Malayalis are people hailing from Kerala – The God’s Own Country -often called Mallus because the word Malayali is quite a tongue-twister and difficult to pronounce for many across the globe. They speak Malayalam, a language spoken by more than 38 million people who live in the state of Kerala and Lakshadweep. Many in India refer to Mallus as Madrasis or even Malabaris, which any Mallu worth his name will despise. You call him a ‘Thampi’ and he is sure to spit fire at you!
Malayalam, the eighth most spoken language in India, is believed to have originated from Thamizh, with a heavy influence of Sanskrit. It became an independent language with its own script by AD 9th century.
There is a little known item of cloth that a Malayali is identified with. It is not the Mundu or the Lungi; but a 5’x3′ white piece of cloth called Thorthu; a light bath towel, which you will find in every Malayali’s wardrobe. We have a dozen of them in our Canadian home too. It is universal – one size fits all; used by people of all ages, sex and religion.
Thorthu has a one-centimeter-thick border at both ends called Kara, which is generally black, blue or red. This handy Indian cotton towel is known in North India as Gamcha, and in Thamizh Nadu as Thundu.
The white coloured Thorthu has been around for generations. The warp and weft of this cloth is made of very fine cotton fibre. These hand-woven towels are super absorbent, light weight, soft on skin, and quick drying. In Kerala the relative humidity is around 70% through the year and any thick towel will take its own time to dry out. Then there is the fear of fungus or mildew developing on a wet cloth.
A Mallu uses the Thorthu for rituals, journeys, pilgrimages, functions, traditional events, political rallies, etc. It is all because the Thorthu takes up less space, can be washed easily with hands, and dries quickly.
In every Kerala household, the Thorthu has an important place, so did in our home too. Our father always got the new Thorthu and dare not – no one could ever even touch it. The next one was Amma’s and for all four sons, we had the older ones, but was always on first-come-first-served basis. If one got late for the morning bath, he ended up with a wet Thorthu.
Though the primary use of a Thorthu is to dry one’s self after one’s bath, it has many uses left to the imagination of the user.
Pazhankanji – fermented previous day’s cooked rice soaked in plain water – was served every morning at our home while we were growing up. It was mostly accompanied by a pickle or ഉപ്പുമാങ്ങ (Uppumanga) chutney. Uppumanga is pickled tender mangoes in brine. After harvesting the tender mangos, generally in March-April, they are washed clean, dried and put into a large china-clay pitcher called a ഭരണി (Bharani) with brine and lot of fresh green chillies. The mangos are now left to pickle up and is used to make chutney, with or without coconut, during the monsoons (June till September). At that time availability of vegetables from our farmland around the house depleted as new saplings were planted with the commencement of monsoons. During the monsoons, they would be growing up to yield their produce.
Amma used to make chutney with the Uppumanga and the accompanying chillies by grinding it with the small red button onions and grated coconut. She also used it to prepare prawn curry. I relished the brine from the Bharani which had the flavour of both the mango and the chili. My brothers too loved it and obviously it was a strict ‘no-no’ for us to dip our hands into the Bharani as it might spoil the Uppumanga Amma treasured. Our hands could be dirty or wet and she did not want the mangoes to be infected with fungus. She had a special തവി (Thavi), a large ladle made of half shell of a coconut with a long handle made from coconut wood, to take out the mangoes.
Amma cooked every morning prior to leaving to the school where she taught and in the evening on return. The rice for the dinner was cooked in the evening and I observed that she always cooked an extra cup of rice. On inquiry, she said it is for the guests who might come calling on in the evening. In those days the last trip of the bus to Kottayam town was at 7 PM and all relatives who came over had to spend the night at our home. Our home was about 20 km from our ancestral village as our father moved there next to Amma’s school so that she could spend more time at home and with us children.
Any rice left over after dinner was placed in an earthen pot soaked in water and left to ferment overnight at room temperature. We did not have a fridge by then and hence this was the only way to store the leftover rice. Next morning it was served as Pazhankanji. It tasted a lot better when one had it using a spoon made out of a Jack-Fruit leaf as shown in the image above. In case poor and hungry people came calling, were served this. If any of it was still left, it was put in the feed for the cows we reared.
As per Ayurveda and common popular belief, consuming Pazhankanji has the following advantages:-
Rich in B6 and B12 Vitamins.
Easy to digest and hence the body feels less tired and one feels fresh throughout the day.
Beneficial bacteria get produced in abundance for the body.
Excessive heat retained in the body overnight is relieved .
Reduces constipation as this is very fibrous..
It is said to lower blood pressure and hypertension subsides appreciably.
This removes allergy induced problems and also skin-related ailments.
It removes all types of ulcers in the body.
It helps in maintaining youthful and radiant look.
Consuming this is believed to reduce craving for tea or coffee.
From where does the rice, known as കുത്തരി (Kuththari), to make this divine Pazhankanji come from?
Rice from our paddy field after harvesting is stocked in പത്താഴം (Pathazham), a large wooden box. About 50 kg of this raw harvested rice it is taken out and boiled in the evening in a large copper vessel until the husk break open a little. This is left overnight and next morning it is drained and sun dried on a തഴപ്പായ് (Thazhappay) – a mat of 12 feet by 30 feet made from the leaves of screw pine. We children had to be sentries for the rice being dried in the sun to ensure that the brood of fowls we reared did not feast on the rice and also to shoo away the crows. Another task was to turn the rice over using our hands and feet to ensure exposing of the entire rice to the sun to facilitate even drying. In case one spotted a rain bearing cloud, one had to alert every member of the household to come out to pack up the rice and the mat. In case they got wet, fungus infection was a sure shot thing in humid Kerala. The only other task one was permitted during this sentry duty was to read a book.
After about two to three such rounds of sun drying was complete, the rice used to be packed in gunny bags and had to be transported to the rice mill for de-husking operation. Our eldest brother was the mission commander and he used to hire a hand cart and we siblings used to load it up and push the cart to the mill with our eldest brother manning the controls of the hand cart in front. At the rice mill, the semi-polished rice emerged out through a chute, the outer husk through another and the edible Bran – തവിട് (Thavidu) through another. We had to collect these in different gunny bags and load them up in the hand cart. After paying up the mill owner was the return journey home. The inedible husk was used as fuel to be burned with firewood to boil the next lot of raw rice and the bran found its way to the cows’ feed.
A part of the rice husk was burned and the residue was sieved and to the fine powder. Salt, powdered pepper and cloves were added to this to form ഉമ്മിക്കരി (Umikkari). This was used as tooth powder by all of us. I was least surprised by the advertisements of modern toothpaste manufacturers claiming that they have all the ingredients that made up our Ummikkari in their product.
In the earlier days, when I was a little child, prior to the establishment of the rice mill, Amma hired women folk to do the de-husking operation in an ഉരൽ (Ural). Ural is a stone cylinder about two feet tall and two feet in diameter. On the top surface, a hole, six inch in diameter and depth is chiseled out to hold rice. There is a five feet tall baton made of hardwood, with a metallic cover at the base, which is lifted up and pounded on the material inside the hole. Perfecting the art of not spilling the contents while pounding is developed over time – to start with for any learner, the speed of pounding is a bit slow, but with practice, the speed really picks up. In my younger days I have seen two ladies doing this in tandem. Real precision timing and coordination is required for each pounding, else it could spell disaster.
With the advent of modern household appliances like grinders, fridges. mixies, etc and availability of pre-prepared, sorted and cleaned rice and various other products have surely reduced the workload, but the taste of the natural rice still lingers on my taste buds. The fridges for sure have made Pazhankanji a history, even in our home.