When I was born in the 70s, my grandmother whom we affectionately addressed as “Andhamai” came to live with us in Bombay to support my parents. With the addition of me in the family, we were a total of five siblings and my parents I’m sure were grateful for the offer!
Andhamai was my father’s aunt who brought him up when his own mother, Andhamai’s sister, passed away when Appa was just three years old. Appa also had a younger brother who continued to live with his family in our native village, Suchindrum. He also had sisters staying in Trivandrum. Andhamai had brought up all the siblings like they were her own when her sister passed away at a very young age. Every year, she would travel back to her roots and come back rejuvenated and refreshed.
She would typically travel in the summer which was and still remains the season almost throughout India to take advantage of the generous sunlight to make pickles, jams, dried papads which could be fried and consumed any time of the year. We eagerly awaited her return as she would always bring back a bunch of these things, all prepared by her and the extended family members. Not a single item would be store-bought.
No matter what the item, it always made its way to us in a little green bucket with a lid. Thinking back, I realise now this was probably because the only store in the village might have stocked up only this particular bucket. It was always this olive green bucket which held a couple of kilos of produce each.
While Appa would pick Andhamai up from the railway station and instantly be annoyed at all the buckets she carried back (the argument and fight would continue all the way to getting home, and beyond!), we all waited eagerly for the goodies that these buckets held.
There was always a bucket of “narthangai” pickle, made out of citron, part of the citrus family. Citron would be quartered and picked in salt and turmeric. Over time this dried out and remained edible for years. When freshly pickled, it brimmed with its own juices mixed with salt and turmeric and this tasted amazing too, including the rind once it had absorbed the salt and softened.
Then there would be a bucket of “chakkavarati”, an amazing sweet with a jam-like consistency made primary with ripe jackfruit and jaggery, slow cooked until it turned into a jam. Andhamai would then take banana leaves, spread rice paste in a thin circle and place a spoonful of this jackfruit goodness before folding it over. This would then be steamed and consumed piping hot. Andhamai called this delicacy a “valsan” while the well-known name is “elai-adai”.
There was always “porulvilanga urundai”, called so because these round laddoos were made of roasted multigrain flour and jaggery into a really hard consistency that took a workout to take a bite of but the reward was a delicious, nutty and sweet flavour. The original protein fix, not to mention they strengthened teeth!
One of my absolute favourites in this food heaven was the slivers of dried raw mango. Mango tastes completely different in its multiple forms. The taste of a piece of dried mango doesn’t remind you in any way of a fresh raw mango. Tough, chewy and bursting with a sour burnt flavour, it is a unique experience.
“Marachini Appalam” rounded off this cornucopia of health and goodness. Made from the tapioca root mixed with salt and spices and cooked off into a dough at first, the dough would be spread out in thin circles on a reed mat and left to dry in the sun. The dried appalams would be stacked and stored for years. They would then be deep fried and served as a side with a meal. Crispy, spicy with the telltale signs of the criss-cross reed mat still on the dried appalams, these were just a big pop of flavour that just took the meal to a whole other level. Modern day marachini appalams neither carry the reed mat marks, nor the wafer thin consistency and most importantly, one feels the absence of the love from the sun and the earth and the air that come together to create this beauty.
Looking back, I feel privileged that my childhood was filled with such wonder. These simple pleasures of life don’t exist anymore in most of our lives. Rather than wait an entire year for these delicacies, today’s world offers instant gratification in the form of multiple apps that deliver whatever you would like to eat on any given day. The anticipation of summer, the taste of your village, the nourishment provided by clean ingredients – all have given way to right here, right now.
Hence the feeling of privilege. The awareness that I lived once in a time where nothing was easily accessible, there were no buttons to click, no instant gratification. Which made it all that much more precious and something to cherish.
Back then, love came to us in a green bucket.