As the priest begins to read the concluding prayers during the Good Friday service, most Malayali Christians would experience the following : hunger and excitement. Hunger because Good Friday services are much longer than the regular service and most people fast in the morning on this day, thereby making lunch, the first meal of the day and excitement because most of them are already aware of what awaits them at home.
Over the years, Kanji (rice gruel), Cherupayaru thoran (green gram), kadumanga (mango cut into small pieces) pickle and Pappadam has been the favored menu for lunch on Good Friday. Some churches in fact serve this after the service so that the parishioners do not have to go back home and cook. This in no way means that only Christians eat Kanji.
Kanji has been a hot (literally) favorite of the Malayali for generations. It is one of those dishes that the old and young relish. It can be eaten three times a day, but is most often eaten at night on a regular basis by some. Of course, there are some who are not too fond of it, but that is the case with most things in life. During the olden days, workers were given kanji for lunch. They were not treated at par with the wealthy landowners who belonged to a higher class. During lunchtime, the workers used to gather near the owner’s house and they would be served kanji by digging small holes in the ground, into which banana leaves were placed. Hot kanji is poured into these leaves and the leaves take the shape of the hole. They would eat the kanji using, conical shaped spoons made of jackfruit tree leaves. Times have change and the workers are treated with respect and dignity but the love for Kanji has remained. The rich and poor alike enjoy this light and healthy meal.
The Kanji is made by boiling the Kerala parboiled rice in water. One cup of rice with about four to five cups of water will be enough to serve two people. Once the rice is cooked, it is consumed without draining off the excess water. Kanji, is also popular in Tamil Nadu, the neighboring state, however, the side dishes vary. In Kerala, kanji is often paired with Cherupayaru thoran. It is a vegetarian dish made by adding coconut and some spices to boiled green gram. This combination would be a Kerala equivalent of Mac and cheese or Spaghetti and meatballs. The kanji can also be served with Chammanthi (coconut chutney), which is a spicy paste made of mainly coconut, shallots and red/green chillies.
Mostly those who belong to the lower socio-economic group eat another variant of kanji, called Pazhamkanji for breakfast. It is a lesson in conservation and preservation of cooked food. Leftover rice is not thrown away or refrigerated instead water is added to the rice, along with rock salt, shallots and green chillies and kept overnight. In the morning, it can be eaten with chammanthi or buttermilk. At a time when electricity and refrigerators were not on the scene, this was an excellent way of preserving leftover rice.
According to Ayurveda, Kanji has medicinal properties when prepared with certain spices. Karkidaka kanji is consumed during the month of Karkkidakam, which is the monsoon season in Kerala. This is also a time when diseases are widespread and this special kanji helps in boosting the immune system, thereby preventing diseases.
Kanjivellam (the liquid part without the rice), is also an excellent treatment for dehydration and works like glucose when given with salt. Kanji is easily digestible and hence good to have when one is not feeling too well. In Kerala, you will see people having Kanji when they have fever. The parboiled rice used to make kanji, is also very nutritious because it contains more minerals and fiber than polished white rice. However, many people who are not from Kerala flinch at the idea of eating our type of rice because it is bigger in size than the slender white rice. I have heard them refer to it as ‘bullet’ rice and ‘fat’ rice and watch with amazement when we happily stuff our mouths with it.
Congee (rice porridge), is available in most Asian countries, it is known under different names and differs in terms of the rice used and method of preparation. So when you come to Kerala, make sure you try our version, maybe you will get an idea as to why we are so in love with it.