Lunch is Rs.30/-; you get as much parboiled rice as you want, Sambar, Pulisseri, Moaru (diluted salted buttermilk with green chillies and curry leaves and crushed shallots and sometimes coriander leaves); two side dishes, a vattal chilli/ or Pachchadi, a Pappad and lemon pickle - and you get a little bowl of fish curry from which you can fish out a little piece of Matthi ( Sardines), 1/3 rd of the original little fish. For Rs.10/- you get two whole Matthi-s, fried and a few slices of raw onion, garnished. Very often, I indulge in a second plate of fried fish which takes the total of my lunch to Rs.50/-. Sometimes you get fried Tuna or Shellfish also; but Matthi is staple.
I eat the fried fish, full. Never leaves the fishbone alone. I crunch it my mouth and it goes 'crusp crusp crutch'. One should not waste the Matthi's bone; it is as crisp as a potatoe wafer, though much tastier. You may discard the tail, if you wish.
The small hotel is very near to my Bank, though I noticed it only a couple of months after I had been in Alleppey. The first time I had my lunch there, it left me gasping with pleasure, because the food was so much like I used to eat at home in boyhood. It had that same smoky taste of soot-blackened kitchens of my homes, long long ago.
As I pour the fish curry over my steaming rice and crush the Pappad on top of it and the ball of rice in my palm is red and hot as I lift it to my mouth, I remember, almost everytime, my mother. When I was a young boy, our family was, kind of upper-middle class. There was no dearth of food in our house. Either the helps or my mother will be in the kitchen, all the time cooking cooking - what I remember now, with almost a feeling of guilt, is the unimaginable quantity of fried Sardines I had eaten in those days. Mother would be frying and putting the fish in the strainer vessel to drain the oil and no sooner the fish is flicked into the vessel, I would reach out and take and eat two, at a time. By the side of the frying pan, would be the big pile of Matthi-s, fresh, and so red with the paste of ground chillies. I'd poke around, lifting the covers of other pots and pans and peeping into them, come back and pick another two. Mother would say - enough enough, there won't be any space left for the rice.
It wasn't Matthi alone; Prawns, Cashew nuts, fruits, Curds - salted, dried and smoked venison, Chicken - the list is endless. Mother would make delicious Mutton stew; my sister and I would fight for that bone with succulent marrow that you can suck in, though at times you have to tap it on the plate to loosen it. Father would bring home all sorts of vegetables - he had a penchant for buying vegetables in huge quantities - he just loved looking at it. Mother would be exasperated and she would give away most of it to our poorer neighbours or servants. While we lived in Palakkad, father would bring the lovliest fruits and carrots and Cauliflowers from Coimbatore, where he goes occasionally to take classes at the Forest Institute. He would have National Geographics too, from the library, for me to drool on. And Phantom Comics and Enid Blytons.
Head bent, I eat my lunch. I don't care for the food much now, I eat it mechanically, just to ward off hunger. Everytime the man lays the plate of two fried Matthi before me, I remember my mother, cooking cooking.
********* Balachandran V, Alappuzha, 16.03.2012