Flavours of the Spice Coast: K.M.Mathew
July 13, 2002

A Malayali Girl's Best Friend

How does one review a cookbook? By checking the accuracy of the weights and measures or by evaluating the simplicity of the cooking method? By authenticating the recipes with experts or by gazing at the photographs of the dishes and quantifying the rush of saliva? In the end, I did all of these and some more ¾ I cooked a few of the recipes in my kitchen. And perhaps that is the greatest test of a cookbook. To be able to actually prompt the reader into the kitchen and to summon up the energy and time to want to try the recipes out…. [ And even though I am a great cookbook collector I very seldom use cookbooks for the purpose they are written.] But the Flavours of the Spice Coast had this rather awesome ability to make me want to cook what were tried and familiar foods.

Sixteen years ago when I was a new bride, I spent a great deal of time and energy chasing after my mother demanding recipes for the dishes that was traditional Malayali fare. Breakfast foods, curries, sweets, chutneys…. and now as I glance thru Mrs K.M. Mathew's cook book Flavours of the Spice Coast, I realize that what she has done is essentially put down in print what has perhaps been an oral tradition of Kerala, literally and figuratively. And in the process created a cook book you can delve into when you feel homesick for mother's cooking. Or if you are not from Kerala, a book that will let you cook quite easily all those dishes that are served in copper tableware lined with banana leaves and topped with escalated prices.

Mrs K.M Mathew has authored 17 cook books in Malayalam and 4 in English and Flavours of the Spice Coast is the latest. Her first Malayalam cookbook is Pachaka Kala [the Art of Cooking], which was published in 1953. Since then Mrs K.M. Mathew has culled recipes from all over Kerala and systematised the process of cooking. An achievement in itself as most traditional cooks don't follow systems and instead give you instructions that are as vague as 'take a little grated coconut' or as incomplete as 'grind the masala to paste'. How little is 'little' or whether coarse or fine paste is something one has to discover thru trail and error….

If I have a quibble with the cookbook, they are on two counts. One the cooking method detailed in the cookbook demands a minimum competency in the kitchen. A beginner might find it not so easy. For instance, there is no mention of pressure-cooking the meat. Whether this is because the author believes like some cooks do that pressure-cooking kills the natural taste of the meat or is merely an oversight is left to the reader to comprehend. A fair cook would know well enough to make that decision but not a novice. Similarly while there are pictures of cooking utensils, there is no mention of how to season the cast iron appam pan or how to fix the puttu tube to the pot. Minor details which if ignored can cause much frustration in the kitchen. And beginner cooks need to be instructed on such finer minutiae of cooking. Secondly, for a slender volume such as this, the price is rather steep. But that is a publishing decision and has nothing to do with the contents of the book itself.

From Meat Oolarthiyathe to Duck roast to Fish Molee to Prawn Pappas to Erissery to Idichaka Thoran to Appams to tender mango pickle to Paal Ada Pradhaman, the recipes represent the most loved dishes of Culinaria Kerala. And the book is definitely what every Malayali mother ought to gift her daughter/ son who is moving out or away from maternal wings.

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