Although I was brought up by parents who are excellent cooks, along with a sibling who inherited the same talent, I have never been keen on cooking. But there was one special occasion that brought me to the kitchen—family get-togethers where we collectively cooked the Kuzhithakidi, a special brand of chicken curry named after my family. These gatherings made me realise that cooking was more than instinctively knowing how much salt to add to the dish and when exactly to turn off the stove; rather it was something joyous, almost celebratory. Kuzhithakidi not only gave me a chance to bask in the feeling of belongingness that came from being part of a large family but years later, made me reflect upon the socio-cultural complexities embedded in the process of cooking itself.
I grew up surrounded by my extended family who loved to cook and eat. As our social and economic status improved, the family saw migration like never before. Soon after, Kuzhithakidi became reserved for the occasions when the family returned to their ancestral home.
The curry in itself was warm, brothy and full of flavour. It was usually served with steamed Tapioca (roots of the Cassava plant), which acted as a gentle reminder of the days of deprivation my family had to go through. The choice of food along with the way it was served—in banana leaves, with all the able-bodied members sitting on the floor to eat—was probably an attempt to recreate a simpler and poorer but happier past. Admitting that coconut shavings in the curry made every pain go away might be succumbing to the “South Indian” stereotype. However, it is true.
Over the years, the tradition became more meaningful for me primarily because of the memories it created. For the older generation, like my dad, it was a way of reliving their childhood where happiness was created, quite literally, in the backyards of their home. They grew the hens themselves, had coconut trees in the yards and used Kanthari (a special type of chilli predominant in South India) from the wild bushes nearby. For my generation, it was a reminder that no matter how far we migrated we still had a family to come back to and find our place in; that our roots were buried deep there.
I realised that these gatherings were probably the only time I saw such active male participation in the kitchen. In Kerala and in our patriarchal family setup, it was almost blasphemous for men to cook for their families. My dad, who was admittedly much more progressive than many of his peers, only cooked his “special” dish—Chicken biryani—every once in a while. Now when I look back and assess, I feel fairly certain that it did not taste very different from my mom’s preparation. Perhaps it was just applauded more because it was cooked by a man.
However, when it came to the preparation of Kuzhithakidi, everyone participated. After all, the delicacy carried the family’s heritage. How could something so important be left only to women? Right from the four-year-olds who were given the task to carry vessels to my eighty-year-old grandmother who was proficient in peeling onions, everyone had a role in its preparation. The hens were bred in one of our uncles’ houses and taken care of by my eldest cousin, as cleaning and cutting chicken was supposed to be a pious task reserved only for the eldest male. While the process itself might appear gruesome to some, I remember watching it with avid curiosity. For me, there was something therapeutic about the sure, steady manner in which my cousin butchered the chicken. The way he always looked up to me to see if I was enjoying it (I was the youngest in the family), the slow smile that spread through his face once the job was efficiently done and the joy with which he passed the chicken to his wife for cooking, always left an impression on me. The preparation of Payasams (a sweet dish), which sometimes accompanied the chicken curry, was also usually helmed by one of my uncles.
The family home would become a mixture of emotions as the preparation of Kuzhithakidi progressed. My uncles would be sitting on the yard with appreciative gazes on the younger ones as they prepared the Tapioca, as if this was a rite of passage and they were passing the baton. The women would be talking in the kitchen, relatively relaxed as their burden would be shared by menfolk. My younger cousins would be running around to find the best banana leaves, plucking the best chillies from the yard and running to the stores to get the initially forgotten ingredients. Our curious neighbours would drop in to see how our celebration was progressing. My mother would keep a watchful eye on me if I ventured near knives and sharp equipment—the fierce protectiveness in her eyes promised me a shield not only from sharp edges but also from sharp words that could come out of a family with about seventy members.
As one can expect, it was not all happiness. As the large family gathered, there would be vicious, unforgiving gossip about everyone they could get hold of. My uncles would not quickly run to offer a copper glass full of water to my older female cousins if their eyes burned after peeling onions, as they would for me. Perhaps because they were to be prepared to endure a lifetime of slaving away in the kitchen! Besides, the daughters-in-law of the family, especially those recently married, would be put under sharp scrutiny during the family reunions. On the other hand, sons-in-law would perhaps be the only ones who had a choice to stay away from the preparations. But perhaps the taste of the curry was supposed to serve as a salve for all the wounds made during its preparation. I say so because as much as I wrack my brain, I can’t remember any unhappy faces when we all sat down in front of our leaves to eat. But then, maybe I was too focused on the food to notice anything else.
Also read: Joy of Food
But now, the inevitable tokenism in men taking charge of the kitchen for one meal that was deemed the most important is not lost on me. Nor is the forced participation of people who did not feel at home with family but still had to come as the patriarchs would disapprove otherwise. While Kuzhithakidi was special, it was not magical; preparing the meal one day did not mean that my brothers automatically started helping in the kitchen the next day. It did not mean the wounds inflicted or the conflicts generated during the gathering were resolved. The chicken curry is a bittersweet symbol—that they could forgo the rigid hierarchies of gender for one day but never make it the norm; that the elders in the family would find access to our safe spaces at least for a day; that no matter how far we go, at the end of the day, we would be Kuzhithakidi kids, which meant we had to stick to the rules. Perhaps, it is due to this sanction and control the joint family had over the imagination of the next generation that I do not see much deviance from my dad’s side of the family. Despite getting degrees from educational institutions across the globe, we all share similar religious values, we all engage in similar kinds of recreational activities, and we all share the same prejudices. Even me, as I pen this all down, would not go back and question the homophobia, the misogyny and the regressive tendencies that shroud the family. The grip of Kuzhithakidi is perhaps a chokehold.
Nevertheless, even today when my mother makes Kuzhithakidi in the quiet of our nuclear household, I can’t help but visualise my cousin’s crooked smile, the one I have desperately tried to hold on to after his passing. I can’t help but feel the smell of the brown Omni car, which used to bring the groceries, in my nose. I can’t help but recreate the colour of the boiling broth, the stupid jokes that my uncles used to share, the smell of the sweat my aunts’ sarees tried to wipe away, and the feel of walking barefoot over the discarded onion peels all over the yard. I try to remind myself that the occasion was not as joyous as I first saw it, but I keep referring to it as one of my fondest memories of childhood. My liberal education berates me for appreciating a seemingly “problematic” day, but my optimism clings to its better aspects. I try to take comfort in the fact that some of my male cousins now see cooking as something they can engage in. I take comfort in the relative ease that it provides the female family members. As I navigate through the socio-political realities of my 22-year-old self who is trying to shed her inherent biases, I try not to shed Kuzhithakidi and the lessons it provides. It has taught me that culinary practices reflect the power dynamics of the society but also that food can help people unite; it has taught me that larger family traditions can look like a carnival from the outside but paying attention to the fringes tell a different story. And it has taught me that if I have a family of my own in future, I have an obligation to pass on the recipe of Kuzhithakidi bereft of its biases.
My mom once told me that the secret ingredient to her cooking was love. Looking back, I’m sure Kuzhithakidi had more duty in it than love. Perhaps it’s my childish stubbornness to have a nostalgic past that’s doubling as love because that chicken curry tasted so very good even this morning.
Also read: Dishes Nobody Prepares Anymore
Featured image provided by Stephy Stephen