The Queen of The Travancore Kitchen


                         The royal family of Travancore has been blessed with great individuals from time to time. (Around 2.5 per century if one were to take an average.) The genius of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma in a variety of fields like music, literature, poetry, science, languages, education and social reforms remains unparalleled. The accomplishments of Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Bala Rama Varma who was the first to declare temples open to Hindus of all castes, (inspiring Gandhiji himself to make a visit to Trivandrum) are well known. It is also well known locally, that it was his indomitable mother Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi, who was the power behind the throne.

                                Amma Maharani or the Queen Mother as she was popularly known, was a genius in several fields.....not least of all in the kitchen. Despite the various stories I get to hear about her nature which was 'Born to rule' literally speaking, I remember her as a source of unstinted love, endless anecdotes from the puranas and above all, as a source of utterly delectable Food ! Being blessed with an open and inquiring mind and having spent half her life during the British Raj, she imbibed the best of the West while retaining local culinary traditions that were centuries old. Since she passed away when I was still in my early teens and since none of her descendants ever stepped into a kitchen as far as I know, I myself missed out on the first of the two components of that which makes a good meal....being cooking and eating. But having grown into a foodie of the first order myself, I achingly remember the aromas as well as the flavours of so many things she used to make.
                                     Till she died in 1983, we had our own cows and all the diary products we used were made at home. Every once in a while she used to melt butter to make ghee. One could get the fragrance of the melting butter literally from a furlong away. My friends tease me by saying that I have been blessed....or cursed...with a dog's nose. While this Does render conversations with people who have bad breath unpleasant, the aromas I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy, far outweigh the unpleasant smells I've had to put up with, especially in places like Madras and Bombay, particularly near certain water bodies. But I digress. Amma Maharani's curd was something else too....rich, solid and sweet. After searching high and low for something akin to this, I discovered that the Mishti Doi served at 'Oh Calcutta' in Bombay came rather close. Surprisingly the chatlike thing served at the same restaurant with Potato and  Channa  reminded me of a similar potato preparation made by Maharani Ji. As a fan of both these + Golbarir Kosha Mansho and Tagore songs myself, I often wonder whether she learned Bengali cuisine too.
                                          The musicians, artists, scientists and heads of state who have enjoyed Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi's hospitality runs like a list of who is who from the twentieth century. But she had the same rule for treating her guests, be they from the North, South, East or West. That irrespective of where else they had eaten at, they should never forget the meal they enjoyed at the Travancore palace. And she usually succeeded completely in her mission. Despite being a teetotaler and a vegetarian herself, she served both alcohol as well as meat at the palace. When the guests drank vodka, members of the family chastely sipped water from similar glasses. When the guests enjoyed fried fish, members of the family nibbled on pieces of tapioca which were prepared in such a way that they looked exactly like the fish served to the guests. And she had a separate kitchen, pots, pans, cutlery and crockery to prepare and serve the non vegetarian food. So the vegetarian fare remained completely 'unpolluted.'
                                           Even today we have two kitchens; one that prepares rice, sambar, aviyal, pulissery and other South Indian dishes and the other, for goodies like Macaroni and cheese, chocolate pudding and so on. The food in the Indian kitchen is a far cry from how it used to be during the days of my great grandmother, Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi. But the sixty five year old cook Chandran of the 'English kitchen' regularly comes up with the most wonderful chocolate desserts, pastas and the like even today, God bless him. One of his specialities is to hollow out the centre of a carrot, stuff it with white coconut chutney (How could an article on Kerala cuisine be complete without mentioning the omnipresent coconut at least once ?), seal the hole with bread crumbs and fry it. A simple, yet delicious dish that I haven't tasted anywhere else, like his egg less 'Chocolate Curd Cake' which uses chocolate and curd....obviously.
                                            As I eagerly await the mango season, I remember my great grandmother yet again with affection and regret. She used to make this Divine thing called 'Thera' with mango juice. Apparently one takes some sort of a clean mat, usually made of screw pine (Pandanus) leaves, lays it out in the sun and squeezes out the juice of dozens of the divine local mangoes called Chandrakkaaran (Green on the outside, orange on the inside and completely suckable) and lets the sun dry the juices. When done, one squeezes out another layer of mango juice on to the dry layer. And repeats the process three or four times over a period of several days or weeks. Finally when the Thera is ready, one cuts it up into delectable, dark brown slivers that remarkably resemble dried meats like Beef Jerky in appearance, bites into them and gets a taste of heaven. She made something called Varattu Vaazhaykka, which was simply a large banana dried in the sun for days and days and days, till the skin became completely black and the fruit itself had taken on the look an texture of toffee. Another simple and magical dish from the Travancore royal household.
                                            As long as Maharani Ji was alive, the entire family used to go out on picnics from time to time. An area in the forest surrounding my house would be cleared and we would all sit together on a thick, rough carpet. My great grandmother would cook and the rest of us would eat. During her last years when she was bed ridden, she would still sit up in bed, prop up a stove on a stool and cook my favourite  dishes like banana pulissery in her 'Kal Chatti' (a cooking pot made of stone), the likes of which I have never encountered anywhere since, be it in texture or in taste.
                                           As an adult, I've  become less chaste in my culinary tastes and preferences and have gone on to sample and relish the best of Swiss, French, Italian, Iranian, Chinese, Indonesian, Mughlai  and Japanese cuisine. I've tasted wines like Saint Joseph (From the 1947 vintage) with cheeses from heaven with my friends in Paris. I've had Moroccan Tagines that melt in one's mouth, Swiss Raclettes and Fondues which make me swoon just at the thought of them. I celebrate the fact that Sushi bars have started appearing here and there at least in the big cities in India. Yet I still miss the wholesome fare that my great grandmother used to make in her kal chatti.
                                             Nothing brings me as much pleasure as food and music do. (No. Not even sex, money or adulation.) I feel blessed to be able to bring pleasure to others with my music. But I still dream of cooking the kind of royal spreads that my great grandmother would have been proud of.

Rama Varma.

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