It was a calm Sunday morning in Bangalore, India. Leisurely sipping my hot morning tea, I was reading the IB Times.
Suddenly I heard a loud cry from my mother-in-law: “Ayyo!” I rushed to the living room. “What happened?” I asked my wife who was standing beside her. “His blood sugar level has crossed 130,” she replied in an angry tone. It was then that I noticed the diabetes checking kit in the hands of my father-in-law. I stood there silently watching the two women furiously nailing him for not changing his food habits while he was patiently putting the kit back into the box. They continued with their incessant counselling session for the next half an hour which culminated when he said that he is going out and asked them if they wanted anything to be bought for cooking.
“Bring another kilo of kappa and your sugar level will go even higher,” my wife retorted. As he left the house my mind was full of the picture of the main culprit of the entire incident - tapioca alias kappa. Malayalis (those hailing from the state of Kerala which is located in India's deep south) have an endless obsession for the tasty delicacy.
There is a joke about the Malayalis. When Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, he was tired after the long journey and wanted a cup of tea. No guesses needed on who offered it to him. Of course, there was already a tea stall on the Moon run by a Malayali. The message is that there will be a Malayali in every nook and cranny of the world. It is a reminder of the presence of us from South Africa to North America and from Australia to Alaska. And, there is one single factor that unites all Malayalis (commonly referred to as Mallus) on Earth. It is the kappa factor or our love for tapioca.
I was reminded of another incident involving my in-laws. While we were in Antwerp, the port city of Belgium, they had visited us during summer holidays with the intention to spend some good time with their granddaughter. The summer was not quite warm that year with temperatures hovering around 15 degrees Celsius. With the low temperature aggravating his joint pain, the grandfather started plans to advance the return trip. But one evening when I returned from office, I was greeted by his loud laughter. I only had to wait for a few minutes to find out the reason for the sudden change in his mood. He had found an African store selling tapioca. “Never seen kappa of such size! he commented weighing the large-sized tapioca with his hand. Delectable food is the remedy to many diseases of body and mind!
Seeing the affinity for this delicacy among the Malayalis, if you think that tapioca has its origins in Kerala, like what I thought when I was in my school, you are mistaken. It is a Brazilian beauty - an expression used by my seventh standard social science teacher. True, this crop had travelled all the way from Brazil and landed in Malabar, the northern part of Kerala, in the 17th century along with the Portuguese. Though the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and pushed them out of Malabar, the love for this root crop had already gone so deep that it stayed on. In fact it did not stop there. Its roots spread to the neighbouring province of Cochin and from there to Travancore. Another truth is that for any new custom, be it religion, dress or food, to flourish in a new region it needed the blessings of the royalty. In Travancore, kappa managed to secure royal patronage. Was the famous king of the Travancore State, Visakham Thirunal Rama Varma, fond of tapioca? I have no facts or figures about the erstwhile Maharaja's dietary habits. But the fact is that he championed the cultivation of this crop in his state. The Brazilian lady was truly happy to have found a new home in Travancore. She took an oath to be faithful to the children of her new home.
During World War II, the import of rice from Burma was stopped. The people of Travancore were staring at the worst times of food scarcity. It was the right time for our Brazilian beauty to establish her clout. Like a mother she saved the people of Travancore from the frightening grip of famine. Tapioca replaced rice to become their staple food.
Meanwhile, my father-in-law was devouring another plate of it with least concern for his sugar level. I cannot blame him. It is simply irresistible. There is nothing like the taste of boiled tapioca! Add some grated coconut and it will taste heavenly. If you have it with a side dish of fish curry, you will attain self-actualization.
P.S: Please be careful while cutting the kappa as she is quite hard. Like any other lady, she demands all the attention while being handled. Any sort of distraction, minor or major, could hurt your fingers. My wife’s tear mark on her left thumb is a living example.