The Syrian Christians of Kerala mark Maundy Thursday, the breaking of bread to symbolise the last supper of Christ, with indri appams, kalathappam and Pesaha paal.
After a long period of penance and fasting, the Christians of Kerala prepare for the end of the Lenten season with an indulgent feast of lacy paal appams (rice pancakes) and chicken stew. I, for most of my life, looked forward to the preceding Pesaha Vyazham, or Maundy Thursday, which is the night of breaking bread, symbolizing the Last Supper. I can’t think of any food that has had a stronger pull on my memory than the humble Pesaha appam (Passover bread) my mother would bake for that night.
This Passover ritual observed only by the Nasranis, or Syrian Christians (descendants of Christians baptized by St. Thomas the apostle) of Kerala in India, has striking parallels to the Jewish Passover Seder that is celebrated in the memory of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, after 400 years of slavery under the Pharaohs. In fact, the only Christian community in the world that maintains this Seder-esque ceremony is the Syrian, or Mar Thoma, Christians. Linguistically speaking, Christians of Kerala call it Pesaha Vyazham, which could take the literal translation to Passover Thursday. And just like the Jewish Seder table, the dining table takes centre-stage on the night of the Pesaha.
The preparations for the holy week begin on Palm Sunday, when the family returns from church with palm fronds. My grandparents were very strict about not eating meat, or even eggs during the fifty-day (as per Nasrani calendar) Lent. A typical Pesaha ritual at a Nasrani household is very conventional and treated with utmost piety. We gather together at the dinner table with appachan, my grandfather, spearheading the ceremony as the head of the family. A light dinner is had, after which, a plate of Pesaha appam (unleavened Passover bread) and a bowl of Pesaha paal (Passover jaggery-coconut milk), both topped with the Palm Sunday coconut leaf in the shape of a cross, are served. There are two ways of making this bread, based on the regions where they are made. While the Pesaha appam called Indri appam is steamed, there is a more rustic version called the kalathappam (kalam meaning mud pot), that is either baked or roasted, depending on the equipment one has. Every year, my mother would make both kinds of appam. She would steam the Indri appam with my paternal grandmother, which would be set on the dinner table to be blessed and shared. She would make the kalathappam on her own and set aside to be eaten at leisure. If there is a day that is worth waiting for the whole year, it is Maundy Thursday.
After the scripture is read, my grandfather would pray, cut the bread into wedges, and pass it around to everyone in the family, from the oldest to the youngest. Once it came to me, I would dip the steamed Indri appam in the paal and take a bite. Now, I was done with protocol! Now I could drink it bottoms up, and then get my hands on my mother’s baked kalathappam. Through all this, my grandmother gave us ‘the look’ that warned us not to drop the appam or the paal since they were symbolic of the Christ’s body and blood. Each year on Maundy Thursday, I would fondly look forward to drinking the creamy, jaggery-filled, cardamom-scented coconut milk, and then dunking the baked kalathaappam into the milk.
Making the unleavened bread for Pesaha shows the influence of Kerala’s Jewish community. Early Aramaic-speaking Christians and Jews in Cochin brought in these Seder-like practices. Following strict Nasrani traditions, my mother and ammachi used a new kalam or manchatti (mud pot) bought especially for Pesaha, to wipe out any risk of the dough coming into contact with fermented substances. They took great care not to let the dough stand for more than 30 minutes, after which the batter could ferment. While the Hebrew tradition of unleavened Passover bread uses wheat, Kerala’s Nasaranis use rice to make the bread and coconut milk steeped in jaggery, instead of grape juice or wine.
You see, unlike the steamed Indri appam, the baked/roasted kalathappam is a beautiful medley of flavours. It is such a fabulous accompaniment to the creamy jaggery-coconut milk. To illustrate why, and to write a little bit more about this much-loved appam, I made a phone call to my mother in India and discovered that the secret was fried shallots - that magical ingredient that tranforms even the most humble dish. A little charred, maybe even caramelised, amber shallots are what add character to the kalathappam.
The day before Maundy Thursday, the entire clan goes to church in the evening for kumbasaram (confession), waking up at 2 am for the Pesaha Qurbana, to return only at 7. After which, it is time for the coconuts to be husked, split open, and grated. My mother mashes the grated coconut into a paste on an ammi kallu, a traditional grindstone, and handfuls of that coconut paste are then squeezed out to yield glorious coconut milk. The grated coconut would be later used in the making of the bread, while the coconut milk would go into making the milk dip.
Ammachi used the olakka (a traditional hand-pounder) to powder the rice into flour which would then be roasted and used as the thickening agent for the milk dip. For the bread dough, she would soak some rice, and dry-roasted uzhunnu parippu (urad dal, or skinned black lentils) for two hours before adding grated coconut, cumin seeds, garlic cloves, salt, and water to grind into a viscous paste.
After hours of prepping the dough, she would set up the apparatus for making the appam — a traditional wood-fired stove, over which an uruli (a large thick-bottomed vessel made of bell metal) is set to be heated. Coconut oil and translucent shallatos are spread on the base of the uruli, and then the dough or batter is pressed onto the pan. Another round of shallots fried with curry leaves and thinly sliced coconut pieces (thenga kothu) are then poured over the dough. On top of this, a mud pot called a kalam or manchatti filled with burning embers covers and ‘bakes’ the appam. A close eye is kept on the flames in the pot; someone has to gently blow to keep them alive and burning.
While the kalathappam is roasted, preparations for the cardamom-infused jaggery milk, the Pesaha paal, begin. Making the milk dip involves melting and straining the jaggery, mixing rice flour, ginger powder and cardamom powder; followed by the laborious task of continuously stirring the jaggery-coconut milk concoction until it thickens.
Years later, I try my hand at making Pesaha appam. A modern kitchen does not afford some of the amenities of a traditional Kerala home, and improvisation is a must. For one, I use an electric oven instead of the wood-fired stove that is found in Kerala. Not being religious, I also skip over the prayers and rituals — to me, Maundy Thursday is more about families coming together to partake in a humble meal than anything else. For all these changes, in both the cooking methods and the new unconventional rituals, one bite of the crisp brown edge of the appam takes me back to my mother’s table, heavy with the weight of food and memories.
Meris Cherian is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has been featured in The Week India, and Ahlan Gourmet Dubai. You can follow her writing here.
Banner image credit: Nish Kitchen
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