There were three parts to that weekend. One was the majestic old house in Ramassery with what you might call a forever aesthetic—every pretty thing in it looked as if it had been there forever. The second was the food, starting with a cool sarsaparilla drink and ending with a tender-coconut panna cotta that slid over the tongue. Then there was the artistic legacy of Kerala, in song, theatre and dance. They called it Paakam, a Palakkad food and culture workshop. The word, aptly, means ‘done to perfection’.
You can still see paddy fields and ox-carts in Ramassery village, home of a peculiarly soft and flat idli. Its recipe is one of the last remaining secrets in our tell-all world, and its unique taste brings idli-vores up this quiet road. The house, Krishnavilas, stands a few doors past the idli shop. It still has its padipura or traditional gateway. Just inside is a low-arched, fat-pillared walkway to a generously proportioned verandah furnished with cane chairs and a roll-top desk. We would see it in various moods over the weekend: sun-washed in the morning, lit with oil lamps for an evening concert, or whispering with girls in white mundus and jasmine.
Built in the 1930s, Krishnavilas lay empty for three decades till a daughter-in-law of the clan rediscovered it. Myriam Shankar undertook a thorough but thoughtful restoration, being quicker to remove oily paints, Italian cupids and other incongruous elements than to add new features. The spare-yet-meticulously-crafted home we see today is probably very close to the original vision of its builders. Alongside the grand spaces are intimate ones like the courtyard nearest the dining room, which knits together all the textures of the house—wood, terracotta, stone and bronze. You could live your whole life in that little courtyard.
The kitchen is new—tidy, practical and just now filled with the maddening scent of frying plantain chips. This was where we would learn about the food traditions of Palakkad, but first we ventured into the landscape in which those traditions grew, the rice bowl of Kerala. Pigeon peas grew alongside the fields and egrets hunted among the new rice plants. Our destination was a Bhagavati temple. To one side, against a darkening sky, a young peepul stood clasped in the arms of a whorled and aged frangipani. The setting was perfect for the music to come, ballads about farmers and the land that brings them joy and sorrow. Folklorist Vasudevan’s voice rose in a song about parched fields and the rainbow on the horizon, hard struggles and distant hope. He sang of the itinerant goose farmer searching for a girl, when their eyes met and ‘spoke without speaking’. He sang again about the crack of silver that heralds the new day. This time there were drums and cymbals, and children spilled out from the nearby houses to listen.
The evening ended with a classic Kerala meal of kanji and puzhukku, tapioca and fiery shallot chutney, and a collection of sun-dried and fried delights such as lotus stems and rice wafers. The meal was made by Manjusha Pisharody, who would lead the culinary part of the workshop. Manjusha started her food blog (samagni.com) to document family recipes for herself and for anyone who wants to cook using traditional methods, ingredients and even cookware. She also likes to study the interlinking of food with language, culture, rituals and festivals. The heirloom recipes she brought together for the workshop were rooted in the produce of the region—Palakkad matta rice, plantains, coconut, jaggery and tapioca.
After a temple visit early next morning, we attacked a breakfast of Ramassery idli, served with chutneys and a thicker chamanthi, and the golden flesh of ripe plantains steamed in the skin. Manjusha introduced us to the trade, conquests and centuries-long connections made possible by the Palakkad Gap, an enormous break in the Western Ghats, all of which fathered the unique taste of the region’s food. It was rice-based, largely vegetarian because of the Tamil Iyers who settled here, bringing their own rice and vegetables, but adopting the yams, gourds and greens of the land, and yielding to the temptation of coconut oil.
The morning’s session comprised six plantain recipes. We started with the sweet—ripe plantains slit into strips and roasted in ghee and jaggery. A banana flower thoran came next, shallowcooked, filled with mashed plantain, and spiced with shallots, ginger and chillies.
Manjusha tweaked the classic vazhakkai podimaas by grinding the coconut, gingerand green chilli together for a garnishinstead of scattering them separately. Thefamiliar banana stem curry was fired upwith red chillies and shallots. The aviyal veered towards Kerala rather than TamilNadu, featuring thaal or the centre of thecolocasia stem, along with raw papaya,long bean and, of course, plantain, its tangsupplied by tamarind. The session woundup with a sweet-and-sour pulissery, madewith ripe plantains, tamarind, jaggery andcumin. Having sampled everything onthe board, we then marched to the diningroom to address a full traditional feastserved on banana leaves.
In the afternoon we patted out elai adai, envelopes of cooked rice dough enclosing a mix of coconut, jaggery and jackfruit. Manjusha substituted unpolished red matta for white rice.
The next day’s dosai session featured fresh combinations of grains and greens. Manjusha paired sprouted pearl millet and urad, and brought tapioca together with raw red rice and moringa leaves, moong with rice and ginger, raw plantain with raw red rice. Apart from the hearty
classic adai-dosai, made from parboiled white rice and three types of dal, she showed us a ‘home adai’, using rice and channa dal only. Then we shaped some classic modakam, steamed rice dumplings filled with jaggery and coconut. When we thought we had eaten everything in the house, dishes of tendercoconut panna cotta materialised.
They called it a workshop, but in the warmth of that house we often became just a bunch of people cooking together, or pretending to help the three or four doing the actual work. Sometimes we ate at the table, but often we took our plates and sat on the courtyard steps, debating politics and feminism. Between meals, we looked over hand-seasoned cookware of cast iron, soapstone and terracotta online. A bangle seller opened up his blue cloth bags on the floor, and we picked through the colours that poured out. We dozed on the verandah. We played pallaankuzhi. We gossiped like aunts at a wedding.
We watched performances arranged by the Palakkad chapter of INTACH. Girls in jasmine showed us their Kaikottukkali, an alluring dance of steps, gestures and twirls repeated in a circle, performed to revive Kama from the ashes. Girls and women traditionally gathered for a ritual bath in the pond on the morning of Thiruvadirai, a Shaivite holiday, and then they danced the Kaikottukkali at one temple after another, but not for an audience.
Many such arts in Kerala are more ritual than performance, seen by the gods alone or by a select band of the devout. Koodiyattam and the exclusively female act of Nangiyar Koothu, thought to be the oldest forms of theatre in India, are just emerging into common spaces. Like the back courtyard of Krishnavilas, with its gigantic oil lamp, and bats swooping in the dark trees beyond. To the beats of the giant clay mizhavu, we watched a Nangiyar artiste become Soorpanaka in the forest, enacting her desires, her humiliation and, finally, her fury. For a while, we were witness to a mystery, and we carried a little bit of it back to the bright lights around the dinner table.
The nearest airport is Coimbatore, which serves a number of domestic and a couple of international airlines (approx. 75kms/1.5hrs). The nearest railway station is Palakkad Junction (approx. 12kms/20mins).THE STAY
Krishnavilas offers one single, three doubles, and one suite with a connecting double and single (`3,500 per person, per night, including traditional veg or non-veg breakfast and dinner). Contact Myriam Shankar (+91- 9741544685).
More workshops are planned at Krishnavilas in an attempt to highlight the region and its culture, and support local artistes, craftspeople and heritage property owners.