera a light sour taste. If the mango is too tart, a little sugar can be added. Each coating should be applied when the previous one is almost but not fully dry. Otherwise the new layer won’t stick properly.

For further layers a new ingredient is required – parboiled rice dipped in water and roasted, powdered and strained. Add it in the proportion of ¼ to ½ cup to four cups of pulp, along with sugar as required. Three or four layers of this should be enough.

Then two more layers with 1 cup rice powder to 4 cups pulp and sugar as required. But before this, the edges of the thera should be carefully loosened from the mat. Give a final polish with say ½ cup pulp. Cut into desired size pieces – we normally have 1”x 5” – and dry.

Notes: (1) The proportions are only indicative. Sugar content should be adjusted according to the natural sweetness of the mango. (2) When rice powder is mixed the consistency should be right to spread thinly and evenly. (3) The number of layers with rice powder should be actually determined by the desired thickness. (4) The more the final drying, the thera would be harder but the shelf life would be longer. (5) Some people do not use rice powder or sugar but only mango pulp.

Tail piece: In his interesting blog MUSINGS FROM ANTIQUE ORIGINS Murali Ramavarma talks ( of mangaathira and a special pulisserry made from it. Sounds delicious!

[With inputs from my wife Annie and sister Kochuthresia.]


Also see: Mango trees: 'ottu mavu' and 'nattu mavu'