Lent, the 40 days leading to Easter, is observed with solemnity by the Christian community in Kerala, India. Though there are variations among the different denominations, observant Christians abstain from meat and alcohol during this period. In contrast to joyful Easter celebrations, Maundy Thursday services are typically solemn occasions. On the evening of Maundy Thursday in Kerala, many congregations observe the Pesaha meal, a traditional Passover Seder meal at homes, commemorating the last supper of Jesus. Dishes including Pesaha appam and Pesaha paal are integral to the traditions.
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The word Pesaha is believed to originate from Syriac, and the ritual observances associated with Pesaha indicate its antiquity. “Christians of (the) Aramaic-speaking world, particularly those in Persia, in the early centuries followed a number of Jewish-customs,” wrote G. Rouwhorst in his piece on “Jewish Liturgical Traditions in Early Syriac Christianity.” Since the migration of Christians to Kerala began during the early centuries, perhaps the Jewish customs of West Asian Christians were brought to Kerala by these immigrants.
There are several similarities between Jewish Passover and Pesaha of Kerala Christians. These include cleaning the house, using cleaned or new dishes for cooking the Pesaha meal, singing special songs and feeding the poor. Both traditions also call for a preparation of unleavened bread called Pesaha appam, which is reminiscent of bread from a Jewish Passover meal. Pesaha paal is a Kerala version of the sweet component of the Pesaha meal. It is made with coconut milk sweetened with jaggery, thickened with rice flour and spiced with dried ginger and cumin. In times past in certain regions, new earthenware pots were bought to make the Pesaha appam and Pesaha paal. Some people even destroyed the pot after use and bought new ones every year.
On Maundy Thursday, after the evening prayer, the head of the house recites passages from the Bible about the last supper. He then breaks the ritual unleavened bread Pesaha appam. He gives the bread to the women in the family to soak in Pesaha paal, a sweet dish prepared with jaggery (Indian brown cane sugar) and coconut milk. The bread is then distributed among family members, beginning with the eldest. This bread is also called INRI appam, a reference to the Latin acronym inscribed above Jesus’ cross, translating in English to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”
Kerala makes Easter fare its own
As recipes travel from one continent to another, cooks often substitute or incorporate various local ingredients. Pesaha appam is no exception. South Indian breads are made with fermented batter of rice and a white legume called urad dal (vigna mungo). Other staple ingredients of Kerala cuisine are coconuts and spices. All of them are incorporated in the recipes for Pesaha meal.
But, unlike other traditional breads, the batter for Pesaha appam is not fermented, it is not allowed to stand for more than half an hour or so.
The first loaf is made by transferring batter to a round pan and creating a cross atop the dish with coconut palm leaves blessed by the priest on the previous Sunday.
The recipes, ingredients and cooking methods vary in different parts of the state. One cooking method called for baking the appam by placing the batter in a dish above a large pot of burning firewood and below another pot filled with embers.
Since gas stoves have replaced wood-burning stoves, in some parts of Kerala the bread batter is spread over banana leaves kept inside a round pan and steam cooked.
Pesaha Appam (INRI Appam)
The following recipes for Pesaha Appam and Pesaha Paal are adapted from the recipes of my friend Sany Abraham.
4 tablespoons urad dal
1½ cup freshly grated coconut
1 tablespoon thinly sliced shallots
Salt to taste
2 cups fine rice flour
1. Soak urad dal in water for about an hour.
2. In a blender, grind the soaked dal along with a few tablespoons of water into a smooth thick batter.
3. Separately grind the coconut and shallots to a smooth purée using very little water.
4. In a saucepan, bring 2½ cups water to a rolling boil, and stir in salt and the rice flour. Keep stirring so that there are no lumps. Remove from the stove. Mix the ground urad dal and coconut and shallot purée and mix well. The batter should be thick.
5. Spread it evenly in a round pan, place palm leaves in a cross shape on top, cover and steam for 25-30 minutes on medium high heat. Serve along with Pesaha paal.
2 or 3 cubes of jaggery
1 cup water
2 cups coconut milk
1 tablespoon fine rice powder
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon ginger powder
1. Melt jaggery with water over medium heat.
2. Strain the mixture into big pot.
3. Pour coconut milk into the pot and simmer for a few minutes.
4. Stir in rice powder and keep stirring.
5. Sprinkle cumin and ginger powder and stir well.
6. Place a cross made with palm leaves on top.
Pesaha appam and Pesaha paal. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran