Cook Nambiar

 Nambiar was the cook in our grandfather’s house. He ambled in one day without a reference or resume and stayed for many years churning out three hot meals a day for about two dozen people.   His domain was the large L-shaped kitchen with a well and wash area at one end of the alphabet and the cooking area at the other. The wash area was covered with red tiles and the cooking area was a mud floor that was wiped clean with cow dung every afternoon after the mid-day meal. The kitchen was away from the dining room at the end of a long covered verandah. Nambiar had his room next to the kitchen with a wooden plank for a bed and nothing but a window as furniture. We, children were discouraged from using the kitchen as a hang-out or play area but at that point in our lives the kitchen was the most happening place in the house.

Nambiar’s jobs kept him in the kitchen and his shift ended each time he moved the cooked food to the serving dishes for the table.

 Cooks in Malabar in those days toiled in hot and humid kitchens filled with damp firewood and smoke. Nambiar dressed for this environment. He wore a loin cloth and an upper cloth tied round the waist with a hemline that was nearer the knee than the ankle. He completed the outfit with his bare chest generously smeared with freshly ground sandalwood paste. On the occasions when he stepped out of the house, he added another two metres over the loin cloth and threw some more cloth over his upper torso. His work attire carried no labels but was very much in line with what chefs wore in the days before white overcoats took over the kitchens.

 Nambiar’s repertoire was limited to the Nair food of Malabar – Day after day, he cut, chopped, grated, ground and lifted each of the heavy vessels that were used to boil the rice, purify the salt and make the payasams[1]  on festive occasions. His day began when my aunt measured out the day’s rations from the storeroom inside the house. A muram[2] would hold the rice, coconuts and vegetables and a decrepit bottle was used to hold the coconut oil to be used for the day. The lentils were kept in a measuring tin and ingredients like tamarind and onions were kept in one corner of the muram. The supplies from the store were often supplemented with fresh vegetables from the grounds around the house, or with fish that was bought later in the day.

 Nambiar was a black belt in the art of scraping coconuts. He moved with precision, speed and rhythm and went through a coconut in record time. His coconut scraper was on a narrow wooden bench, no higher than a few centimetres from the ground. It had a raised head at one end and an iron blade with serrated edges attached to the top of it. To scrape the coconut, Nambiar sat astride the bench, cupped one half of the broken nut over the edge and followed a backward and forward dance-like movement with both hands. One half of the coconut was done when the metal hit the shell and shreds of brown began to colour the white endosperm. Two dozen boarders and three meals a day called for a lot of coconuts!

 On festive days like Onam or Vishu, our grandmother would decide how many coconuts were needed for the sadhya[3]. Nambiar would tackle fifty coconuts before sunrise while the bananas for breakfast steamed and caramelised. In those days, the Guinness Book of Records was not a popular pastime and Nambiar’s feat remained unrecorded and just stored in our minds as we watched him on the job. We often imitated his well choreographed hand movements and giggled at the spectacle of his cloths flying all over the place.

 Nambiar’s kitchen routines ensured that he had a full-body work out day after day and his repetitive rituals kept him in enviable physical shape. Unfortunately, shape and six packs were not marketable assets in those days and no one was prepared to pay for that.  The entire household licked their fingers after each meal but he seldom received words of appreciation. In all his years with us, he never had an annual appraisal and his increments were neither regular nor newsworthy. He had no stock options, no means of supplementing his income and few opportunities for achieving a work-life balance. One fine day, Nambiar decided that he must look for new rituals and add something more to the full-body work out and three hot meals a day. He walked out in much the same way as he came to stay. But when he left, he took all his portable skills with him and walked away without an exit interview or a succession plan.    

 

                                                                                                                       


[1] A sweet dish

[2] A hand woven square reed tray with a concave base

 [3] The festive meal

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