This Kuttannad Duck Roast cook up was inspired by my visit to the area and partaking in the Easter festivities at a Syrian Christian family home complete with visits to the kitchens and the traditional cooking procedures involved in creating the festive menu. The Duck Roast was just one of the dishes along with Fiery fish curry, Moilee, Beef stew,and Mutton Biriyani. All cooked in the home kitchen. A True Easter lunch spread. I was so enamoured by this experience that it led me to write a short piece as an intro or ending to give the reader a feel of the people, their life and cuisine, so unique to the backwaters of Kuttanad. Please feel free to read this at the end of the cooking process. Only the names of the characters have been changed. Yes, the duck army does exist.
KUTTANADU DUCK ROAST – THE COOKOUT
(IN AN APARTMENT KITCHEN IN BANGALORE)
“Converting vegetarians since 2015”screamed the tagline on a huge hoarding for the online meat delivery site Licious.com. So I decided to give them a shot.
I ordered curry cut duck. This was present day Bangalore and here I was drooling of a Kuttanad Duck Roast dish I had eaten eons ago during an unforgettable Easter afternoon on an island in the Kuttanad area of Kerala.
Those slow boat rides, the rice cultivation, Sunday mass at the Church on the shore line. Fresh toddy to set up the appetitie and then the Easter Feast. The grand finale was a visit to the family kitchen and a briefing by family cook Chakochan about the usage of original ingredients, stone grinding and the magic of slow cooking on woodfires.
Today I was going to recreate the dish in my kitchen and praying all goes well.
My online order arrived on time. The duck fresh cut with skin, chilled and well packaged. For Rs.600 a kilo of cleaned and cut duck I thought was a fair deal, coz unlike Kerala, the Bangalore lakes don’t have ducks wading in them like army platoons.
If you happen to pass through the Kuttanad stretch in Kerala, drop into any of the popular (ask any local) toddy shops and you can feast on this classic dish. The unique flavour of the dish comes when the slow cooked combo of roasted coriander and pepper.
I used a combo of Ghee and coconut oil.
Ideal for converting vegetarians and Duck Roast;)
Grind the 3 large onions and half of the small Madras onions (about 12,25 nos in all), garlic, ginger, green chillies, chilli powder, coriander powder, pepper powder and a teaspoon of homemade garam masala in a blender.
Take half of this ground masala and marinate the duck pieces for a couple of hours. Then put the marinated duck pieces with a glass of water in a pressure cooker and cook till done (about 4-5 whistles should do)
Cook the rest of the small onions in coconut oil (I used a mix of ghee and coconut oil) after tempering it with mustard and curry leaves (optional). When the onions are well browned, toss in the rest of the ground masala and stir-fry on a low flame till the oil leaves the masala.
Now, add the cooked duck from the pressure cooker to this masala mix and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring well. Add hot water to your requirement, but keep the gravy thick and sluggish.
Serve with chappaties, bread or steamed rice.
KUTTANADAN DUCK ROAST – THE INSPIRATION
Life on Easter Island – Circa 1934 – 2019
Sarah Kochamma slowly leaned forward to look at herself in the mirror mounted on top of the wooden Chest of Drawers. She saw her silver grey hair drawn back to end in a small bun and form a thin layer of silver topping around her wheat complexioned face. The glassy blue grey eyes, looked like they were talking to her, peering through an oval black horn-rimmed frame that held the lenses the Opthalmologist in Kottayyam prescribed for her after the Cataract operation.
That was 10 Easters ago.
When she was 83 years old and Sara her only great granddaughter was all of 8 years young.
Kochamma craned her neck closer to survey the heavy gilt, circular dull gold earrings (kunukku) on her upper ear lobes that bore the brunt of holding them up for well over 50 years. After that eventful day, Kochamma had taken them off and put them in a wooden kunukku case. The day when the doctors confirmed her condition. Parkinson’s Disease.
Now as she looked closely, the Kunnukkus were swinging in sync with her head that was nodding like a Bhartanatyam dancer clay doll. The morning sunlight from the window bouncing off the dull gold of the kunukku earrings like a soft focus photograph. As her eyes roved lower she noticed that the starched Pudava was worn well with the heirloom brooch clipped just right like a medal of honour. The thin golden kasavu strip around the pudava matching the metallic dull golden glint of the earrings.
Just as Kochamma turned away from the mirror, satisfied with what she saw, the door was gently opened by the maid of the house Elsie Amma. Elsie froze in suspended animation looking at Sarah Kochamma all decked up like she was ready for Sunday Mass down at waterfront church. Just yesterday Kochamma was lying in bed like a 93 year old Parkinson patient who found it difficult to even sit up in bed unassisted. It was Elsie who gently eased Kochamma up in bed and then on certain days into a wheelchair rolled next to the large windows from where Kochamma could see the winding pathway leading to the large family kitchens busy cooking breakfast, lunch, snacks and then dinner for the whole “Kavalayath Family”of Kuttanadu.
The servants were hurrying in and out. Like foot soldiers carrying out orders.
Just then the bells of the church rang. The sound of the deep clanging brought Elsie Amma to her senses. Those huge cast iron black bells of the church clanging from the bell tower were donated to the church by Sarah Kochamma just last Christmas. Of course the church itself was built by Sarah Kochamma’s grandfather. A shocked Elsie sputtered out “ Kochamma what is with this outfit?”
Kochamma just smiled.
Just then it all became clear to Elsie.
Today was Easter Sunday morning.
