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Athirapally Waterfalls - Unique Experiences you will never Forget

This story happens in the backdrop of the beautiful Athirapally waterfalls flows through the middle of the Shola Rainforests, home to the Great Indian Hornbill. Monsoon has begun, and there is intermittent rain this morning. We head from Kochi and takes usual route diverts from the town of Chalakudy. But, today we decided to take a shorter course. After a few kilometers into the journey, we were going right through the forest. On both sides, we could see oil palm trees belonging to the plantation corporation of India, a government undertaking to produce Palmoil. We reached the vicinity of Athirapilly around half past nine.

We paid a quick visit to toddy shop in the morning as we were out of options, but it turned out to be an ideal option to taste some lip-smacking traditional Keralan delicacies in the morning. A toddy shop visit in the morning would be a routine for many alcoholics, but on the other side, toddy shops are known to be places for traditional household cuisines, especially fish curry preparations.

The focus of our trip to Athirapally is to observe and experience traditional tribal food. Athirapally and Vazhachal are known to be part of a tribal belt, where many tribals live in small colonies. Over the years most of them have started to integrate themselves into the modern day concepts of housing. Our connecting point with the tribal clan is Baiju, a talented artist as well as a tribal cuisine expert, who does it using the conventional methods of tribal cooking. When the Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachan and his wife Aiswariya Bachan came to Athirapally for a film shoot, they opted for Baiju's tribal food quite often during their 3 weeks stay there. He delighted them with his unique preparations. We had contacted him from Kochi, and he is getting ready to demonstrate and enlighten us on his tribal culinary skills that are genuinely intriguing. Baiju was waiting for us at a shop a few kilometers ahead of the toddy shop. We picked him up and drove to the destination arranged by Baiju. It was on the banks of the tributary of a river. The water is quite swift and high from the monsoon. Baiju briefed us on the menu for the day. One chicken preparation, one fish preparation, and a tapioca delicacy.

He had the fish and chicken sliced into small pieces and marinated with his specially made herbal paste. He said it is all fresh herbs, green pepper, ginger root and raw turmeric fresh from the forest. Of course, there are a few other secret ingredients of which we didn’t expect Baiju to reveal readily; without some suspense. But seriously, his mission is to explain some of the old and forgotten ways of his tribe, lest it should be lost knowledge forever.

We saw his assistant bring some raw bamboo pieces, each about 3 feet. Our cooking place has a large flat granite stone on the ground about two square feet, and a pile of firewood was kept close to the stone. We gathered around Baiju. Meanwhile, Baiju’s assistants were busy trying to pull over some canvas over the place, just in case it rains as it was drizzling already. He gives a running commentary about the process. He arranged for some firewood on top of the granite stone, leaving enough room in between the wood so that air can circulate to catalyze the burning process. We could not figure out how Baiju was going to do his cooking as there were no pots around. Anyhow he lits the fire, but he struggles to keep the fire on because of the damp wood and the chilling weather, finally we got the fire on. He now takes the bamboo shoots and starts stuffing it with tiny pieces of tapioca, all cleaned and ready. Another shoot was getting stuffed with marinated fish. Bamboo is cut to have a closed end at the bottom and an open top end on the other side. He now starts rotating the bamboo against the hot fire beneath; making sure that the entire bamboo is receiving the heat evenly from the fire.

Baiju focusing on getting the food cooked in Bamboo

Now Baiju’s presentation becomes interesting. He takes us back to the olden days in a tribal camp. He explained that the women of the tribal clan would sing a particular song and dance along with children around the fire. Towards the end of the song, the food gets cooked inside the bamboo. Ingenious! Can’t think of a better timing system. Of course, it used to be a marvelous occasion for social interactions. Here is an entire family of tribes actively being part of the cooking process. Today Baiju does not have the support of the song and dance. He has to use his instincts and experience to decide if the cooking is complete. We could see the bamboo getting charred on the outside. It has been roughly 15 to 20 minutes. Baiju gestures that it is ready with a sigh.

The cooking is not complete, the chicken is yet to be cooked. The cooked bamboo tubes are set aside carefully. It will stay warm for a long time, as the bamboo will remain hot. Baiju quickly starts to remove the fire from the top of the stone, while he has another flat rock ready on the side. The original stone is made clean. Remember, the stone is still hot. He then takes a few turmeric leaves and spreads the marinated chicken pieces evenly on the leaves. Now he placed the leaves on the very hot stone on the ground, covers the chicken pieces with another set of fresh turmeric leaves and puts the flat face of the second stone on top of it. After a while, we got to hear the sizzling sound in between the rocks. Each cooking process has a song to sing, based on the cooking time required. I could imagine the song echoing through the mountains and valleys.

Another 15 minutes have gone by Baiju announces that everything is ready. He removes the stone on the top, opens the leaf, and yes, the chicken looks nice and brown. An appetizing aroma fills the air around. He emptied two bamboos shoots into plates, which other would have been into leaves. We now have bamboo steamed tapioca, bamboo steamed fish with special herbs and mountain spices, and chicken sizzler cooked in between heated granite stones.

Fish cooked in bamboo shoot

Baiju urged us to get started before it gets cold. The very first bite made an impression in me. I thought, “This is truly special, and an experience that I could never ever forget.” Then Baiju went to explain why his ancestors adopted this kind of cooking practice. The fact is, he said “in those days the tribe was constantly on the move, in search of food and shelter. So they were always conscious of traveling as light as possible. They had to improvise almost always. They practiced making use of materials that were easily available in nature. This way they could move around quickly on very short notice.” What a simple and practical lifestyle- I thought to myself. Everything about it is eco-friendly, genuine, simple and organic.

After a brief rest, we decided to take a drive through the forest. Green seems to be the theme. An active monsoon has revived the entire forest. Even the undercover is springing with new life. Numerous water springs and falls are alive. Dryness is something of the past. Baiju was born and brought close to the forest. He asked us to pull over to the side of the road when we approached a thickly forested area. He then pointed to a hill-side where some rubble is faintly visible from that distance. He said that it used to be his house when he was young. Wild elephants destroyed it, and they had to flee to safer grounds.

It was time for us to drive back to Kochi. We all thanked Baiju for taking us back through time to have a unique tribal experience. A glimpse of an adventure into a lifestyle that goes hand in hand with nature. It revealed us the need to learn from people like our friend Baiju. Such interactions are sure to impart mutually beneficial values that are vital for practicing sustainable, eco-friendly and responsible tourism.

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