Syrian Christian Chef Jose Varkey describes their cuisine as a “melting pot of many cuisines.” He elaborates, “When Saint Thomas and Syrians came to India, they settled deep in the backwaters in districts like Kottayam and Pala, and they experimented with local ingredients, mainly coconut, rice, fresh fish and duck, and spices, that became an integral part of our cuisine.”
Putting his words into context, we took the example of chicken stew; most locals have colloquialised it as istew. In the Syrian Christian version, coconut milk replaced the cream or milk in this classic dish. Chicken is sautéed in curry leaves, again very Indian, and seasoned with local spices like ginger, curry leaves, pepper, cassia and turmeric. The last element is what gives the stew its yellow hue.
The Syrian Christians are an old community in Kerala, and came to the Southwest Indian state from the Middle-East. The traditional Hindus of Kerala never ate beef and the Malabar Muslims don’t eat pork, but the Syrian Christians eat both, along with fresh fish that they can catch from the water around them. “Beef cutlets with Sallas (salad made of finely cut onions, green chillies and vinegar) serves as the first course of a wholesome Syrian Christian meal, and both items borrow heavily from Portuguese cuisine.”
The experienced chef who is a corporate mentor chef at CGH Earth Hotels, Kochi, further elucidates, “It would be incorrect to say that the Syrian Christians have a thali. The meal should be sumptuous—that’s the principle that we work on. It contains starch, proteins, minerals, vitamins, probiotics—all required and hence developed for the toiling man. Essentially, it is formulated as a four-course meal. It starts with the tickling of your appetite by activating your saliva with a fried item (the cutlet), with Sallas. Then, for course two, we move to starch and coconut milk—Palappam relished with chicken stew—thick pancakes made of rice flour with soft and white spongy centres and thin, golden, crisp lace-like edges, hence also called Lace Hoppers. The third course is red rice paired with heavier gravies, mostly meats.
Chef Kunal Kapur with Chef Jose Varkey, corporate mentor chef at CGH Earth Hotels, Kochi
Unpolished red rice is a staple among this community. “Look what is lost when the rice bran is removed from the grain! While polishing, there are 72 essential minerals thrown away in the bran, and you are left with just starch. Rice with bran has a lesser quantum of carbohydrates and acts as a cleanse for our body,” Chef Jose points out. To further drive his point home, “Polished rice that we get in the market these days increases the glycemic load, taxing our body.”
All items in the Syrian Christian meal follow a gastronomical law—to balance the meal. Items like Morukachiyatha (warm buttermilk infused with turmeric) provides a healthy dose of probiotics and is enriched with anti-inflammatory properties while Payar Mezhukkupuratti (Stir-fried long beans) offer much needed vitamins, minerals and is a good source of dietary fibre. With the cuisine steering towards meats, veggies like beans and carrot, cooked mostly with local coconut, bring in the balance.
“Kuttanadan Duck Mappas is a specialty and is made for special occasions. This duck curry is cooked in coconut milk, and spiced with ginger, garlic, pepper and garam masala. The Mullet Pattichattu is one dish where there are no traces of coconut and the red gravy owes its robust colour to chilli powder and the byadgi mirchi—a chilli which is a relatively new import to Syrian Christian cuisine, from the neighbouring Mangalorean district. The Byadgi chilli has a low capsaicin value, but great colour. Did you know that it’s used for its colour-imparting properties in red lipsticks?” he shares much to our astonishment. “The slow-cooked fish preparation uses no onions or tomatoes; but has medicinal properties thanks to the indigenous Kodumbuli (similar to tamarind), which prevents the unnecessary fats from the upper epithelial layers of your colon,” says the well-read Chef Jose.
The white mango pickle is again a contrast in the Syrian Christian meal. The mangoes are sliced, mixed with chillis, rock salt and a bit of Toddy vinegar. “What’s interesting is that Toddy vinegar becomes an alkaline in our body, as opposed to other vinegars which are acidic. There is no oil in this pickle, but it requires no preservatives because the Toddy and mangoes act as preservatives themselves,” says Chef Jose.
The fourth and final course of a typical Syrian Christian meal is the dessert. “Our cuisine doesn’t focus on desserts. The Pazham is a customary end to the meal and a soothing last course. It’s plantain, yoghurt and palm honey that needs to be mashed together with your fingers. Pectin in the plantain is a prebiotic, lending itself to a high gastronomic value,” signs off the chef.
Images courtesy: Joyoti Mahanta