ఆంధ్రులకి, ఆవకాయకి అవినాభావ సంబంధం ఉందంటే అతిశయోక్తి కాదేమో. ఆవకాయ మీద పద్యం రాయని కవి, కార్టూన్ గీయని చిత్రకారుడు, కథలు రాయని రచయిత, ఇక ఆవకాయ బద్ద జుర్రని ఆంధ్రుడు తెలుగు గడ్డమీద పుట్టుడు. ఏ దేశమేగినా ఎందుకాలిడినా, వేసవికాలం ఆవకాయ పెట్టని తెలుగువాడుండు. అన్నప్రాసననాడే ఆవకాయ కోరేది మన తెలుగువాడొక్కడేనేమో. అలాంటి ఆవకాయ మీద గరికపాటి నరసింహరావుగారు చెప్పిన ఈ పద్యం ఆవకాయ విశిష్టతను చెప్పకనే చెపుతుంది.
అందింపగా జిహ్వ ఆవకాయ
కూరలే లేనిచో కోమలి వేయుచో
ఆపదలనాదుకొను కూర ఆవకాయ
అతివనడుమైన జాడియే ఆవకాయ
ఆంధ్రమాత సింధూరమే ఆవకాయ
ఆంధ్ర దేశమ్మెతానొక్క ఆవకాయ’’
తెలుగువాని జీవితంతో ఇంతగా మమేకమైన ఆవకాయ ప్రతీ ఒక్కరికి ఎన్నో తీపి జ్ఞాపకాలను మిగిల్చే ఉంటుంది. తెలుగువారే కాక, ఇతర ప్రాంతాలవారు, భాషలవారు కూడా ఆవకాయతో ఆత్మీయతను పెంచుకుని ఆవకాయ మనందరిది అని ముక్తకంఠంతో ఘోషిస్తున్నారు. అలా ఆవకాయతో అనుబంధాన్ని పెంచుకున్న ఈ మళయాళ పొన్ని తన చిన్ననాటి స్మృతులను నెమరేసుకుంటూ, ఆ ‘తొక్కన్నం’ రుచులు మనందరికి ఇలా ప్రసాదంలా అందించింది. ఇక మీరు రుచిచూసి గత స్మృతులు నెమరేసుకోండి…
“We are nearing the School”, my sister voiced urgency. “Quick!” She was getting furious.
Not that I didn’t get the cue. But it was irresistible. I simply enjoyed what I was doing and was in no mood to give it up so quickly. I continued walking slowly doing what I was doing, to my sister’s annoyance.
We had reached the School Gate and were stepping inside. “Five minutes left for the post lunch session to start”. “ Rush to the washroom, spit out and wash your mouth quickly and go to your class”, she nudged me.
I was woken up from my mid noon siesta rudely by my daughter’s attempt to raise the volume of the already jarring music playing on the TV. Exchanging furious glances with her for being disturbed from my dream, I curled up on the couch trying to re-build the same. I could still feel the mouth-watering taste. I lay still, flash backing into my school days, especially the summer months of March-April. These Summer months always brought with them a magical flavour to life. I was flying down the memory lane and the foremost memory that flashed across at that moment was the “thokkannam”.
Come April and the Monda Market was flooded with mangoes of all sizes, shapes and quality. It would be an insult to any Hyderabadi(or Andhraite, to be precise), if one would not know the varieties in achar called by different names like “Magai”, “Avakkai” or any other “pacchadi”. The expert traders demand to know “enni kaavali” and get on the job of slicing the right sized pieces in a jiffy.
Accompanying amma, a mallu-turned-die-hard Hyderabadi, to the Monda for “Mamidikai” purchase during this season was an annual ritual more. A food enthusiast, amma, who by then had spent more of her life in Hyderabad, rather than her native Kerala – had picked up great Andhra culinary skills from her friendly neighbours. This special season facilitated in show-casing her extra-ordinary talent in achar making to not only our neighbours, but also to all relatives in Kerala, who placed orders for amma-cooked Andhra achar, well before the season.
