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Two Christmases ago, instead of roast duck, appams, mutton stew, and biryani, our table was laid with the simplest dinner imaginable: two bowls of watery kanji (rice gruel) garnished with mango pickle and papadam, plus a small serving of kachimoru, or spiced buttermilk, to elevate the humble meal.
That was the Christmas both my parents fell ill, together. My sister and I were at our wits' end: We reheated leftovers, but they wouldn’t eat more than a spoonful of anything; we stirred protein powders into warm milk, but they refused to drink. We were drawing a blank and nearing panic—until Mum asked us for kachimoru.
Kachimoru was a dish we’d have on the table almost everyday back at my grandmother’s house in Kerala, when we’d visit in the summer. A simple, spiced yogurt curry that’s rarely found on restaurant menus (and so much a part of the everyday that it’s almost invisible on the table), kachimoru is a fundamental constituent of Syrian Christian cuisine in Kerala, but you can find it almost every kitchen across that southwestern Indian state—a basic building block of a meal.
The Syrian Christian community, referred to locally as “Suriyanis” or “Nasranis” (a corruption of “followers of the Nazarene”), is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. We trace our origins to St. Thomas the apostle, who is believed to have arrived on the shores of the ancient trading port Muziris, in Kerala, in the first century. The term "Syrian Christian" is a reference not to ethnicity, but to the community’s connection to the Church of the East; our liturgy is still spoken in Syriac and Aramaic. Our culture and symbolism however, are heavy with influences from Hinduism, and many of our rituals and traditions have Jewish roots.
For the Syrian Christians, home is the lush tropical coast of Kerala, blessed with an abundance of natural produce. Kerala’s food is famous for its variety of seafood, from crisp fried fish to fiery curries flavored with black kodampulli; for its deep and creative love of coconut; and for being the original home of black pepper.
And so, with Mum’s insistence, kachimoru—unromantic yet fundamental—became the first dish from my community’s repertoire that I learned to make, laying bare a connection I never suspected I harbored with a stretch of land I visited only once a year on summer vacation.
Despite a deep attachment to the cuisine of Kerala, my relationship with it never went beyond that of enthusiastic eater. I followed Mum into the kitchen to taste curries and steal hot banana fritters from the wok, but almost never to cook with her, let alone by myself. When Mum asked for a meal of kanji and kachimoru, she saw the panic on our faces.
“It’s simple; I’ll walk you through it,” she promised. She pushed herself up onto her elbows and called out instructions in a soft voice. My sister and I pulled out our phones and began making notes furiously.
We got to work, pulling the cheena chatti (or wok) out from the cupboard under the kitchen counter and igniting the stove’s sputtering flame. We measured out two tablespoons of coconut oil and prepped the ingredients one by one.
As the oil began to release its distinctive, familiar aroma, my panic began to fall away. I knew this smell, from my youngest days in my grandmother's bustling wood-fired kitchen. I sliced the shallots and the ginger, slit three long green chiles to the stem. I gingerly threw in a spoonful of black mustard seeds, and they began to pop and dance; a handful of curry leaves released another layer of fragrance in the kitchen, my confidence building one scent at a time.
The tempering was ready. I whisked yogurt and water together, and added the mixture to the tempering, stirring gently as it turned to a warm autumn yellow. Floating to the top were tiny black mustard seeds and translucent slivers of onion. I ladled out a warm spoonful and tasted. The gentle flavors of kachimoru came rushing at me with the all the force of memory triggered by flavor: mild, fresh, sour, spicy, rounded. I leaned in for another spoonful, still not believing that the kachimoru of my past had come from my own hands—by some blessing of the universe or simply, an idiot-proof recipe.
This is not an elaborate meal, but it is comfort food: a bowl of steaming red rice kanji, a generous blob of mango pickle, and some kachimoru. Food to heal, comfort and restore; curry leaves and turmeric, and the silken comfort of warm yogurt.
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 cup yogurt
- Salt, to taste
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 8 to 10 curry leaves
- 5 shallots, chopped
- 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
- 3 green chiles, slit down their lengths
- 1 teaspoon chile powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 pinch ground fenugreek
What food do you ask for when you're feeling sick? Tell us in the comments below.