Ann Ittoop’s Easter Memories
A first-generation Indian American who grew up in North Carolina, she keeps her cherished traditions alive through food.
The appams, lacy domes made from a coconut-and-rice batter, are because of her background—her parents came from the robust community of Christians in the Kerala state of India. The dresses, on the other hand, are a product of her upbringing in Charlotte, where her community celebrated a much more Southern, Anglo-Saxon version of the holiday.
In Charlotte, there were few other South Asian families in the area, much less Christian Keralites. As a result, Ittoop, who now runs the South India-meets-American South food blog The Familiar Kitchen, adopted many traditions of her local church. But things weren't always seamless. "My mother didn't know how to wear those dresses," Ittoop says, laughing. "In one picture, she's wearing it backward."
But where Ittoop and her family—which includes her mother, Latha; dad, David; and elder brother, Joseph—could lean into their heritage on Easter was in the food they prepared. For Christian Keralites, Easter starts with Lent, a 40-day period of fasting. During the last week of Lent, Pesaha (or Passover) occurs on Holy Thursday, and families have Pesaha appam, an unleavened bread that's made of rice and coconut, in memory of the Last Supper. The week concludes with a large feast enjoyed on Easter Sunday.
Ittoop's mother would start preparing the Easter meal on Saturday. She'd marinate the chicken in cardamom, cumin, fennel seeds, and black pepper for the biryani and make the appam batter. On Sunday morning, the family attended the earliest church service so that, by 9:30, their plates would be full of appams, the spongy interiors of which were soaked in an aromatic chicken curry flavored with coconut milk, curry leaves, and cardamom. Her mom would eat last, insisting on making the appams to order, ladling batter into a bowl-shaped pan and letting it steam into thin domes.
The meal didn't stop there. After a few hours of television and digging through Easter baskets, it was time for the biryani. Even if no one was hungry, Ittoop's mom would lovingly fluff the rice, make raita, and pull out the fig and date pickle and popadam to eat alongside. For dessert, they kept it simple: a mango fruit salad perfumed with rose water.
What Ittoop remembers most fondly about those meals was her mother's attention to detail. She mixed and fermented the appam batter herself, and instead of buying canned coconut milk, she cracked open fresh coconuts to press the milk before grating the meat. "When you cook for people you love, it shows," she says. "All her heart was being poured into these dishes."
Three years ago, Ittoop moved to East Hanover, New Jersey, with her husband, George. The area has a large community of Christian Keralites. Still, every year, she flies home to celebrate Easter with her family. And Ittoop always helps her mother cook, absorbing kitchen wisdom she hopes will allow her to re-create those food traditions back in New Jersey.
Her blog, started in 2014, was driven in part by this desire to uphold her heritage through food. She recalls her mom telling her about coming to the U.S., trading chiffon saris and long, braided hair for jeans and a short bob yet feeling grounded by the food she cooked. "I have to document this. I have to pass it down," Ittoop says. "I don't want to lose myself."
Two years ago, for Ittoop's 30th birthday, her mother gave her a book containing all those family recipes, including the chicken curry and the appams. It's one of her favorite keepsakes, and she's been working her way through all the dishes, adding her own spins—using shallots instead of white onions or a little less chili powder.
That book was particularly helpful last year, when (due to the pandemic) Ittoop was unable to travel to Charlotte. She FaceTimed her mom as she made appams and chicken curry in her New Jersey kitchen. It was a sober reminder that, even in nonpandemic times, she won't be able to celebrate Easter with her parents forever.
Ultimately, it's these dishes that will keep the memories of them alive and remind her future children of where they came from. "That is what you get to hold onto," Ittoop says. Without those traditions, "Who are you?"