The Syrian Christian community of Kerala claims an ancestry that goes back to a time when the Christian missionaries came to India. It was then that they brought along their traditional food, thereby preserving their culture in a society far removed from their own. Incorporating their traditional cuisine in an alien culture gave rise to a style of cooking which is an amalgamation of two starkly different cultures.
Kottayam, a city in south-west Kerala located in the basin of the Meenachil River and the Vembanad backwaters is home to the traditional Kerala cuisine, distinguished by the Syrian Christian influence. Closely linked to its religious history, the culinary tradition of Kottayam is characterized by its use of coconut oil, curry leaf and coconut milk, as well as different kinds of spices, beef and seafood. Here, food operates as an expression of cultural identity.
A city-based group, Kochamma Collective, is an informal group of women trying to change the narrative around cuisine by making organic food products using vegetables and fruits gleaned from their kitchen gardens. Kitchen gardens are a characteristic of the more traditional Kerala households, and Kochamma Collective, with its motto ‘Homemade.Handmade.’, embodies the same ethos. It was started four years ago by Ann Dominic, who is an artist and food enthusiast herself. The organisation has given women a platform through which they could sell the products they had been making in the seclusion of their households all their lives. Moreover, it has given them a voice which many have been denied before. In dealing with a phenomenon which is part of the experience of women all over the world, Kochamma Collective has touched the lives of many.
The collective is accompanied by a blog written by Ann herself, in an attempt to document the traditional cuisine of Kerala, which is in danger of getting lost. However, it would be misleading to say that her blog is merely a documentation of the same. It is rather a curious amalgamation of traditional food recipes, which have sometimes been mildly altered to suit Ann’s personal sensibility. A reflection of traditional Kerala culture, the Kochamma collective blog plays around with the idea of “food” as a sentiment, rather than just something that is prepared for sustenance. She does this through various personal anecdotes which bring about the nostalgia associated with certain specific recipes. Moreover, she infuses her blog with graphic illustrations of the recipes, thereby providing a creative touch to her blog. Her articles (Sundari Kunjannam, Candyman, Parottas without Titles, Smoked Water etc) trace a narrative which goes beyond ‘food’ into the realm of memory and desire, resembling the longings of an individual to go back in time to a place of familiarity.
The entire project is her brainchild, the blog being a consequence of this pressing need, where she documents her culture through the recollection of traditional Kerala recipes.
In making organic food products from freshly-grown fruits and vegetables, this organisation aims to promote a healthy diet by eliminating processed and junk food. In an interview with Homegrown, Ann Dominic says that she does not believe in cutting sugar entirely from people’s diet. Instead, she feels that merely cutting down on junk food can help. Her take on nutrition is innovative whilst being very simple. She tries to subvert the western notion that ‘exotic’ means ‘healthy’. Instead, to Ann and Kochamma Collective, anything that is homegrown and handmade is sufficient for a healthy living.
Speaking about her food art, Ann Dominic says, “I can’t say whether food came first or art.” She adds that she had started drawing since the age of 5, and there has been no stopping her since then. She reveals that even through her pregnancy, everything has been documented.
This culinary documentation reflects the cross-cultural affinity that Kerala cuisine exemplifies. It is therefore in effect, also a cultural documentation which takes us through the nuances that shape the history of Kerala.
Ann Dominic is an artist, illustrator and traditional food enthusiast. She started Kochamma Collective as a fun project when she shifted to Kerala. She is part of the jury of the Conde Nast Best Restaurant Awards.
You can check out her Facebook page here.
You can check out her Instagram here.
You can check out her blog here.
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