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A few years ago, the Western world was introduced to the taste, texture and goodliness of chakka – the South Indian name for the giant summer fruit called, the jackfruit. A well-choreographed marketing strategy, good product sampling, talk of incredible nutritional benefits, and the low-profile fruit from the developing world became the buzz on the subways in Manhattan. People were in ecstasy about chakka smoothies, chakka sorbets and tales from the chakka blogs. There was nothing that was not possible with chakka! That summer, chakka displaced heirloom tomatoes and pluots!

Chakka is – Hortus Malabaricus, a member of the Plantae kingdom. The Portugese rechristened the fruit as jacca and this was later anglicised into jackfruit. In 1563, Garcia De Orta, the naturalist mentioned jackfruit in his work Coloquios dos Simples e Drogas da India. A century later, Henrik Adriaan Van Rheede, the Dutch Governor of Malabar gave the world visuals of the chakkamaram[1]  its leaves, fruits, seeds and timber, in his famous work – Horti Indica Malabarici. The volumes were in Latin but Van Rheede’s editorial team wrote the names of every tree, flower and fruit in four languages – Latin, Malayalam, Arabic and Hindi. In a ‘we-too’ move, the British botanist R.R. Stewart stood up to say that the jackfruit was named after a Scottish botanist William Jack who was on the payroll of the East India Company. Nothing changed for chakka!

We knew none of this as we grew up under the many jackfruit trees in my grandmother’s house in Malabar. All that we knew was that there was a chakka season that started in the first quarter of the year and ended with the first showers of the South West monsoon. In those days, there were few choices in the markets by way of produce and very little money to spend on them. The produce from every backyard was what put food on the table, day after day. Chakka had a leading role in that play.

At the start of the season, my grandmother would survey the bounty on the trees and take a call on when the first of the iddichakka[2] should come to the table. These tender jackfruits were used in a dozen different ways to make both mains and sides. They were cooked with spices and coconut to resemble a mutton curry, or simply stir fried in coconut oil with a hint of turmeric and salt and eaten with rice and lentils. There was much sharing and gifting as well all over the neighbourhood and there was no one who did not have iddichakka on the menu during the first flush of the season. A few more weeks on the tree and the mature chakka was ready to be sliced and deep fried in coconut oil in giant Chinese woks. A light sprinkling of salt and you had an amuse-guele that went with everything from evening tea to a single malt. During the season, it was jackfruit with jackfruit for breakfast lunch and dinner!

As the fruit thrived on the heat and humidity, grandmother would make many more recces to see which of the chakkas was ready to be cut. Cutting the jackfruit from the tree and lowering it to the ground was no mean task. The fruit was what the airlines now term ‘oversize’- carrying it from anywhere to anywhere required well developed biceps and a worthwhile tip.

Parents in Malabar made it a point to send jackfruits to each of their children – a tiny strip of jute cloth across the belly of the fruit was all the packing that the fruit required to travel on top of the mofussil bus or the luggage compartment of the local passenger train. The fruit never formed part of carry-on baggage but no one hesitated to check it in on a flight!

The cutting, slicing, cleaning and removing the pods called for many hands. During the summer months, several afternoons were spent in this bonding activity.  Our cook used a large well-oiled vettukathi[3] to cut the fruit at the diaphragm and remove the central fibrous core.  Then it was sliced into workable portions and spread out on an old edition of the Mathrubhumi[4]. We oiled our hands to avoid the sticky white latex and began pulling out the juicy pods from its sheltered base and then removing the seeds. A large portion of the pods were consumed on the spot and the rest got to the table for the rest of the family. The jackfruit seeds – chakkakuru were delicious and lasted long after the rainwater seeped into the last of the fruit.  The seeds were spread out to dry and then stored in open containers to be used later.  They were cooked into a curry with coconut, buttermilk and mangoes or boiled and stir fried with just a brush of turmeric and salt. For those who needed an immediate protein rush they were roasted over coals and eaten hot on the spot.

There were different varieties of jackfruit and one variety was just perfect to be turned into a confection called the chakkavaratiyade[5]. This was made with the chopped fruit and jaggery over blazing flames in giant urulis[6] and later topped with clarified butter and stored for the whole year. Every home took pride in storing the confection and later reconstituting it into a dessert called chakkapradhaman[7] served on very special occasions.

