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Food and Food Habits

The Namboothiris of Kerala used to follow a full yet simple and unique life style. Their natural hospitality was related in a way to their art of cookery. Uninvited guests were invariably offered food. True to the Upanishad Manthram "Athithhi Devo Bhavah:", they honoured their guests. The simplicity in their life style was reflected in their food habits too. Their scientifically systematised preparations used ingredients that were locally and seasonally available. Their eating habits were also scientifically evolved. Some of the habits are followed even now.

Eat only after Bath

Taking food only after having a bath is an example of being scientific. Bathing was not only for physical cleanliness, but also for total rejuvenation of the body and mind. Namboothiris discouraged eating when the body was tired and mind disturbed. But children had to be fed soon after bath.

Nutritious Food

The general practice was to avoid very rich food, be regular and give priority to food prepared from seasonal, locally available ingredients. Food that helped in the growth of the body and its existance and which suited the local climate was selected, like horse gram ("Muthira") in cool weather, mango in summer and jackfruit during the monsoons. The realisation of the importance of the type of food resulted in turning this practice into an art, and in producing eminent Namboothiri cookery experts.

The kitchens in Illams were given a sanctified prominence, paralleling that of the "Thitappally" (where Nivedyam is cooked) in a temple. Those who were not in any way connected with the preparation of food were banned entry.

Adukkala Namboothirimaar (Kitchen Namboothiris)

There used to be such a category of Namboothiris [Click here] though apparently not in central Kerala. There were quite a few who had traditionally taken up cookery for a livelihood, in the great temples and in aristocratic families. The Muttassu Namboothiri family, for example, were assigned to the Vaikkam Siva temple for preparing "Praathal" (feast in the Oottupura). There were specific Adukkala Namboothiris for food preparation during the Murajapam [Click here]. Namboothiri children (both boys and girls) used to start assisting in the kitchen at an early age, in addition to studies. In some areas, Namboothiri women (Antharjanams) had a greater role in cookery. Making "Appam" for offering at Trichambaram (Kannur district) temple was their prerogative. Even small feasts in some areas were prepared by them. Royal and some non-Braahmanan families often employed Namboothiris to do their kitchen work. They realised the dignity of labour.

Simplicity in Food Habits

As mentioned in the beginning, the simplicity of their life-style could be seen in their food habits too. Right from childhood, mothers ensured that children ate lots of good but simple food in a timely manner.


Namboothiris were strict vegetarians. This low protein diet resulted in larger food intake, for which they were well-known. Namboothiris were generally immune to many of the diseases. The current global thinking and conversion to vegetarianism and natural foods perhaps have a similar basis. Timeliness and avoidance of mid-meal snacking added to their dietary discipline. Traditionally they ate only two meals - mid-morning around 10 - 11 and night 7 - 8.

Eating Habits

Meals used to be served and eaten in a calm atmosphere. Children were not allowed to make noise. These were practised even during major feasts, to the extent feasible. Food was served on plantain leaves and eaten with the right hand while seated on the floor or on wood "Palakaas" (seats). For males, "Keezhila" (two small strips of plantain leaf) was placed under the "Naakkila" (unsplit, terminal portion of a leaf), and pointing outwards. For major feasts, the leaf was withered ("Vaattuka") over fire. In some areas, the two parts of a leaf split along the mid-rib were placed under the main leaf with their margins facing each other. During the off season, when there was a shortage for banana leaf, the sheaths of banana stem were used, often called "Pondi", for eating.

Only after serving "Kutikkuneer" and doing "Praanaahuthi", accompanied by chanting Manthram, other items were served. There is a shorter version of the Manthram for Kutikkuneer at the end of the meal. In a way, this practice ensured all to start eating and get up after meal, at about the same time.

In Namboothiri Illams, leftover food was not stored for later use, not even from the noon to the night meal. Untimely meals were avoided or skipped altogether.

Exercise and Rest

Exercise of the body and rest were given as much priority as food. Typical examples are "Soorya Namaskaaram" (prostrating to the Sun) and walking. They preferred to walk even after vehicular conveniences became common. "Early to bed and early to rise" was the norm.

Items for Food

Simplicity is the hall-mark of Namboothiri food. Their standard meal had rice with one curry ("Koottaan"), a pan-fried vegetable ("Upperi"), loose buttermilk and a pickle. Lesser grains like "Navara" and "Chaama" often replaced rice. Many of the ingredients had medicinal value in Aayurvedam.

The locally available plantains, mango and jackfruit were common ingredients in food preparation, perhaps knowing that these have high nutritional and other values too. Tender jackfruit had always been a favourite with Keralites. When they were almost ripe, there was a multiplicity of use. Deep-fried split pulp stayed long. Pulps were salted, dried and preserved as "Kondaattam", and when needed, deep-fried. Ripe pulps when boiled for long and stirred to remove the water content, and made into a thick paste ("Chakka Varatti"), could be preserved for over a year. Sweet balls, "Prathhaman", etc. could be made with this as and when required. Seeds could be pan-fried and used. There was a special method of underground preservation of seeds till the next season.

Same with mangoes. When the tiny ones began to fall, they were collected, cut and salted, or made into "Chukkinikkari" (they look like dice, hence the name) by further adding chilli powder and "Uluva" (fenugreek seeds) powder. "Kadumaanga" (whole tender mango pickle with mustard) is a Namboothiri speciality, as was "Uluvaayamaanga" (with fenugreek powder). "Uppumaanga" (salted mango), "Unakkumaanga" (dried mango) and "Neermaampazham" (salted, sweet and ripe mango) could be preserved for long periods. Ripe mango curry was a favourite among Namboothiris. In addition, mango had a sacred aspect too, as it was used for "Daanam" (offering to Braahmanans), etc.

