In Malayalam, it's not just the rice gruel that is called kanji. The new age has Keralites popularly using that word to describe people who are insipid, innately weak both in body and mind. If you are the next to be addressed so, do one thing: take the person to that motel in Chalakudy. Early morning itself. It's a world of kanji and its accompanying dishes. Serve them with the steamy items that can also warm their cold hearts. Once they sweat while relishing the taste, leave them free after they empty the plate and bowls.
Vasuettan. That is, simply, how the owner of the shop is known around in the hospitality circles in his part of Thrissur district. And his kanji is anything but insipid or weak. In fact, it's strong enough to conquer kanji-belittlers. It has varieties, and hence several ways of relishing each of them with that slurping sshhrr sound.
Sivan & Parukkutty
When Vasuettan’s son Sivan comes from inside the kitchen to the table, he would bring kanji in a round plate that has a few bowls along its one half. After dipping a reasonably big spoon into it, Sivan will walk back - only to emerge again, this time with a banana leaf. On reaching near the table, he would split it with practised ease and place it next to the kanji plate. The leaf will soon sport sliced tapioca boiled and mixed with turmeric powder.
That would make the side dish look yellow, but this isn't the lone colour. On all sides of the tapioca is a festival of side dishes: cabbage thoran, dry prawn chutney, salad of curd and sliced onions, beetroot pickle. Plus pappadam, fried. And, a cute little glass of buttermilk flavoured with curry leaves. The thoran needn’t every day be cabbage, Sivan reminds, revealing that it can be a mix of raw banana cut with legumes and smeared with a dash of coconut oil to be served as what is generally called mezhukkupuratti. (The one made of banana flowers has taken a monsoon break ever since the outbreak of Nipa and despite a fade in its threat of spreading.)
Just as you realise that this mix of kanji meals is special, in comes beef. It's finely slice buffalo meat with gravy that has random drops of ghee floating about.
Start of a feast
The spoon in the plate has already started getting restless, but then most guests at Vasuettan’s shop prefer to use their fingers to eat. Even Sivan discourages your using the spoon, eating with which can only test your patience, given the irresistible taste of the kanji and the side dishes. The rice, its water, the vegetable mix, the beef pieces and even the buttermilk together announce the acceleration of a festival in your mouth.
By the way, Vasuettan's restaurant is not exactly at Chalakudy. It's three km from the town, in a place called Elanjipara. Also, forgot to tell you, Vasuettan is no more. He left the world of earthy tastes three years ago - in 2015. Since then, his widow Parukutty owns the establishment.
It's surprising that Vasuettan, who, sure, would have been a man of old-world courtesies and sensibilities, managed to replicate the mood of animation on the white screen that is the kanji water. How else would you describe the vibrant and quick-moving colours that the elements in the side of the plate paint as surreal images on the main dish! An occasional finger-tip touch on the pickle and then your tongue is a beautiful experience. Not just that, a run through the other dishes can give you a kaleidoscopic taste of foods around.
You finish it, and Sivan would enter to ask you if you need more kanji. The question would found an echo from Parukutty as well. Your belly is about to break, so you say 'no'. Politely, happily, gratifyingly. Wind it up by munching on to the last bit of pappadam. And the remaining drops of the buttermilk.
Great beef taste
So how do you get the buffalo meat so tasty? Well, slice it into pieces and boil them along with a few ingredients. First, onions, ginger, garlic and green chillies. Then, heated red chillies and coriander. Add to it a bit of chilli powder. When the bit of the watery mixture simmers for a while, put them on to a vat. There, the masala would lend the preparation added taste. When everything boils well, add sweet cumin and meat masala.
If it’s chicken instead of buffalo, no meat masala is added. Otherwise, the recipe is the same.