Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Kanji Protest: Voices unheard from the kitchens of Kerala

Food decision making is a process that goes beyond the simple question of what to eat and where to eat.  I remember making rounds around the city unable to decide the genre of food to eat and where to eat. Interestingly for me the experience had been that, the more thoughtful a decision, the less satisfied with the food experience.

As a society, food decision making has several dimensions to it. This discussion is not limited to eating out but also extends to the food that is cooked in family kitchens. It involves economics, gender, gastronomy, sociology and lot more. It is interesting to look at the flow chart of the decision making process that prioritizes dishes in the family/society food hierarchy. 

Rice Porridge

Kappa (Cassava) and Kanji (Rice Porridge-A parallel to Congee in other Asian countries) are victims of this food class. Kappa and its class issue have been dealt in detail in a separate post.  

Except in small joints referred to as ‘mess houses’, Kanji is not to be found in the menu cards of mainstream eateries. Contradicting is the fact that Kanji connects nostalgically, at large to the population of Kerala.

Kanji and Achar

Thinking about this contradiction, the foundational nature of Kanji needs to be looked at. Kanji is very basic in nature. ‘Easy to make, cheap and filling’’. This contradicts the very essence of eatery business. So let’s take it this way; being basic connects kanji to the fundamental self of people and that’s why it’s nostalgic. At the same time, it being simple, cheap and filling alienates it from the mainstream restaurant industry.  
It is curative, as it’s soft on the tummy and its energizing with its high starch content. That’s why many may associate it with illness. Some may have had Kanji only when they were sick or when they were forced to rest their digestive juices.


For many a lot, it associates with times of hardship and hard work, when kanji and kanji vellam (Water strained out of rice porridge) gave the energy to move on till the end of the day. For instance, farmers and farm workers would go the field early in the day and come out of the field late in the morning to have a serving of kanji, which would keep them going in the hot sun, till late afternoon.

Kanji stands witness to the early day’s food management philosophy of Kerala families. The rice that is left over in the night did not go into refrigerators those days (In fact, refrigerators were not common then). Instead,  the lady of the house would pour water into rice and then the next day this turns into Pazhankanji (Translated as Old Kanji-a delicacy within itself).

The act of pouring water into rice represents the closure of kitchen for that day. This often connects deep with the feelings of a mother or a wife, often anguished about a husband or a son not turning up for supper.  As a routine she used to be the one who ate last after everybody was served. Pouring water to the extra rice will keep it from going stale. However, for her it means much beyond it.  It is her act of protest, the loudest she could.  And then the next day, she ‘drinks the protest’ and moves on to cook fresh for the rest of the family. (The chance of food being extra without one or more members opting out of dinner was rare, as rice used to be a precious commodity and the home makers were experts in its management).

Thalikkal-An innovation


We recently came across a very creative version of Kanjivellam.  A very tasty curry called ‘’Thalikkal’’ which is basically Kanjivellam seasoned with mustard, coconut oil and Amaranthus leaves.

A colleague of mine suggested an improvisation on this dish, by adding shredded raw pappadam as it is cooking. This would give more texture and consistency to the gravy.  
Though very tasty, it will be very difficult for ‘’Thalikkal’’ to strive upward in the food hierarchy ladder to be a ‘’presentable’’ dish.  

Thank you Dea and Prof. Ashley Paul for your inputs


  1. Thank You Sreevalsan for that lovely photograph

  2. mone.. nirmalaaa.. kollaam.. I liked the politics of kanji especially