Whipping Up Festive Meals ~ BG Mathew

by on May 5, 2015

Simple and unassuming, this 73 year old retired banker from Kottayam loves cooking! B.G. Mathew especially enjoys whipping up festive meals at Christmas and Onam. He loves to share recipes and enjoys improvising. His simple dictum is: “I cannot eat if the food is not tasty. Hence, I enjoy putting in the effort to prepare tasty food.” As he rightly points out, a recipe need not be elaborate to be tasty. For instance, a simple side dish with tender beans is delicious, if minimum ingredients are seasoned with passion.

BG Mathew


Mr. Mathew, a pleasure to meet you. First of all, tell me about your childhood.
My father C V Mathew was a teacher in Munnar, a hill station on the Western Ghats. I grew up in Munnar along with my three brothers and three sisters. I was the oldest among the boys. I remember being quite interested in cooking even as a young boy. My mother, whom we called Ammachi, prepared simple food that exuded aromatic flavours of Kerala’s Syrian Christian cuisine. She managed the housework and was very particular that all of us paid attention to our studies.


Did you help with the cooking?
Yes. Ammachi was quite strict; being a perfectionist, she expected cleanliness in whatever we did. For instance, if I was grinding the dosa batter, she would frown even if one drop spilt; and if we did not learn in one or two instances, she wouldn’t allow us to step in the kitchen.


What about your sisters?
Ammachi had the same rules for boys and girls. She did not expect any of us to help unless we wanted to. She imparted good value systems to us and had clear expectations that we should perform well in school. Her family was interested in education. One of her brothers had been a college Principal.


What about your education and work?
After my graduation, I went to Mumbai and started working with IDBI bank. I worked with them for 36 years and retired as DGM in 2002. We are now settled in Kottayam.


What brought about the interest in cooking?
It was quite a gradual thing. The main reason for it may have been that I can eat only if the food is tasty.


Your first memory of cooking?
I can’t remember the first dish I cooked, but I remember making tea when I was in the 4th standard. There was a lesson on tea and tea growing and the teachers asked us to try making tea at home. I remember being excited about it. I even remember the makeshift fireplace I constructed for making the tea. But I must tell you, tea is my favourite beverage. I enjoy making good tea and am very particular about the variety of tea leaves. In Munnar, we could get good tea leaves.


So when did you start cooking?
I developed an interest in cooking when the children were growing up. We have one son and two daughters. I was very particular that they should eat healthy home-cooked food and I enjoyed preparing innovative dishes for them. When you order anything from outside, you cannot be sure of the quality of the ingredients. I also wanted the children to be familiar with our culture and traditions, and also grow up with our value system. According to me, food is an important part of culture.


What about your wife? Was she okay with your presence in the kitchen?
Very much [laughs]! My wife, Saramma Mathew is not an enthusiastic cook and has always been quite happy to leave the kitchen to me once in a while. We don’t agree on everything but, over the years, we have made some peaceful adjustments.


Do you cook on a daily basis?
Not really. I pitch in whenever necessary. I also like to cook on special occasions.


What is the most cherished memory in connection with food?
Festivals, Christmas as well as Onam. For Christmas, we go all out to make special dishes and traditional delicacies. In Kerala, most Christians celebrate Onam as well and that too in a grand way. It is one of our favourite festivals. I like it for its simplicity and also because it is more of a celebration than a series of religious rituals. To me, Onam symbolizes a family meal. On that day, the family comes together at mealtimes and all of us eat on plantain leaves. It is how I grew up and the tradition continued while the children were growing up.


Do you still make an elaborate meal at home on Onam?
Yes, I do. Though, sadly, most people don’t follow that practice any more. But whether the children are here or not, we cook an elaborate meal. All my brothers live nearby and all our families assemble in one of the homes with each family bringing some delicacies for the meal.


What special dishes do you prepare on Onam?
An elaborate meal with three varieties of payasam; normally, I prepare these.


Why three?
For that extra special touch!


What would be some of your most popular recipes?
I think…the cakes I bake. I always bake a cake on the children’s birthdays if they are around. We also have one granddaughter and twin grandsons. Right now, they are all away. Our eldest daughter Lisa is in London, Sudha is in Bangalore and Pravin is in Chennai. But whenever they visit us, I always bake a cake or two. Occasionally, I also bake a cake and courier it to them.


Where did you learn the recipes?
I have a large collection of recipe books at home and enjoy trying new recipes. I also learnt much about cooking by observing my mother and wife in the kitchen. Initially, I was more interested in learning how to make snacks. I found I could always improvise.


Which is your favourite cookbook for Kerala cuisine?
For Kerala recipes, I refer to late Mrs. K M Mathew’s Nadan Pachakarama. Most of the recipes use local ingredients, but I enjoy improvising as well. I also like Ammini Ramachandran’s Grains, Greens and Grated Coconut.


Please share a simple favourite from Kerala that is part of your everyday cooking.
That would be a side dish known as mezhukkupuratti (also poriyal), meaning pan-fried or coated with oil. It is made with tender beans slit lengthwise and chopped into 1-inch bits. Cook them with salt, 1-2 slit green chillies, and just enough water so they look green and fresh when cooked. Next, prepare the tempering by heating 1 teaspoon oil. Pop mustard and add finely chopped onions. Pan-fry until the onions turn golden brown. Now add the cooked beans. See if you need to add more salt. Pan-fry for a minute. The dish is ready.


I can imagine the fresh taste of tender beans with the golden onions. Your recipe is even simpler than a typical poriyal.
Yes, I do not add asafoetida or turmeric or curry leaves or coconut. You can if you like, but try this first. Let me now share the recipe for a delicious pachchadi with bitter gourd.


First published in May 2015 in Harmony – the Indian magazine for silvers for the column – ‘His Ladle Love’. A series about men who experience the joy of cooking and can weild a deft ladle in the kitchen. Part-2 of this post is the recipe of Pavakkai Pachchadi to be published soon.


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