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Crab cutlets: A specialty of the Syrian Christians of Kerala

A few months ago, while I was passing through Stella Maris College, my alma mater, I remembered my college and hostel days. On weekends, we visited the drive-in restaurant and Sapphire theatre (both don’t exist now).

Crab cutlets: A specialty of the Syrian Christians of Kerala
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Chennai

My close friends and classmates, Leela Mathais and Shantha Kanakaraj would invite all of us to their rooms at midnight and cook eggs for us. Every time Leela went home, she returned with a great variety of goodies. Her grandmother’s place was in Tripunithura in Kerala and they belonged to the Syrian Christian community, which traced its origin from St Thomas, the Apostle in the 1st century. They were originally called Malankara Nasrani. Thrippunithura means land which is holy and this region claims to have played a significant part in fostering the trade relations between Kerala and the outside world in the medieval period.

After the Cheras, the place was ruled by the Kingdom of Cochin (Perumpadappu Swaroopam). Thus, the food has been influenced by a lot of factors -- be it Portughese, British, Arab or the Far East. Leela used to bring rose appams, rose cookies, crab and chicken cutlets, banana fritters, avalose podi, jackfruit chips, Japanese pastries, and prawn coconut chammanthi.

At the hostel, we used to share whatever was brought from our homes. Mathri, a Punjabi snack, and murukku from south India shared equal honours. Leela’s snacks were the most sought-after. The prawn coconut chammanthi and tender mango pickle in chilly brine were eyed by all. The hostel food was not very welcomed, even if hunger ravaged our stomachs. The college canteen was a big hit with samosas, pakoras and chaat being the top favourites. Unfortunately, one’s pocket money got over in the first week itself and we had to depend on day scholars. Chitra, who is now married to Sreenivasan, the BCCI chairman and Uma Shekar, who lived next to the college were generous enough to bring hot meals from home. The hot sambar or vatha kuzhambu rice with appalam and aloo fry had us drooling. On visitor’s day, we waited for more goodies our visitors brought. One would think hostelites had never eaten for most wore a perpetual hungry expression. Weddings and birthday parties were a must-visit in outside restaurants. In my first year, I shared the room with Geetha Menon, a naval officer’s daughter, who later went on to become a big shot in Air India. She was also popular because she dated Suku Nambiar, the famous actor Nambiar’s son and later the BJP treasurer. He used to gift her a hamper of Cadburys chocolates every week and of course, we were the direct beneficiaries.

Many of my friends were Syrian Christians who came from different parts of Kerala and would invite us for summer vacations to their pepper and cardamom plantations. Leela always described how her grandmother cooked. It was slow cooking in tamarind, mango tree wood or coconut husk or shell that was used as firewood. Red or green chillies were not used until the Portuguese invasion. Copper, brass, and earthen pots were used for cooking and serving food. Some common dishes she described were mampazha pulissery (ripe mango curry cooked in yogurt and coconut), varutharacha meen curry, prawns fry, varuthuppery (fried raw banana with the thin peel on), sardine and crab cutlets, unniyappam or karolappam (sweet rice balls deep fried in ghee). Out of these, crab cutlets were the most popular and in fact, Leela was called CC or crab cutlet. The word cutlet was originated from the French word côtelette and was first known to be used in the year 1682.

INGREDIENTS:
Crabmeat: 2 cups | Potato: 2 medium, cooked and mashed | Onion: 1 finely chopped | Ginger: 3 tsp minced | Garlic: 3 tsp | minced | Green chilies: 2 finely chopped | Curry leaves: 5 finely chopped | Turmeric powder: 1/2 tsp | Chili powder: 1 tsp | Pepper powder: 1 tsp | Garam masala powder: 1 tsp | Cumin powder: 1 tsp | Salt: To taste | Coconut oil: To deep fry or shallow fry | Egg white: 1 egg beaten with a pinch of salt | Bread crumbs: 1 cup | Maida: ¼ cup, if needed only

METHOD:
  • Cook the potatoes until completely done and tender. Mash well and keep aside.
  • Heat 1 tbsp oil in a pan at medium heat.
  • Add chopped onion, ginger, garlic and green chilies. Saute until the onion turns light brown.
  • Add the spice powders and saute until the raw smell is gone.
  • Add crab meat. Mix well and cook for 4–5 minutes or until dry.
  • Add the mashed potato and enough salt.
  • Mix well. Stir for about 2–3 minutes.
  • Switch off and set aside. When it cools down, make small balls out of it. Flatten the balls to desired shapes.
  • Dip them in beaten egg white and then in bread crumbs.
  • Deep or shallow fry in oil until golden brown. Serve with tomato or coconut chutney.
— Chef Ramaa Shanker is the author of ‘Festive Offerings to the Gods: Divine Soul Recipes’ 

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