Celebrations of any sort, big or small, all around the world revolve around food to a large extent. I sometimes think it is more so in the Palakkad Iyer community where traditionally, even the daily food follows a certain ritualistic style. It is especially so because we mark not just the religious and social rituals we brought along with us from Tamilnadu when we first migrated, but also those that we adopted from the locals in our newer home state of Kerala.
Kali and Kari (we also call it Kavatthu while others in Kerala refer to it as Puzhukku) are two separate dishes, one savoury and one sweet that are made for the festival of Thiruvathira as ritual offering which is then served to everyone at home. One thing we don’t do traditionally, is serve cooked spicy and savoury food with a sweet dessert like dish together as a combination but this is perhaps the one exception to that rule.
Thiruvathira is a festive occasion celebrated by Hindus in the Southern Indian states of Tamilnadu and Kerala, sometime on a full moon night in the months of December/ January. In Kerala, Thiruvathira is considered by many to be the birthday of the Lord Shiva and is celebrated with prayer, and fasting through the day from dawn to dusk by abstaining from rice based foods. Women folk in the house get together in the evening for the Thiruvathirakali, a very graceful dance with singing is performed in the evening around a lit lamp.
There are a few other stories in Hindu mythology behind the celebration of Thiruvathira. One is that it is the commemoration of the demise of Kama deva, the God of love. Another that it is the celebration of Goddess Parvathy’s marriage to Lord Shiva. As the stories go, Goddess Parvathi wanted Lord Shiva as her husband but he was in deep meditation for many years together. So she got a little help from the Kamadeva, the God of love to gain his attention. Kamadeva, unfortunately earned Lord Shiva’s displeasure for interrupting his meditation and was burned to ashes by the fire emanating from Lord Shiva’s third eye! All ended well though as Goddess Parvati did marry Shiva and both she and Kamadeva’s wife pleaded for him. So Lord Shiva brought him back as Ananga, meaning one without a bodily form but embodies the spirit of love.
In my home, as in others in our community, Thiruvathira is celebrated a bit differently. Those who maintain fasts keep to it, and it is a day for visiting the Shiva temple in one’s neighbourhood and offering prayers but we don’t however follow the other practices in Kerala of Thiruvathira dance and song. Kali and Kari is prepared in a manner that is more Kerala style with the generous use of coconut, and ritually offered to Lord Shiva before it is partaken of by the family.
Of the Kali and Kari that is cooked this day, Kali is a sweet and almost dessert like dish made from coarsely powdered rice and moong lentils which are cooked with jaggery, coconut and cardamom into a soft pudding like consistency. Cashewnuts are traditionally not used in Kali though I’ve used them here.
In Tamilnadu, the Kari is called Thalagam, a dish with gravy that resembles Sambhar somewhat, and is a savoury preparation that is traditionally to be cooked with 5 or 7 different kinds of vegetables. In Palakkad Iyer homes, Kari is usually made as a soft cooked dish with very little or no gravy.
In Palakkad Iyer homes, some still stick to the practice of using 5 different vegetables but most of us cook the Kari with a mix of three or four vegetables of which two vegetables would be “Avarakkai” or Hyacinth Beans and a root vegetable called “Kaavatthu” or Kaachil” or Purple Yam (grows as pinkish purple and white varieties also) which is usually in season at this time of the year. In fact, I grew up hearing the Kari referred to as Kavathu Kari, and sometimes the combination of the two dishes for Thiruvathira would be referred to as Kali and Kavathu rather than Kali and Kari!
The other vegetables commonly used include raw plantains, elephant yam, sweet potato, pumpkin, and “Koorka” (Chinese Potato or Country Potato) which is a vegetable much used in Kerala. Modern versions of Kari tend to include “English” or non-native vegetables like green beans, green peas, carrots, potatoes, etc. but this is not traditional.
I don’t get Kavathu/ Kachil (Purple Yam) where I live in Goa so I used a combination of Koorka (Chinese Potato), Elephant Yam, Pumpkin, Avarakkai (Hyacinth Beans) and Raw Plantains to make my Kari. The vegetables for Kari, except the Hyacinth beans should be peeled (the raw plantains should have a thin layer skin remaining on them) and cut into approximately 1” cubes. The Hyacinth beans should be trimmed and chopped into about 1/2” thick pieces.