Once a week, most Namboothiris used leafy vegetables. There was a saying, "Karkitakathil Pathila Thinnuka" - eat ten (types of) leaves during Karkitakam month, the rainy July - August, when there used to be all-round food shortage. Another saying was, "Kaayem Chenem Muthinkal, Chakkem Maangem Muthinkal, Thaalum Thakarem Muthinkal, Anganem Inganem Muthinkal" meaning, plantain and yam for three months of the year, jackfruit and mango for another three months, leafy vegetables for one quarter and 'this and that' for the last quarter of the year.

Since coconut was rare in ancient days, it was restricted mostly among the rich. But on special days as also for some of the sacred rituals, coconut was used by all.

Feasts ("Sadya")

There would, of course, be additional items for feasts. The most important were the "Naalu" (four) curry - Erisseri (fried), Kaalan (sour), Olan (neutral) and Madhura curry (sweet), in the order of importance. Varutha Upperi (banana fries), Uppalittathu (pickles) and Pappadam formed the essential side dishes. Pappadam is taboo for Brahmachaaris as also for Sraadhham (death anniversary) Sadya, Pindam (11th day after death) Sadya, etc. The Madhura curry, "Paayasam" (pudding) was served just before the last item, curd or butter-milk.

There were two classes of Madhura curry - Paayasam, using rice, and Prathhaman, using non-rice items, generally.

Paayasams were : Idichu Pizhinja Paayasam, Sarkkara Paayasam, Neyppaayasam, Paal Paayasam (without sugar), and Panchaara Paayasam. [In temples, special Idichu Pizhinja Paaysam used to be offered to the deity as "Chathussatham". This was called so because the four ingredients used for it were in hundreds; say, 100 coconuts, 100 "Naazhi" (a measure) rice, 100 "Palam" (a measure of mass) jaggery, and 100 Kadalippazhams (a variety of plantain).

Prathhamans : Kalakki-, Parippu-, Ada-, Paalada-, Pazha-, Chakka-, etc. Panchaara-, among Paayasams and Paalada-, among Prathhamans took the pride of place. Ambalappuzha Panchaara Paayasam (of Ambalappuzha temple) is very famous even now.

The last item used to be buttermilk (to be mixed with rice, of course). Curd was served in feasts (but not during night), and should be followed by buttermilk, an essental item in Namboothiri food.

For feasts, leading the guests and seating them followed certain norms. Seating started from one end in the order of importance and status of the person or the family. Even the size of the seat ("Aavanappalaka") and the leaf used to be different for VIPs. [A long wooden seat, "Panthippalaka" was often used to seat several persons in a row, during feasts].

Serving started only when one batch was full, and began with water for wiping the leaf clean. Rice, one "Upperi" (for death anniversay, etc. Kadalippazham and a piece of jaggery, instead) and "Upastharanam" (drops of ghee) were served. A senior member of the host family or an important person offered water as "Kudikkuneer". This was followed by serving Erisseri, Kaalan, Olan (on top of leaf from right to left, in that order), and other items like Aviyal, Saambaar, etc. Conventionally, pickle items were served at the top left and Upperi items at the bottom left.

Depending on the "grade" of the feast, there would be variation in the number of Upperi items, usually from four to eight, with an equal number of pickles, like Kadumaanga, Uluvaayamaanga, Naaranga (lime pickle), Puleenchi (tamarind pickle), etc. Inchithairu (ginger-curd) was an important item, though not counted as a pickle. Pappadam was also very important with the size increasing with the grade. Very important feasts might have a large and small Pappadam, Sarkkara-upperi (jaggery coated banana fry, but not counted as Upperi) and sugar (Panchasaara). The last two were served in the right bottom part of the leaf.

Fruits, usually plantain, were important in feasts. Jackfruit and mangoes were served for high-class feasts. Banana in the form of cooked pieces (Pazham Nurukku) and Pazha Pulisseri were not uncommon. The former was served only after two rounds of serving the main items, and the latter was not served at all in grand feasts, but often the night-before ("Athaazha Oottu").

Serving in Namboothiri feasts was an art which needed some experience and expertise. Serving started only after everyone was seated in a batch. The items had to be served in the right quantity as needed by each person, so as to avoid leftovers. Perfect silence was observed during serving. Now-a-days there are several organised groups of expert servers ("Sramakkaar"). Many are well-educated and some are even officers and teachers. The way Namboothiris eat was methodical, clean and neat, also.

Equality in Food

In Namboothiri Illams, it was the same food, same items, that everyone - the head of the family, other members, stray guests and servants - got. In olden days, there were quite a few Namboothiri families who were dependent on one well-to-do family in the area. Often, even on ordinary days, there were more outsiders eating in such Illams than their own members.

In short, Namboothiris were certainly very fond of food, but were not gluttons. They knew how to prepare tasty and nutritious food, serve well, and, of course, enjoy eating it too. The Namboothiris found pleasure in the laborious, physically demanding, yet exhilerating art of cooking. Though some of the practices are defunct, many continue to be followed even to this day, and particularly with regard to feasts.

| Article No:14 | Last update of this article:20th August 2001 |
Article by : V T Narayanan Bhattathiripad, Thazhathu Mana, P O: Mezhathur, Via: Thrithala - 679534, Palakkad Dist. Phone: 0492-673249

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