FOOD EXPEDITIONS: Kanji payar and Maricheeni meen are the Soul Foods of Kerala.

There are two meals that have Kerala stamped all over them. Ask for Kanji payar or Maricheeni meen, and you will be recognized immediately as a true-blooded Keralite. 

Kanji payar (rice gruel and mung beans) is a simple dish particular to Kerala.  Prepared by overcooking rice in water, with mung beans and salt, the end result is both nutritious as well as easily digestible. 

The watery meal provides an ideal balance of carbohydrates and protein. The starch in the watery rice porridge gives a quick fix of calories almost instantaneously, while the mung bean is high in fiber, low in calories, and loaded with minerals and vitamins. Additionally, its high fiber content keeps the stomach feeling full for hours and prevents frequent hunger pangs. 

The balance in the Kanji Payar diet evolved over centuries. It is ideal for people convalescing. Although, the absence of fat may account for the boring tag attached to it. 

Maricheeni Meen

When the Great Famine hit Kerala from 1860 to 1880, the then Travancore (Kerala) King Ayilyam Thirunal (1832–1880) was advised by his brother, Visakham Thirunal – the Crown prince, botanist by training, and future successor – to introduce a tuber to tide over the shortage of rice leading to famine. 

The potato was already the rage in Europe. The cultivation of potatoes in Europe has sometimes been linked to the success of the Industrial Revolution. The tuber was a source of carbohydrate, a bit of protein and micronutrients, that could be cultivated in one’s own backyard and stored easily. The Spud allowed people to feed more effectively for less money on less utilized land. 

The potato had already been introduced in Kerala by the early Portuguese and Dutch traders. However, cultivation remained restricted to small patches in Malabar, especially at the higher altitudes. Tuber formation being adversely affected, with an ambient temperature above 30ºC may have been one of the causes.

King Ayilyam Thirunal.
Crown Prince Visakham Thirunal.

The Crown Prince picked out a Brazilian tuber and the cassava plant quickly caught the fancy of the lower socioeconomic populace. Easily grown and harvested in 3 months, tapioca became a staple almost overnight. 

The crown prince lavished attention on the cassava plant. In 1890 when the Crown Prince Visakham Thirunal ascended the throne, he issued a proclamation with specific instructions on how to cook and eat tapioca (Maricheeni). 

50 years later, when Chithira Thirunal became King of Travancore, he invited C. P. Ramaswami Iyer to be Diwan (Prime Minister) of state. Ramaswami extended the cultivation of tapioca throughout the state of Travancore. His foresight was amply seen when Burmese rice imports started drying up after World War II. The availability and the cost made tapioca the affordable option for much of Kerala. 

The evolution of tapioca dishes in Kerala centered around fish (meen) being a favorite accompaniment. 

In the late 1960’s however, there was a puzzling high incidence of chronic pancreatitis reported especially in the State of Kerala. The topical pancreatitis was distinctive with an early age of onset, severe malnutrition, diabetes, and poor prognosis.  

Investigators focused on diet as the etiology. 

Tapioca with cyanogenic glycosides has been linked to the development of neurological disorders when they are ingested inappropriately (poorly cooked) for prolonged periods of time.

In any case, this Keralan soul food has always held its ground. Besides its nutritional value, its ease of cooking, and the lack of a feeling of heaviness after consumption have let it retain its popularity. Side dishes like dried fish and deep-fried papadam have supplied the missing zing factor. 

DID YOU KNOW?

Cyanogenic glycoside production are a defense mechanism in certain plants. According to Easson et al:

Many plants produce two-component chemical defenses as protection against attacks from herbivores and pathogens. In these plants, protoxins that are often chemically protected by a glucose residue are activated by an enzyme such as a glycoside hydrolase yielding an unstable aglycone that is toxic or rearranges to form toxic products1. The glycoside and the hydrolase are stored in separate compartments that mix upon plant damage, activating the toxin when the plant is under attack. (Easson, M.L.A.E., Malka, O., Paetz, C. et al. Activation and detoxification of cassava cyanogenic glucosides by the whitefly Bemisia tabaci. Sci Rep 11, 13244 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-92553-w)

This is significant because

It is estimated that between 3,000 and 12,000 plant species produce and sequester cyanogenic glycosides, including many important crop species such as sorghum, almonds, lima beans (nondomesticated), and white clover. The most agronomically important of the cyanogenic crops, however, is the tropical root crop cassava. (White WLB, Arias-Garzon DI, McMahon JM, Sayre RT. Cyanogenesis in cassava. The role of hydroxynitrile lyase in root cyanide production. Plant Physiol. 1998;116(4):1219-1225. doi:10.1104/pp.116.4.1219)

WORDS: Girish Nair.


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