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045: Moroccan Lemons, Coconut Milk & Legacies of the Indian Ocean

Imagine a town infused with coconut milk and pandan leaves. A town of preserved limes ‘adai oorugai’ that link to Moroccan lemons. A town where families feast communally on ‘sahaan’ - large porcelain plates. A town where great great grandmothers wrote letters to their husbands at sea in Arabu Tamil. A town that hosted traders from Yemen, Ethiopia, Greece, Sri Lanka since the 1st century CE.

Thanks to recent conversations with the lovely Sumaiya Mustafa, who records the culinary heritage of her hometown, my curiosity about Kayalpatnam in Tamil Nadu has grown. The food and history of this town is an instance of the numerous micro-cultures that abound the Indian subcontinent but are not well documented or discussed. Port cities have long been laboratories for the exchange of ideas, people, goods, culture, languages, religion and of course food!

The conversations with Sumaiya illuminated the strong European bias in our school history textbooks. The ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and the ‘Age of Discovery’ conveniently skips over the ‘middle ages’ or the ‘dark ages’. Everything seems to begin with the Portuguese Vasco da Gama landing in Calicut, Kerala in 1498, followed by the influx of the French, Dutch and English. But before them, many coastal towns in the subcontinent had roaring commercial ‘global’ relations principally led by Arab traders. We need to rediscover the ghosts of Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms to understand the significance of trade in the Indian Ocean.

The weight of the sea still leaves its mark in our everyday vocabulary. Import, export, airport, USB port, portable, all include the root word - ‘port’ which denotes a safe place for vessels to load, unload and find shelter. These vessels brought disparate customs, traditions, spices, and cooking techniques into contact with each other. Perhaps the food from Kayalpatnam helps us understand in a small way the tremendous impact of trade in the Indian Ocean.

Image Credit: Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

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