Nisha Susan finds kanji is a fasting food that looks a lot like feasting.
Have you ever said someone is as nutty as a fruitcake? It’s a relatively recent Americanism, and one that I have had mixed feelings about for far too long. As mixed as my feelings towards fruitcake. Food-based insults in English, I have noticed, do tend to land rather imperfectly. Take that line that confused me for years — What am I, chopped liver? I get that the speaker is an aggrieved party but I love chopped liver, and have never understood how one could compare its rich, fatty perfection to feeling like your luminousness is being dimmed. Many years ago, I passed by a fancy bakery that had sprung in my Delhi neighbourhood, saw that its name was Whipped and a puritan gasp escaped me. How wrong yet how daring, I thought. Their cakes tasted better because I assumed an evil mind was somewhere churning the butter. Was that the intended effect? Who is to say? But the gastronomic insult that has always and consistently failed for me is one in Malayalam: kanji. As in, “Avan oru kanji aanu/He is a rice gruel.” The picture that is supposed to leap to mind is of a person who is ungenerous, not just with money but also with his imagination, of a grudging narrow life.
I get the insult, sure, in a transactional way but I could never feel that way about kanji. I don’t know what consistent kanji eater could feel that way. My grandfather, for instance, had kanji for dinner quite frequently but never thought of it as anything special, just something hot and familiar and easy to eat. He ate it in a plate (not a bowl) so once most of the rice was spooned up there was — inevitably — direct slurping of the gruel water from the plate. He was self-conscious about it enough to make jokes about it but not self-conscious enough to not slurp. I never heard my grandfather using kanji as an insult but every now and then he would tell this kanji joke:
An old man is excited to get his first invitation to stay at his civil servant son’s home in Thiruvananthapuram. He leaves his village and thinks about all the new and exciting things he would eat at his fancypants son’s house. It is not an easy journey and he is quite exhausted when he arrives late at night. His son welcomes him warmly. The old man sits down for his meal and his daughter-in-law puts down a plate before him. A plate of what she had thought would be comfort food for her elderly father-in-law. And there it was the familiar, detested podi ari kanji with its familiar broken brown rice. Thunderstruck, the old man exclaims at the gruel, “Ambada! You managed to get to Thiruvananthapuram before I did!” The telling of this story had nothing to do with my grandfather’s feelings about kanji of course. It was usually an unsubtle instruction to my much-harassed grandmother that he would not stand to be fed the same things too frequently. Or a subtle instruction to the rest of us that we should not bore other people.
Kanji has never had a chance to bore me because I have only ever had it in two contexts. One. As pazhakanji aka old kanji. My older cousins in Kerala loved it for breakfast so when I was visiting I ate it too. Leftover cooked rice from the day was soaked overnight in water to prevent it from spoiling. The next morning, cool and fermented kanji was eaten with bits and pieces of other leftovers — a small piece of fish, seasoned buttermilk, pickle if you could find any, or a tiny green kanthari chilli. We hung out eating on the kitchen floor gossiping but without heat in the plate or in the story. The day and its troubles were only starting to simmer. Pazhakanji was not a meal to be had at the dining table or one to make any effort for. I was startled to see pazhakanji in a fancy restaurant in Bhubhaneshwar. An irreverent relative of mine has long called pakhal bhaat (as it is known in Orissa) aspirin water. For her, a major fan of all things fried, chatpata and masaledar, pakhal, which is blander than even kanji, must have been unbearable.
The other context I’ve always had kanji in was also perfectly congenial. Every year on Good Friday in Muscat, my parents had kanji for lunch. We may or may not go to church, we may or may not observe Lent, I may or may not have fainted in church but kanji was made. (I lie. I always fainted in church on the one day of the year we went. There is too much standing in church. This is what I would nail to the door as my major and perhaps single proclamation if churchgoing was still part of my life.)
Kanji for Good Friday lunch is supposed to be an easily cooked and cheap meal to be eaten after fasting the whole morning, after 40 days of privations during Lent but a full two days before the good stuff such as meat and fish is broken out on Easter. In reality, this special occasion kanji fell into the fasting-that-looks-like-feasting category of foods. You know what I mean, right? You have been around those fasts that allow you to only eat dried fruits and delicious nuts the whole day? It always brings to mind the Reader’s Digest era joke about the young Catholic visiting his older brother’s seminary on a holy day, who exclaims at the feast laid out for relatives: if this is poverty, what is chastity?
On Good Friday, kanji was not served in a small bowl at one corner of the table to whoever was old, ill or tender in the stomach. Instead, kanji came in vast tureens, accompanied by pappadam, ghee, lemon pickle, kaachiya moru (seasoned buttermilk) and coconut chammanthi. This last was no loose and forward chutney you would eat in a darshini but a tight, red compact ball. Since her teens (and even now in her 40s) my black sheep cousin was praised warmly for her deft hand with grinding chutney. If a Malayali kidnapper called her she could safely say, “I don't have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills,” and the kidnapper would know she had a long career in chammanthi.
Also present at this feast was kanji’s most well-known handmaiden, cherupayar thoran. Slightly mashed green gram stir-fry topped with fresh grated coconut could be boring but I have never known it to be. If it preceded me to Thiruvanthapuram, I swear I would greet it like an dear friend.
To this decadence, my aunt always added her particularly delicious astram. While astram has a pointy and macho name, it is a warm and starchy embrace. Made with taro root, coconut milk and curd it was the final ingredient that created the bliss point for our Good Friday lunches, bliss point being the technical term used by scientists trying to make addictive junk food. Like with chips, we just kept going back for more. In my parents’ home and in the home of our favourite cousins, whether you went to church on Good Friday and what you did during Lent was between you and God. But eating kanji and finding a flat surface on the floor afterwards was serious business.
This year, I hope you are able to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's. But render to your stomach a little pazhakanji on a summer morning and you will only feel #gratitude.
Nisha Susan is a founding editor of The Ladies Finger and a partner at Grist Media.
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