Food has always connected people. For centuries, our ancestors shared a deep connection with food. It is an expression of who you are; the source of your spirituality. This essence of us was an offering to the gods we worshipped. An expression of us; to nurture life around us. The greatest leanings come from the most mundane places; that we fail to notice around us. Yet these lessons come to us as we grow to a point of understanding ourselves. I am someone who feels joy in cooking and equally indulging in its goodness. My traversals to familiar and unfamiliar lands have inspired me to dwell deeper into the stories on food and how they travelled their way through generations. Such a passage must have been held by love to make its way to the future generations. Let me share one such tale of love, straight from my grandmother’s heart.
A life of abundance:
My grandmother Meenakshi Ammal was just another ordinary woman who spent her life nurturing plants and cows in her backyard. She largely expressed herself through cooking and sewing clothes for her family. Her ancestral home was rooted in a tiny hamlet named ‘Poonjar’ in the Kottayam district of Kerala. A place where Jackfruit trees, Coconut groves, paddy fields and Banana palms were in abundance. This traditional ‘Tharavadu’ home has been a summer vacation retreat for me and my sister throughout our growing up years. A sort of a hostel where we were pampered with love amidst nature. Our mornings were about the tranquility of prayer bells and plunging into the river with her. Playing was running around lush landscapes, chasing butterflies and serene boat rides. Back then, food was a creation of her backyard. The concept of money hadn’t seeped into their lives fully. Salt was one of the store bought commodities while rice was sourced through barters from neighboring farmers. Her mornings were about serving a generation of children and ensuring they had a great day. As a child, I remember her to be a woman who was incessantly devoted to the kitchen corner; cleaning up a jackfruit or spicing up pickles for the family. Every inch of her and where she lived was flowing with love and abundance.
Soulful food as fruits of labour
Our happiest days smelt like a blend of jackfruit, jaggery, coconut, ghee, rice and cardamom. The time when our eyes would be fixed at her cooking up the ‘Ellai Addai’ and ‘Chakka Puyukku’. When a few men came home to climb the jackfruit tree, the children would patiently wait for the awesomeness that will be cooked up in the kitchen that day. These men would come along with their women to her with the backyard bounties. Most were skilled in zipping up and down the coconut trees. During the jackfruit season, everyone helped each other with plucking jackfruits. The women of the house would get together to clean the ripened jackfruits. A clay stove was lit up to slow cook these jackfruit pieces in ghee to a pulpy delicacy called ‘Chakkavaratti’. This pulp could be stored for more than a year. The preparation work for the dish is time-consuming and quite a lot of hard work, but the ingredients and process are equally simple. She always fed the workers who returned home after a hard day at our groves and fields. Their hearts preferred this satiating meal by her on banana leaves. For all the jackfruits and coconuts they got home were now cooked so lovingly. For in those times, food was invented out of availability and necessity.
The legend of the Poonjar Dharma Shasta Temple:
According to folklore, King Manavikrama Pandyan had built the Poonjar Shasta Temple out of a divine calling. The King moved here with his people from Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The temple is constructed with stone as opposed to the traditional Kerala wood style of architecture. This was due to the Tamilian lineage and craftmanship of the King’s artisans who were skilled in stone structures due to the scarcity of wood in their previous habitat. The King was in search of a place abundant in nature and water to establish the Pandyamandalam Kingdom which was previously established in Gudalur. Due to the tryst of the Pandyan Dynasty with the Chola Dynasty, King Manavikrama moved towards Kerala to protect and sustain his lineage. Legends speak; the King and his people were guided and protected by a teenager from an attack by dacoits in the forests here. This boy was none other than Lord Ayyapa himself, hailing from the Pandalam ancestry. It is believed that the King was guided by Lord Ayyappa to establish the Pandyamandalam kingdom here which later came to be known as the ‘Poonjar Dynasty’. The King built the Sree Dharma Shasta Poonjar temple to honour Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala. The Tantric traditions of the Poonjar Shasta temple is governed by Tantri Kantararu Mohanaru of Tazhamon Madom. The Tazhamom Madom also operates the Tantric practices at the renowned Sabarimala Temple. The Royal family arrived here with the ‘Panchaloha‘ idols of the deities of the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple in Tamil Nadu. These idols were honoured by building a shrine for goddess ‘Meenakshi Ammal’ and Lord ‘Sundereshwaran’ for worship in Poonjar village. Thus, Lord Shasta is revered as the protector of the Royal Family as well as Poonjar village along with their ancestral deities – Devi ‘Meenakshi Ammal’ and Lord ‘Sundareshwaran’.
An offering to the gods:
The ‘Elai addai’ was also a part of our familial tradition of celebrating Onam. Flower patterns adorned the house entrance and these packets were placed over them as an offering to Sun. Since my Grandmother’s father was one of the caretakers to Raja Keralaverma of the Royal family of Poonjar, our family was closely connected to the Poonjar temples. On occasions, our familial temple stocked these in earthen pots as a special offering to God known as ‘The ‘Aada Vazhivaadu’. At the temple, the aada – a sweet mixture of coconut and jaggery, wrapped in banana leaves is steam-cooked in a traditional fire stove and offered to the deity. However, the Addai with Jackfruit, jaggery and coconut filling was usually made at homes. The children of the village would gather at the temple on occasions to savour this humble piece of heaven. But as a rule; the joy of Elai Addai was earned! The ‘Poonjar Dharma Shasta Ayyapan Kovil’ followed an in-house rule of sharing Elai Addai to those who have rightfully earned it. According to the traditional rule, if you grate one coconut to assist with the temple kitchen; you will earn one Elai Addai. The ones who contribute their time in the kitchen in folding out the addais in banana leaves and preparation will also receive their fair share. This process was known as ‘Shramam’ – labour of service. This was enough reason for all the children to gather at the temple to grate coconuts and take back as many Elai Addais equivalent to the coconuts grated. If I think about it deeply; that’s how the balance of sharing and receiving was sustained. Its beauty lies in is its simplicity.
