Saturday, February 26, 2011

Banana flowers: photos, cuisine suggestions

Banana flowers contain vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. It is considered to be health food and has been used for many centuries in different cuisines.

The range of food items made with banana flowers includes soups and salads to curries and cutlets. Bake them if you like. They can be used in both vegetarian and non-vegetarians cuisines. Most of the dishes look more attractive if served in the outer sepals that are not used

There are several recipes for banana flowers on the Internet. Here are two sites which provide details
Banana Flower Soup with coconut and shrimp, and

Also see:

Kerala food: Peechappam, a forgotten item?

Friday, February 18, 2011

A 100 years old school sustains the memory of Sree Moolam Thirunal Maharaja

Sixty-three years have passed since India attained Independence and the Native States and the Maharajas faded into history. But some of them are still remembered. One such king is Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma, the second last Maharaja of the former Travancore State.

This is a painting of the Maharaja by the world famous painter
Raja Ravi Varma.

Travancore Flag.

Sree Moolam Thirunal succeeded his uncle Visakham Thirunal in 1885. He ruled Travancore from 1885 till his death in 1924. During his reign he introduced many reforms that benefited his people. These included even bus services (the first in any Native State) and insurance.  

But the most remarkable development during the Sree Moolam regime was the establishment of the Travancore Legislative Council, in 1888. In fact Travancore was the first Indian State to take this progressive step. Later the name of the Legislature was changed to Sree Moolam Popular Assembly, with elected members also from 1905.
One of the members of the Popular Assembly was Ayanat Parayil Kunjavira Tharakan of Thycattussarry on the Pallippuram Island near Cherthala. He was a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory (KSG), a Papal honour which the British Protocol and therefore the Native States accepted.

Tharakan was a remarkable person, one of the most outstanding members in the long history of the Parayil Family. The family background, social status, visionary qualities, popular support and financial eminence automatically made him a leader in any venture that he involved himself.

And there were many noble projects that he took on. Each one was meticulously worked out and meant to benefit the people of Thycattussarry and nearby areas. These include the Poochakkal Canal, Cooperate Society, hospital, famine relief measures and so on.

But the most important achievement of Kunjavira Tharakan, in my opinion, was establishing an English School. It was accomplished during the 25th year of the rule of Sree Moolam Thirunal and was appropriately named Sree Moolam Silver Jubilee English School.

But Tharakan’s dream of converting it into a High School had to wait for a few decades. After his death in 1938 his son PK Hormis Tharakan took over the management of SMSJ School. The necessary permission was obtained in due course and the people of Thycattussarry could boast of a new achievement when the institution was elevated to a High School in 1949. The first Headmaster was Sree Rajaraja Varma Thampan.

This photo of one of the buildings in the school complex is by Ebby Tharakan. For a well marked comprehensive view of the school and surroundings please see

PK Hormis Tharakan effectively managed the school for about 50 years. In his old age he handed over the responsibility to the St. Antony’s Church Thycattussarry. But that was not meant to affect the secular character which had been the hallmark of SMSJ School.

As far back as 1925 the Vatican wanted to check what the Catholic managed school in a far off corner of India was doing for the Church. A questionnaire was sent to Kunjavira Tharakan through the Archbishop of Ernakulam. Tharakan’s reply makes interesting reading: out of 139 students, only 36 were Catholics, and there was only one Catholic among the nine teachers.

The other questions and answers:

Q: “What is being done to announce our Lord to non-Christians?”
A: “Nothing.”
Q: “Are prayers said before and after classes?”
A: “No.”
Q: “Is there the image of the Crucifix or other religious symbols in the school rooms?”
A: “No.”
Q: “How many conversions among pagans, Protestants or schismatics have taken place in the ten last years?”
A: “None.”

These details are quoted from PROFILES OF PARAYIL THARAKANS (pp.143) by Dr. PK Mathew Tharakan, Professor Emeritus, University of Antwerp. He was in the first High School batch from SMSJ School.

Remarkably, all along SMSJ has been and is a people’s school where caste and creed do not matter. Rich boys and poor boys have passed through the portals of this great institution. Many of them have done well in life. You can see them in different parts of the world.

I came across a blog titled Koottunkal obviously owned by a former student of SMSJ. His article about the Mid-day Meal Programme of the 1970s is touching. Please read it at There were so many students who could not afford lunch.

This takes me back to the book mentioned above. Page 145 quotes a letter dated 14th July, 1919 from Asst. Inspector of Rural Schools to Kunjavira Tharakan “… the attendance on the day of inspection was only 4…. One chief reason for this low attendance is the extreme poverty of the pupils who are unable to satisfy their stomach even once a day. Even out of the 4 pupils present, 2 had complete starvation for the day.”

Tharakan did not offer to feed the starving students. Instead, he provided them light part time jobs outside school hours so that they could buy food with the pay. We know that in the modern times countless Indian students have been managing to study abroad with income from part time work.

I passed out from SMSJ School before it was elevated to the higher level. The teachers during my time were committed people. The same I believe is true of those who followed. But I must specially mention Mr. CJ Sebastian who was the last Headmaster of the Middle School.   

Once I heard him ask  ‘One can take the horse to the pond but how to make him drink?’ That was about me. Actually I was not too bad in school. But Mr. Sebastian wanted more out of me, particularly in English. Whatever capabilities I have in that language have come from this gentleman teacher. Sir, thank you.

Big plans are on for the centenary celebrations which would start with a meeting today (February 20), and last for one year. It would be a people’s affair though there is a committee to coordinate the activities. Fr. Sebastian Palatti is the Chairman and the present Headmaster Mr. K Paul Joseph the General Convener.