The church bells were ringing for the 6.30 morning mass. And more importantly Sarah Kochamma was all decked up to inspect the family kitchen like she used to every Easter for all the years since she came as a young bride to this Island Kingdom which she then reigned well over six decades till Parkinson’s arrived.
Elsie spun around and practically ran all the way to the old, tiled kitchen and screamed to the head cook ‘Chackocha… Sarah Kochamma is coming!”
Chackchan in his signature half sleeved white baniyan and mundu, was inspecting the freshly slaughtered and de-feathered ducks carefully looking out for signs of feather stubs on their skins, coolly replied seeing Elsie’s panic.
“Here? No way! She hasn’t been in here in years.”
And then as an afterthought he said “Maybe you are going to wheel her all the way from the bungalow “jokingly.
“ No Chackocha! Sarah Kochamma is all dressed up and it looks like she’s going to walk all the way here! “said Elsie excitedly thinking how an angry Kochamma had screamed at everyone when the Beef stew made the previous night turned sour the morning of a family get-together many moons ago. She would definitely scream again surveying all the changes in the old Kitchen.
Something about the way Elsie was gesticulating and her loud talk, traits she was not known for since she had come to the Island and was assigned duties as personal help to Kochamma. It then dawned to him. Sarah Kochamma was highly capable of doing this.
It was the infamous “Kochamma never give up attitude.”
She was a fighter.
Ask Mr. Parkinson.
It was a family joke that was ripe enough to turn to a myth.
After all it was Easter and Sarah Kochamma’s favorite child Sara was coming over with her friends from Bangalore for Easter weekend.
Chackochan broke into a grin remembering “Kochu Sara” which is the way she was called on the Island, who chattered excitedly over his mobile just a week ago and said “ Chackocha… I’m coming over for Easter and please don’t forget to make your killer Kuttanad Duck Roast!”
Chackochan then remembered in a flash it was Sarah Kochamma who taught him how to master the infamous Duck Roast. Something she had learnt from her grandmother she used to say. How some traditions refuse to change in spite of generations spilling over the years slowly like the backwaters ripples around the Island.
Of course there were gas stoves and electric ovens in the new kitchen wing. But come Easter it was all woodfire cooking. And Chackochan knew woodfires well. It was no wonder the duck and the other delicacies on the Island’s Easter menu tasted so much better slow cooked on these traditional wood fires and sawdust stoves.
The new kitchen had electric blenders of all sizes. But nothing like the arakallus (grinding stones) thought Chakochan.. Grinding roasted ingredients on a arakallu was an art. This combo of hand grinding on the arakallu and woodfires was a lethal combination.
Be it Easter, Christmas,Christenings,Baptisms,Weddings,Birthdays,Anniversaries or family get-togethers, came the time to stoke up those woodfires. The smoke wafting out of the “Kavalayath” kitchen chimneys on the island was like a smoke signal to the folk living in the backwaters of Kuttanad that it was feasting time.
It was a no-brainer that the duck roast would be the main attraction of the elaborate Easter lunch.
It did not have to stake its claim.Chackochan was reminded this morning of army platoons as the ducks of Kuttanad swam in perfect
formation moving like a massive bedspread, rising and dropping with the ripples. It was Duck Crossing time. The duck army would glide across the waters, reach the opposite bank of the lake and climb up in fluid formation onto the road that cut across the waters. All the vehicles had stopped like at a traffic signal. The ducks non-chalantly walked across cackling away not knowing that everyone had stopped in their tracks to watch them cross over. This was a common sight around the kuttanad backwaters of Kerala of which Chackochan was very familiar with. The sight and sounds of the duck crossing. Except for the tourists. Like the Syrian Christian choir singing at the Sunday church. Singing in a strange tongue and
pitch that rose up and down at intervals like the ducks bobbing on the lake waters. It was from this floating army that Chackochan handpicked the ducks for the Easter roast.
“The spicy, heavenly Kuttanadan Duck Roast” wrote Kochu Sara’s classmate Revathi the food blogger after tasting it last Easter and skipping all other dishes for repeat servings of duck.
“The pieces of duck with the skin on swimming in a sluggish greenish brown gravy that smelt heavenly and exotic. Ducks swimming in water and then duck pieces swirling in that sluggish gravy.” If only she could cook as well as she writes thought Chackochan. It was Revathi, Kochu Sara’s flat mate who was in charge of their kitchen back in Bangalore. I will taste her cooking this time when he would go to Bangalore carting along the wooden family wall shelf to house Kochu Sara’s ever growing book collection that had overflowed the apartment’s Ikea shelving.
It all became clear to Chackochan. It was an Easter Sunday with a promise of sunny skies.
Sarah Kochamma is visiting her family kitchen again after a decade and then she would go to the waterfront pier side to receive her favourite Kochu Sara and her friends who would come over in the family boat.
The only way to the Island. Even now.
Like she had crossed over by boat as a young bride while the air resounded with the women folk yodeling together in high pitch welcoming her to the Island and their community.
There was a child like excitement in Sarah Kochamma’s eyes whenever she told this story to Kochu Sara. It was Kochu Sara’s favourite story.
As much as Kuttanadan Tharavu (Duck) Roast was her favourite dish.
About the Author:
Monu Danesh Surendran
Monu Danesh Surendran works for a retail organization in Bangalore and heads it online and branding division. He is a foodie by passion and therefore tries his hand at stuff in his home kitchen. While not dabbling in cooking during his days off he likes his music and of course trying out food. He prefers home cooked cuisine though restaurant fare guarantees a good outing with friends.
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