Four of us started from Kochi towards Athirapilly at about 7.00 am on June 17. Monsoon has started, and there is intermittent rain this morning. The usual route diverts from the town of Chalakudy. Today we decided to take a shorter route. After a few kilometers into the journey, we were going right through the forest. On both sides we could see oil palm trees belonging to the plantation corporation of India, a government undertaking to produce Palmolin. We reached the vicinity of Athirapilly around 9.30 am.
We have been on the lookout for a place to have breakfast. This is a village area and there are not many outlets for food. Keeping that in mind, we were ready to take our chances with any place. Just about that time we spotted a Toddy shop tucked on the side of a small hill to our left. It is the last place one would think of having breakfast at. We decided to give it a try, because we were only after the food; not the toddy. Most Toddy shops are known for great tasting homely Kerala food. This certainly is not the kind of place to be sensitive about the décor or atmosphere. The inside is dark and rudimentary. I have been to toddy shops before where it was worse; with not so clean tables, wash area etc. But here the tables were clean. The characteristic smell of toddy overpowered the air inside. Toddy continues the process of fermentation from the time it is taken from the coconut palm by the tappers early in the morning. Since toddy is a natural, and because it is not subjected to any commercial processing or additives, fermentation progresses as it sits. This continuing fermentation lets out a strong pungent smell.
At the toddy shop there is no written menu. The server comes and recites what is in store in the kitchen. Among a list of local cuisines, tapioca and fish curry sounded good. They said the fish has been caught fresh this morning from the Poringalkuthu reservoir that is close-by.
There are times when you hardly care about the ambience of an eatery; when the taste of food is outstanding. Today the taste goes way beyond the crude look and feel of the place. Had a chat with the server. We wanted to know who the cook is. We were told that the food here is cooked by an old lady. She has been cooking here for the past 20 years. Yes, that was a really satisfying breakfast. We didn’t plan it this way; but there are rare occasions when you are willing to take chances and experiment, you are bound to have pleasant surprises like this.
The focus of our trip to Athirapally is to observe and experience traditional tribal food. Athirapally area used to be a traditional tribal belt. Over the years most of them have started to integrate into the local society. One such tribal person is Baiju. Baiju is multi-talented. He is an actor, and he has also earned a name as an excellent chef mastering in tribal way of cooking. Last year when the world renowned Bolliwood actor Abhishek Bachan and his wife Aiswariya Bachan came to Athirapally for a film shoot, Baiju was selected as their official chef for 3 weeks. He delighted them with his special cuisines. We had contacted him from Kochi, and he is getting ready to demonstrate and enlighten us on his tribal culinary skills that are truly intriguing.
Baiju was waiting for us at a shop a few kilometers ahead of the toddy shop. We picked him up and drove to the destination arranged by Baiju. It was on the banks of the tributary of a river. The water is quite swift and high from the monsoon. Baiju briefed us on the menu for the day. One chicken preparation, one fish preparation and a tapioca delicacy.
He had the fish and chicken sliced into small pieces and marinated with his specially made herbal paste. He said it is all fresh herbs, green pepper, ginger root and raw turmeric fresh from the forest. Of course there are a few other secret ingredients of which we didn’t expect Baiju to reveal readily; without some suspense. But seriously, Baiju’s mission is to reveal some of the old and forgotten ways of his tribe, lest it should be lost knowledge forever. Now we see his assistant bring some raw bamboo pieces about 3 feet each. Our cooking spot has a large flat granite stone on the ground about 2 feet x 2 feet. We see a pile of firewood kept on the side of the stone. We are gathered in a circle around Baiju and his stone. Baiju’s assistants were busy tying a canvas cover on top of us just in case it rains. It already started drizzling by that time. Meanwhile Baiju is all ready. He gives a running commentary of the process, and it is getting really interesting already. He is now arranging the firewood on top of the granite stone in a methodical way, leaving enough room in between the wood so that air can circulate to quicken the burning. We could not figure out how Baiju was going to do his cooking as there were no pots or pans. Anyhow Baiju starts the fire. We see him struggling to get the fire going because of the damp wood and soggy weather. With some blowing, the fire is up and going. He now takes the bamboo and starts stuffing it with pieces of tapioca, all cleaned and ready. He filled the second bamboo tube with marinated fish. The bamboo is cut to have a closed end at the bottom and an open top end. He now starts rotating the bamboo against the red hot fire beneath; making sure that the entire bamboo is receiving the heat evenly from fire.
Now Baiju’s presentation becomes interesting. He takes us back to the olden days in a tribal camp. He explained that the women of the tribal clan would sing a particular song, and then the women and children would dance around the fire. When the song and dance finishes, the food is cooked inside the bamboo. Ingenious! Can’t think of a better timing device. I thought it was a marvelous occasion for social interaction as well. Here is an entire family of tribes actively being part of the cooking process, while also getting socially engaged and making merry with their song and dance. Today Baiju does not have the support of the song and dance. He has to use his instincts and experience to decide if the cooking is complete. We could see the bamboo getting charred on the outside. It has been roughly 15 to 20 minutes. Baiju gestures that it is ready.
The cooking is not complete. He now has the marinated chicken to be cooked. The cooked bamboo tubes are set aside carefully. It will stay warm for a long time, as the bamboo will remain hot. Baiju quickly starts to remove the fire from the top of the stone, while he has another flat stone ready on the side. The initial stone is made clean. Remember, the stone is still hot. He then takes a few turmeric leaves and spreads the marinated chicken pieces evenly on the leaves. Now he placed the leaves on the very hot stone on the ground. He now covers the chicken pieces with another set of fresh turmeric leaves and places the flat face of the second stone on top of it. We started hearing the sizzling sound of the chicken, pressed in between the stones. In times of old, a song and a dance would have taken place around the hearth. I could imagine the song echoing through the mountains and valleys.
Another 15 minutes have gone by. Baiju declares that everything is ready. He removes the stone on the top, opens the leaf, and yes, the chicken looks nice and brown. An appetizing aroma fills the air around us. He then emptied the 2 bamboos into plates. We now have bamboo steamed tapioca, bamboo steamed fish with special herbs and mountain spices, and chicken sizzler cooked in between heated granite stones.
Baiju urged us to get started before it got cold. The very first bite made an impression in me. I thought, “This is truly special, and an experience that I could never ever forget”. Then Baiju went to explain why his ancestors adopted this kind of cooking practice. The fact is, he said “in those days the tribe was constantly on the move, in search of food and shelter. So they were always conscious of traveling as light as possible. They had to improvise almost always. They practiced making use of materials that were easily available in nature. This way they could move around quickly on very short notice.” What a simple and practical lifestyle- I thought to myself. Everything about it is eco-friendly, genuine, simple and organic.
After a brief rest, we decided to take a drive through the forest. Green seems to be the theme. An active monsoon has revived the entire forest. Even the undercover is springing with new life. Numerous water springs and falls are alive. Dryness is a thing of the past. Baiju was born and brought up in this area. He asked us to pull over to the side of the road when we approached a thickly forested area. He then pointed to a hill-side where some rubble is faintly visible from that distance. He said that it used to be his house when he was young. Wild elephants destroyed it, and they had to flee to safer grounds.
It was time for us to drive back to Kochi. We all thanked Baiju for taking us back through time to have a unique tribal experience. A knowledge and a glimpse into a lifestyle that goes hand in hand with nature. This experience revealed to us the need to learn from people like our friend Baiju. Such interactions are sure to impart mutually beneficial values that are vital for practicing responsible tourism.
Author : John Mathew | Creative Director J&B Associates
Photography | Biji Kurian (www.kruain.com)This entry was posted in Blog