His Excellency Thomas Chakyath, Bishop of Angamally-Ernakulam will be presiding over today’s meeting. Central Ministers Sri Vayalar Ravi and Sri KC Venugopal, Vice Chancellor of the Kannur University Dr. PK Michael Tharakan (a former student), Mr. Zacharias Keezhanjili and others are expected to address the gathering.

Quite appropriately, PH Paul Tharakan, grandson of the founder of the school, Kunjavira Tharakan, had informed the Travancore Royal Family about the event. The response received, signed by ‘Sree Padmanabhadasa Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma', the current Head of the Royal Family, will be read out at the meeting.

Related posts:

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Medicinal Tree With Many Names And Great Uses

Tropical America was probably the original home of this tree. From there it spread to Philippines, South East Asia, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and to some other areas too.  It has so much of medicinal value and adds flavour to local cuisine.

In the small Indian State of Kerala where the little cucumber shaped fruit of this tree is often used in cooking it is known by several names - Ilimbi, Ilumbanpuli, Bilimbi, Chilimbi, Irumban puli, Chemmeen puli, Keerichakka. In my area it is called ‘chemmipuli’ possibly because it goes well in curried shrimps.

The botanical name of this tree is Averrhoa Bilimbi Linn. In English it is called bilimbi or cucumber tree. It grows to a height of 5m to 12m.

Some of the photographs of the tree I took at Kerala are given below. 

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You will note that the fruits grow on the trunk and branches that are old. The Vitamin C rich fruits are used mainly for curries and flavouring. Bilimbi chutney with coconut is excellent. Different types of pickles are made with this fruit. One of them is made after sun drying the fruit. The larger fruits are cut into small pieces for pickling. Even the pickles can be used for flavouring.

Till recently bilimbi did not have much commercial potential. But of late pickles and other products made from it are being exported to Western countries. Now even jams, squashes, toffees etc are also produced from this fruit. For some recipes see

It is claimed that bilimbi has extensive medicinal properties which are used in different countries. The leaves are considered good for handling diabetes and cholesterol. A paste made from them is used in treating itches, mumps, rheumatism, and pimples. Direct consumption of the leaves, or concoctions made from them are said to be effective for managing syphilis and inflammation of the rectum.

Coughs and cold are treated with an infusion of the flowers. The fruit is an astringent and is good for removing stains on clothes. It stimulates gastric digestion and sharpens appetite. A syrup made from the fruit juice is taken as a tonic.  It also brings down body heat and temperature and is considered effective against scurvy. The fruit can be used in treating piles, beriberi and liver/bile problems.

Ayurveda acknowledges that bilimbi is effective in anaemia, anorexia, vata, pitta, scurvy, haemorrhoids, internal haemorrhage, hypercholestremia, hepato-splenomegali, fever, poison, gingivitis, vomiting, ringworm and indigestion.

I now think of the bilimbi with respect. It is such a pity that some like me are ignorant of the importance of the flora around us.

Related post:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Photo: Floating candles

This was part of our Christmas decorations
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Friday, February 4, 2011

Fill up and feel the difference

A few decades back hoardings with the message “Fill up and feel the difference” was a common sight along the highways. It was an oil company ad and the meaning was very clear - use their petroleum products. But some people did give it a twist – “(men) fill up (with alcohol) and feel the difference”.

Not really a joke, is it? When drivers fill themselves up with liquor, the result quite often is a tragic road accident.

What reminded me of the old hoardings was an article on commodity prices titled ‘Fluid logic’ in The Economist of January 22, 2011. It deals with the findings of two IMF economists, Serhan Cevik and Tashin Saadi Sedic, that supply factor has only a minimal impact on wine prices. The article goes on to illustrate the similarity in price fluctuation of wine and crude oil. The emerging economies are the key players in both these commodities.

The developing countries are using up more oil than before. That goes for wine as well. Last year, for Bordeaux wines China became the biggest export market displacing Britain. If the Chinese like red wine with Coca-cola, that’s their business. The wine makers keep their mouth shut and sell more bottles. The art of wine drinking is not easy to come by.

An interesting revelation in The Economist article is that compared to some high quality wines the equivalent quantity of crude oil costs less than 50 US cents. (The current crude price is around $90 per barrel containing about 42 US gallons/159 litres.) Well, not many people drink $5000 a bottle wine.

What do Indians fill up with?

Truck drivers and car owners consume different types of liquor. How much do they spend on the stuff per day? What the former knocks back may be cheaper liquor but the quantity consumed is presumably more. In good clubs the medium priced popular brands seem to be priced around Rs.50 per peg (60ml). Both give kicks, sometimes more than what the consumer can bear.

According to GreenFacts Scientific Board the recorded per capita consumption of Indian population of 15+ (in litres of pure alcohol) is 0.82. The estimate of intake that is not recorded is 1.7 litres. The world average is about 5 litres. About 50% of the male adults in India consume liquor. Details of how many sip from the glass or knock back are not available.

A new trend, which indicates increased spendable income, is wine drinking. The Vinexpo/IWSR 2010 study places India at 10th position in world wine consumption and fifth in Asia. Imported wines accounted for 14.4% of the total volume of Indian consumption in 2008. Value wise it was 29.3%. The yearly rate of expansion of the Indian wine market is expected to be 25% or more.

There are a few interesting factors which promote wine drinking in India. With some people in Metropolitan cities particularly, wine is slowly becoming a family drink. Then there is the snob market which in many cases means promotion of the drink by those who hardly know about it. The heart friendly angle, and the belief that less alcohol is being consumed (actually depends on the quantity of intake) also help.

But what makes the major international brands and the smaller ones make a beeline for India is the low cost of establishing a winery in the country. Then too, there is the colossal  market potential.

Well, there is one more interesting point. Increase of petroleum products prices invariably cause agitation in India. I can’t recall any such problem about liquor. 

Also please see

Merry Mallus and mosquitoes