My first copy of Mrs KM Mathew’s cookbook was a wedding gift from my friends. When this new updated version arrived the other day for review, I was assailed by nostalgia and searched my bookshelves for the much-used, dog-eared, quaintly type-set, food-stained, 1985 version that has survived all our wanderings. My copy of Nadan Pachakarama (the closest translation I can come up with is Local Cooking though that doesn't quite cut it exactly) as that edition was called, cost a princely Rs 30 and was distributed in India by National Book Stall, Kottayam.
There have been many editions before and since, but that one, with its pages now yellow and falling apart like an old biscuit, was a lifesaver for a newbie cook like me, homesick and lonely in faraway Assam, craving food that reminded me of the singular scents and flavours of home.
In contrast, the spiffily packaged 2023 version titled Mrs KM Mathew’s Finest Recipes is in sync with the times, available in both soft (easy to prop up on a kitchen counter) and hard covers and as an e-book, published by Penguin Random House India and according to the blurb on the front jacket, is “a definitive compilation of her all-time top recipes”.
There are 10 sections, starting with snacks and ending with jams and pickles, with meat, egg and seafood dishes making up the main body of the compilation with breakfast items, vegetarian and rice dishes, puddings and soups adding heft.
The book is in an easy-to-read and follows format; the recipes are mainly a collection of the most popular and common preparations in a Malayali’s and by some extension a south Indian kitchen. It is enlivened by variations and innovations, as well as some special ones such as New Year Chicken Roast on page 82, a recipe developed by Mrs Mathew’s maternal grandfather.
Black and white line illustrations and several pages of photographs in colour lend visual appeal though the publishers could have been a little more creative with the layouts and a tad more generous with the font size.
The foreword to this edition, by Mrs KM Mathew’s daughter Thangam, details the fascinating story of how her late mother evolved into a household name in Kerala and in the world of regional cuisine.
From her very first column on doughnuts in the Malayala Manorama in 1953 to the 23 cookbooks, mostly in Malayalam, that she wrote over the next 40 years, to the still-popular magazine Vanitha that she founded and edited for 25 years, to the many activities and causes she engaged with and supported till her last days, Mrs KM Mathew was an impressive personality and a trailblazer for young women in Kerala.
I’ve always wondered at the seemingly universal popularity of a cuisine that remains defiantly regional, even while it borrows from others. The recipes created, innovated and collected by Mrs KM Mathew speak of a wide range of culinary influences from the colonial to those from other parts of our vast and diverse country.
While many people in other parts of India balk at the distinctive taste of coconut oil which lends the final touch to many signature dishes, there is no denying the fact that appams and stew and seafood and meat dishes, whether robustly spiced or delicately flavoured with fresh coconut milk, have found favour with just about everyone. This updated version of an old culinary classic will be of interest to all those interested in the art and science of cooking.
Mrs KM Mathew’s Finest Recipes
Penguin Random House India 2023, pp 228
Paperback Rs 599
(Elizabeth Eapen worked with several media houses in New Delhi as an editor. She is now based in Kochi.)