urula

Pothichor

(Po-dhi-chor)


Simplified as: Pothi (pack/wrap using semi-burnt banana leaf) and chor (rice). It is a simple and natural way of packing lunch and the burnt banana leaf adds a different flavor to the constituents inside.

Pothichor may evoke a thousand different emotions from a malayalee, depending on his/her current domicile. Let me elaborate on this for the uninitiated.

For someone who lives and works in Kerala, the pothichor is a quintessential part of his/her life during the lunch time. As usual, Mothers usually pack lunch for the young ones who go to schools or colleges and for the senior lot, who go out to work. It’s a daily thing, and it’s been the traditional practice for ages.

The other group consists of people who were born and raised in Kerala, but had to move out looking for ‘greener pastures’. The second or third generations of such malayalees, have always been a confused lot, whether to like or dislike the traditional malayalee culture. These likes or dislikes stem from the fact that they are primarily under-exposed to the good things associated with Kerala.

Parental outlook to their roots and tradition play a vital role in how the successive generations accept or reject the same. Having met a lot of malayalees, both within and outside India, I strongly feel that the majority in this group love and accept the malayalee ways. Making yearly visits to kerala with the whole family especially during the summer vacations, was always something most of them looked forward to, year after year.

I had to explain about the different attitudes of the second group because the word pothichor, could elicit one of these two reactions depending on which side they lean.  It could either be “Nostalgia” or a long “Ewww”!

This pic-blog, is dedicated to my mallu brethren out there. I am pretty sure by the time you finish reading this, you will miss home, and because I for one, certainly turn into a nostalgia-lorn kid every time I see a pothichor.

For the non-malayalees, if you don’t wish to try a pothichor by the end of this blog, then I haven’t done justice in explaining it to you.

What is so special about the PACKAGE?

Malayalees are well known for their folding and packing skills. How else can you explain the sight of watching young and old men playing cricket, volleyball and even football wearing lungis? Lungis are colorful fabrics worn by men to cover and protect their family jewels. It’s held in place by some good folding and strategic tucking at proper spots. As far as I know, ‘ventilation’ is the ONLY advantage of wearing this fabric!

Similarly, folding a fresh banana leaf isn’t easy, as it breaks when bent. So in order to make it a little malleable, it is burnt a wee bit over naked flame. The burnt leaf adds on to the flavor of rice and the assortments by giving it a smokey bbq infusion, desi style! The package always ends up in a rectangular shape, which is finally wrapped in few sheets of an old newspaper.

Mix and match

The kerala matta rice (also known as Rosematta rice, Palakkadan Matta rice, Kerala Red rice, or Red parboiled rice: according to wikipedia) obviously dominates the major part depending on the person’s waist size! The koottan (side eats) are packed in smaller plantain leaves and placed next to the rice. The choices are plenty and depend on your diet.

The usual choices are thenga chammandi (coconut chutney), meen varuthathu (fish fry), omlette, beans thoran/mezhukkuvaretty (fry), and kannimanga achar or any uppilithathu (pickle).

Fish fry is usually matthi (sardines) and it’s the best source of omega-3 fatty acid. Karimeen pollichathu (Pearl spot is marinated, wrapped in banana leaf and grilled) or Konju varuthathu (prawn fry) are other alternatives. I have never had chicken dishes packed in a pothichor.


Nostalgia

My very first memories of a pothichor has to be associated with the end of the yearly summer vacations in Kerala.

Back in the 80s and 90s the primary mode of transport to and from kerala used to be the train. Island express or the present day Kanyakumari express (Bangalore to Kanyakumari) which used to depart from Bangalore around 9pm back in those days. We reach our hometown by 2pm the next day. The onward journey was always exciting and promising.

The return journeys from kerala to whichever part of India you stayed, was always sad as we had to wait for another year to see our extended family, our muthachan and muthashi (grandparents), ammavans and ammayis (uncles and aunts), and cousins. Almost always the whole family used to come to the railway station to see us off.

Its usually around 1 pm when the Kanyakumari express reached Karunagapally. The brief 2 minute halt was always a chaotic one.  Achan had to put our luggages, a teary eyed amma, Archana (my sister), and myself into the compartment and then wave goodbye to all those who had come to drop us.

The train chugs along and we settle down in our seats. There is a familiar whiff of pothichor which spreads through the entire train around this time. Our pothichor was almost always packed by our Ammayi (aunt) with a lot of love and care. We couldn’t wait to open our packs after we got into the train. Watching our fellow passengers gorge on their pothichor only compounded the hunger!


In the Oscar winning movie Forrest Gump, if the title character was a malayalee, he would say “Amma says life is like a pothichor, you never know what you’re gonna get”. Every time I open my pothichor, the first few seconds are spent trying to find out what is packed for me that year. Ammayi always customized the package, I usually got more of the thenga chammandi (coconut chutney) and chor (rice), since matthi fry was something I couldn’t palate back in those days. Archana got more fish, Amma shared whatever she got and Achan got heavier lunch bags to carry every year lol!

Pothichor symbolized the malayala thanima (unique), and for me it was the perfect end of a great holiday with my kith and kin. It felt like I was carrying a piece of Kerala in a small pack of plantain leaf which you could savour to your heart’s content and it could get us through our mundane lives in the city until our next vacation.

This whole thing about the pothichor is dying its natural death since the arrival of fast foods and the like. Quite possibly, the younger generation won’t have a clue why I am rambling so much about a damn pack of lunch for crying out loud! But this I tell you, if you haven’t tried it yet, please do. I’m sure you won’t regret it!

Anyone can have rice and fish curry, but what separates a true blue mallu from the rest, is that he will add some rice directly into the chatty (earthern cooking pot) and mix it with the remaining gravy and make small urulas (rice balls) and share it with his mates!