Minnaaminni ithiriponni minnunnathellaam ponnalla
kannaanthumpi kaanjanathumbi kaathil keattath paattalla
Two days ago, my hometown in Kerala hosted the 2nd biggest Literary Festival in Asia and in parallel to it, the OFIR Food Fest. Calicut, known for its numerous restaurants and a vibrant food culture, has seen many food fests in the past. Yet, what made this event stand apart was the coming together of regional tastes – 12 communities, to be exact – and the artistic culture that surrounded the variety of food. Sufiyana music and Sitar tunes decorated the nights, while stories blossomed on dining-tables when artists and writers from the Literary Fest peeked in for a taste. From Jain food to roadside “ice” items, OFIR covered a range of tastes unmatched by any multicuisine restaurant menu Calicut-ians are familiar with.
I say restaurant menus because the people of Calicut are impulsive restaurant-goers. Spoiled by so many good choices, a middle class family in Calicut does not find it odd to not cook once in a while, whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner. Why should they? One of the better restaurants in not just the town, but in the state, will after all be just a few minutes away. Today when we are constantly turning towards Western tastes and globalized cuisines, such fests remind us that everything famous and advertised well, are perhaps not the only tasty food you can find. Perhaps, the tastiest dish lies unexplored in your neighbour’s kitchen. OFIR is a revival of cultures and a reminder that as much as restaurants will have standardized tastes and home food will not always be available, there are options to avail good food, no matter what culture you belong to.
As soon as you enter Aspin Courtyard, the venue for this Fest, you will be surprised by the sheer diversity of food stalls. The yellow firefly lights will guide your way and show you smiling faces serving homemade food in shining ladles. If you’re from around Calicut, you might even see some familiar faces. Faces lost years ago to tornadoes of time and degrees. In my case, I found three teachers and a ex-classmate in the Anglo Indian food stall. Miss Milly, my very first teacher in Calicut was serving rice and meatball curry. As an ex-Josephite (Calicut-speak for an ex-student of the coastal school St. Joseph’s Anglo Indian Girls’ Higher Secondary School), it gave me great joy to receive a plate of food served by women who breathed the same salty air and taught/learned from the same books as me. Food connects and builds bridges, for sure. But it also serves as time travel. Devil’s Chutney served by Karyn, my schoolmate, was apple-red and tasted like memories.
To the very end of the venue, was arranged a stage. I sat on one of the chairs in the back, to listen to what was going on. In a few minutes, I gathered that the speeches were mostly about the history of Calicut as a trading center– how the affluent Muslim families used to receive Arab guests and raw materials, via trade. I learned that the Muslim wives used to cook the most sumptuous meals they could, in order to lure their husbands back home sooner from the Gulf. They learned recipes in order to ensure that their husbands wouldn’t head out to the sea too soon. Food was not just something that filled the stomach; it was prepared with hope, with love. Something that Calicut still recognizes, considering the graffiti on the pillar next to the famous Paragon Hotel. A smiling Dulquer Salman and Tilakan adorn that pillar, with the iconic sulaimani as well. Anjali Menon’s Ustad Hotel is set in Calicut for a reason and OFIR highlighted that reason.
Food ought to be prepared with love, with empathy. Interestingly, Calicut has always been an compassionate shore. Too compassionate, perhaps, considering our infamous tryst with the Portuguese. But the truth is that Calicut did not have a dominant food culture in olden times. Malabar Manual lists a number of cuisines that existed side by side. The celebration of the Mappila food culture we see today is interesting for this reason. Over the years, Calicut came to be known as the center for Maappila food; the other cuisines, be it Iyer food or Syrian Christian food, were relegated to the sidelines. The very reason for OFIR was the revival of these forgotten regional food cultures, to remind the people of Calicut that our culture is one of empathy where we received and inculcated a variety of cuisines. In this process, we have preserved stories of the origin of dishes, shared anecdotes of preparation and enjoyed the company of amazing experts who cook for nothing other than pure, unadulterated happiness. Various communities across religions, castes and regions have come together to share their finest dishes in an atmosphere filled with music and history.
The only sad part is that OFIR was a firefly fest. A faint light in the night. Gone too soon.