We spent a completely delightful afternoon cooking with Mariam Venattu and her sister Kunjumol (Anna) and their families. It was the first day of Onam in 2016.
Onam is South India’s annual 10-day harvest festival. Mariam’s sons Jinu (23), Tijin (22) and Nithin (18) and Anna’s daughter Sajin (17) joined us. Her husband Thamban Varkey was busy with his work at Green Land Spice Gardens. The family gives tours of their spice garden. They also own the centrally located Spice Inn spice store on Lake Road in Kumily.
As Spice Inn is very close to Spice Village, where we stay when in the area, we frequently stop by the store when we realize we’ve got a bit more room in our suitcases. Mariam’s son Tijin is also a certified tour guide for the area and Spice Inn doubles as a local contact for Travel XS excursions in this region. Through our love of spices and our connections with Travel XS, we were invited home to cook with Mariam on Onam.
Onam is the equivalent of a national holiday for the Malayali people of Kerala. It celebrates their favourite King of all time, King Mahabali. He was known for being just, kind and generous. Being held in August or September the festival usually coincides with harvest. On this Onam, Mariam and her family enjoyed the chance to emulate King Mahabali and were very kind and generous to us. It was a great time to visit for many reasons.
During Onam, you will find homes and hotels alike decorated with fabulous Pookkalam which are elaborate designs made with different types of flowers. They are laid out in front of the gate of homes or in the lobby of hotels. With each passing day of the Onam festival, a new layer of flowers is added. They are really quite spectacular, like a very festive rangoli.
Dance competitions, elephant parades, boat races, games and feasts are also a big part of the festivities. The day we cooked with Mariam and Anna, they were making some of their family’s favourite Onam dishes.
Like all the South Indian cooks we’ve shared a kitchen with, these two women were highly organized. They seemed to take great joy in cooking recipes that had been in their families for centuries – from scratch and from memory.
Their vegetables were laid out on a solid black countertop like Rembrandt still life. The pots and crockery were set out on the stove and ready to go. We watched as they deftly wielded machetes to crack open coconuts or conversely to finely chop carrots like we would use a paring knife to do at home. A large bunch of bananas hung from the ceiling on a string like a chandelier. Soft light fell through the open shuttered windows. Spices of all sorts grew out their back door.
We watched the sisters make an Onam Avial, a Keralan Chicken Curry, Masala French Fries and a vibrant red chili laden Fish Curry. After the cooking was done, they fed us at a long table in the living room. They would wait until later in the evening when all the family was at home to enjoy the feast but they insisted we try everything and were delighted by our moans of appreciaton.
Full to our eyeballs, we all went out to the front garden and there the youths had a surprise for us. We couldn’t leave until we took turns having a go on the family’s swing at the front of the home. We laughed until our bellies hurt. It was like being a child again and a child surrounded by a loving family at that. Cooking with Miriam Venattu’s family gives new meaning to the phrase joy of cooking.
A special thank you to Mariam and Anna, and the Venattu family, for hosting our special Onum cooking demo and lunch during our visit to Kumily. Many thanks also to the KTM Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our travel throughout South India in 2016.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.