So, back at home from the Monda, the 25 odd mangoes would be bifurcated for achars of different varieties — “aavaalu-ellipai”, “allam-ellipai”and a few for the authentic Kerala style instant achar. Reminiscing back into time, I wonder with dismay about the kind of energy amma possessed. Peeling off bulbs of garlic, ginger and readying other ingredients painstakingly, over a couple of days – all of that, without a word of complaint that none of us helped her in the job, was amazing. Very much unlike me today, a frequent nag, that none in the family shares chores with me. The Bharanis or the porcelain jars which went into hibernation after the residue of the previous year’s was lapped up, were suitably sun-soaked and disinfected. “The achar making process, is to be done in the purest of ways “, amma used to tell us. We heard with disbelief her narration of elaborate achar making process followed in earlier days by Brahmin households. How the ladies of the house would go into isolation straight after bath for achar-making , stark naked, lest the achar gets contaminated, was one story that stuck to my mind.
Of course, amma was definitely not that rigid, but still attached great sanctity to the whole process. The achar making process done with, the Bharanis were sealed with pure white cloth and left to marinate for the first 10-15 days, by which time the pieces get softened and blended with the spices. After this a sample of it is transferred to a glass bottle for daily consumption. The Bharanis were not handled on a daily basis because it was believed that every day exposure would lead to formation of a jelly like fungi(booju) on it.
The first morsel of a mix of cooked hot rice, ghee and the fresh “thokku” or “pacchadi”, – as one would call it, depending on which region of the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, they belonged to – can be described as nothing lesser than divine nectar. The plate filled with the appetising red coloured food almost invoked gluttony instantly. This is what was called “Thokkannam” in local dialect.
“Thokkannam” or “Avakkai annam” is a typical Andhra food which no Telugu can ever deny having relished with great delight. The freshness of the seasonal mango, the sourness blended with the right spices – a combination of salt, mustard powder/ginger-garlic paste, chilli powder, heated gingelly oil, and the dedicated effort of amma, ensured that this food was nothing lesser than an out-of the world experience in fine dining. Year after year, this ritual perfected to its hilt by amma, left indelible memories.
The treat didn’t end at just that. Pleasantries was not the only thing that neighbours, back then, exchanged. Generous exchange of varieties of “thokku” amongst neighbours was a practice unbeatable. The “Magai” supplied by one neighbouring aunt, the “avakkai” by another, the varieties prepared by amma, all competed to be on the platter, turn-by-turn in the ensuing months.
The highlight of all this was the walk back to School after lunch, during the achar season. Being in a school not far away from home with a time schedule of 9.00 to 3.15 p.m., meant a lunch break between 1.00 to 2.00 p.m. This also meant walking home for hot lunch served by amma, eating thokkannam along with other simple but fresh & tasty food, and then the grand finale – that is walking back to School with a duly washed thokku piece (achar piece) in the mouth, savouring every bit of tanginess it provided until the last drop, ruminating like a cow, until we reached the School Gate. It was in all its innocence, a heavenly experience.
Years and years later, this COVID Lockdown noon, the siesta brought back in the dream, a lost childhood, with its deeply etched memories of the “thokkannam”. My sister and I used to walk down to school in the mid noon after lunch from home with me ruminating the thokku piece and my sister chiding me. The dream today was a recapitulation of a routine followed by me then.
This Summer afternoon, in scary COVID times, a middle-aged me, am compelled to draw a contrast of life today with all its complications, to that of the simple beauty of Summer months more than 3 decades ago, especially with regard to “thokkannam”. I doubt whether “thokku” is any longer relished the way we did in our younger days – thanks to the life style changes and preachings on the ill-effects of pickle eating. I don’t know whether in today’s Andhra households, “thokku making” is still the same ritualistic affair as it once used to be. As for me, age has made me give in to the theory of limited consumption of pickles, and that too at the mercy of those available in the market rather than home-made ones. For, amma no longer makes thokku anymore on the grounds that “it is no longer worth the efforts, because you people have learnt to be snobs in this regard”.