Chakka was an integral part of the food culture of Kerala together with coconuts, mangoes and plantains. Until a few decades ago, the leaf of the jackfruit tree was used as a spoon to drink rice congee –the leaf was shaped into a cone and pinned together with a one-inch piece of the midrib of the palm leaf. After the meal, the disposable leaf spoon was thrown out and fresh ones were made for every meal. There are folk tales and proverbs and a whole inheritance that revolved around the tree and its fruits. Every compound had a tree and every home some item of furniture made from the wood. It never went out of fashion and never needed an epiphany and hopefully never will.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Jackfruit tree

[2] Tender jackfruit

[3] chopper

[4] Local newspaper

[5] A confection made with jackfruit

[6] A wide mouth vessel

[7] A dessert made with jackfruit, coconut milk and jaggery

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Conversations about Mother’s Cooking surface anywhere and all the time. It’s always trending when after hours of toil in the kitchen, hosts place food on the table for their guests. A summary survey of the fare and guests take off one by one on how their mothers used to make the very same dishes – the lamb rogan josh, the pork vin d’alho and the what-ever-else that is on the table.

The evening then becomes an extempore elocution competition. Guests go into overdrive about how their mothers used to make the classics – hand-pound the rice for the appams, place the biriyani on a charcoal stove under the tamarind tree, or bake seven layers of bibinca while attending to five children and nursing the sixth on the side.

These are priceless conversations. They unveil undocumented details for making the dish and touch on the high notes of taste that ensured that the offspring recalls the preparation even decades after mother put it on the table. The devotees at the shrine of mother’s cooking would linger over the quality and quantity of ingredients like ghee, almonds and saffron that went into the dish. In those days, these were rare items and within reach of just the high-net-worth families.

At some conversations you can be only a listener. My mother never cooked, was never taught or coaxed to cook, never enjoyed cooking and never felt it was necessary for a woman to perfect a cheese soufflé or make feijoada. She had no complexes about her lack of skills and no hesitation in sitting down to a meal that had been prepared with no cutting or grinding contributions from her side. As a consequence, she never grumbled when the food was burnt or when the okras were gooey and unpalatable. She understood weights and measures; she knew that ginger was a rhizome, that cloves were aromatic flower buds and that nutmeg was the seed of a tree. But her skills decidedly lay in realms beyond chick-peas and mung. She focused on preparing young women to stand on their own feet both inside and outside the kitchen and devoted her entire life to the mission.

And so it was that she came to live with us and at Christmas filled my stocking with the cookery world’s best seller of the year.  She enjoyed the gift too and flipped through the pages that showed everything from a complete wedding breakfast to illustrations on how to truss a turkey. She spent hours with the book but her contributions in our kitchen remained limited to boiling drinking water for the family. There was no blanching and stir-frying involved, but it did keep all of us free of typhoid and all other water-borne diseases.

As age slowed her pace, she was keen to contribute more to her life with us especially in the kitchen. She cared for her two granddaughters but she was keen to make a mark that would one day empower me to talk of “mother’s cooking.” She sure tried!

One night while we were out at a party, she put our children to bed and came into the kitchen to boil water. She turned on the gas, placed the vessel with water on the fire and went back to complete the last few words in the daily crossword. Sometime later, when we entered the house and passed the kitchen door there was a bright glowing object on the gas burner – the water had boiled, evaporated and the steel vessel stood out like an object from out of space!

There were no damages and we never spoke about the object from out of space ever again. Life continued as before. As our girls grew up, she took them to school, read to them from the Panchatantra, taught them Sanskrit slokas and did everything grandmothers love to do. Every now and then between stories or homework she paused to ask if they could see what in her mind was the bigger picture.  Did they know what they wanted to be when they grew up?

That was my mother’s cooking – She believed that women can dream of a life beyond cinnamon and cassia, outsource cooking when necessary and focus on standing on their own two legs. She knew her granddaughters were still too young to take a call but that was reason enough to work hard to prepare the ground and opt for early sowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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