The recipe for Chakka Puyukku and Elai Addai:
Chakka puyukku – a steamed dish of spiced jackfruit and coconut.
Elai Addai – Rice pockets filled with sweet jackfruit jam, coconut and jaggery, streamed in banana leaves.
For Chakka Puyukku:
- Lots of love
- Ripe jackfruit and its seeds – 1 Kg (Ripe yet not sweet or completely matured – one that’s been removed 2 months prior to its sweetened maturity stage )
- Shredded Coconut – 1 whole
- Green Chillies – 2-5 pieces
- Red Chillies – 2-3 pieces
- Turmeric powder – 1 tablespoon
- Salt to taste
- Coconut oil
For Elai Addai:
- Lots of love
- Chakkavaratti : Jackfruit pulp jam – ½ Kg (A thick jam prepared at home by slow cooking sweet jackfruit pulp in jaggery, clarified butter and very little water by continuously stirring it for about 3 hours, till the water evaporates completely. This jam preserve can last a year.)
- Rice flour – 2 cups
- Fresh shredded coconut – 1 whole
- Jaggery – 1 cup
- Cardamom pods – 5 pieces
- Turmeric powder – 1 tablespoon
- Ghee – Clarified butter
- Banana leaves
My grandma’s tip on how to identify the right ripe matured and unsweetened jackfruit:
This jack fruit is a matured ripe jackfruit, removed about 2 months prior to its sweetened stage. When you pinch the seed of the jackfruit, the seed will slip out effortlessly from its thick skin. It looks like a matured sweet fruit, just that it is not yellow in colour. It’s white in colour which is an indication that it’s matured but not sweet yet.
Let’s begin with the first dish – the Chakka Puyukku.
For Chakka Puyukku :
Cut the matured unsweetened jackfruit in halves. The edible part of the jackfruit includes the white fruits with seeds inside, which are protected by sepals. Remove the sepals and take off the thick skin around the seeds. Now slice the outer thick skin around it as well as the seeds in small pieces.
Add one tablespoon turmeric powder and two tablespoon salt to the chopped jackfruit and mix well.
Add one and half cups of water and pressure cook the mix up to 4-5 whistles. This will take about 30-40 minutes.
Now grind the red chillies, green chillies, one whole shredded coconut into a coarse paste. Add this paste to the cooked jackfruit and mix well.
Finish it by tempering a sprig of curry leaves and mustard seeds (optional) with 4-5 tablespoons of coconut oil, mix it well and it’s ready.
Now let’s move to the second dish – The Elai Addai.
For Elai Addai:
Start by mixing the rice flour with water to get a pancake batter consistency that can be spread. My grandma always soaked raw rice for 4- hours before grinding it into a paste in her traditional stone grinder. To check if the batter is perfect, it should heavily drip neatly and be of a spreading consistency. Add two teaspoons of coconut oil and 2 teaspoons of clarified butter to this batter and mix well.
For the filling, melt one cup of jaggery with one cup of water in a heated pan. Strain this melted jaggery mixture and put it back in the pan. Add shredded coconut and Jackfruit pulp jam to it. Keep stirring the mixture and let it loosen. After about 15 minutes, the mixture will thicken into a jam like consistency.
Now cut the banana leaves in parts, leaving out the dividing center. Grease the banana leaves with coconut oil. Now spread a ladle full of rice batter on the leaf in circular motion. Make sure it is spread thinly. Now spread about two spoons of the prepared jam filling on the middle of this rice batter layer. Pat it and fold the leaf into half, then fold the edges to seal the pack. Repeat for all the leaves, depending on how many packets you wish to prepare.
Steam these banana leaf packets for about 30 minutes. Once done, check if it has steamed well.
Grandma’s tip: When you open the leaf, the packets shouldn’t stick to the leaf and come out clean. Also the rice layer will be thin and transparent enough to see the dark filling inside. If it does, it’s perfectly cooked. Grandmas are so damn right about these little things!
Now these packets – Elai Addai with spiced steamed jackfruit curry – Chakka Puyukku are ready to be savoured. This combination and preparation is unique to our family and my grandmother’s family. Serve with lots of love, till every inch of your soul feels content.
Savour the love:
These dishes feel best when shared. It’s love wrapped in banana leaves. Takes me back to summer vacations at my grandma’s traditional ‘Tharavadu’ wood and stone house. Where anyone who entered; wouldn’t leave unfed. Where abundance was a state of mind; wealth was everything that grew in the backyard and money existed as something of value yet wasn’t a necessity. A time when bartering coconuts, jackfruits and for rice was a way of life. And her love was cooked in earthen and stone pots over the warm traditional wood-fired clay stove. She always knew how to keep the children as well as others at home happy with all that is available in the backyard. This recipe travelled all the way to my soul, from my grandma Meenakshi Ammal and her grandmother. It is sure to transport you to Kerala, in its rawest essence. As you bite into this sweet and spicy goodness, one is sure to be touched by a grandma’s heart-warming love. I am truly grateful to receive this as a blessing from her.