In the beginning, there was Aluva
I distinctly remember my grandfather cooking up the sweet-smelling aromas of the dark molasses goodness of aluva, or black halwa as it is affectionately called in Kerala. It is a classic delicacy made with ingredients like coconut milk, rice, and jaggery—all available in the coastal region of South India.
The aroma of ghee permeated my infant senses along with the simultaneous toasting of nuts and spices used in the recipe. The beautiful cacophony of the morning din around this burly man I affectionately called appachan was surreal.
He knew the steps well. The precise moment at which to add the ghee, cashew nuts, ground cardamom, and the dry ginger powder. The sweetener used is jaggery or unfiltered sugar from coconut sap. It has a rich molasses taste. This gel-like sweet candy keeps you hooked.
The list of ingredients was so simple. It always amazed me how this great dish looked and tasted at the end of the cooking process.
Here is the key. When making halwa there is a time-honoured cooking technique of the constant stirring of the hot jaggery without burning. This makes the process laborious.
Appachan’s black halwa tastes divine. It has cemented its place in my heart as one of the all-time great dishes I have ever tasted. He was the master of turning this into a memorable eating experience for me, his grandson.
I was only six then. But it still feels like yesterday. The kitchen was and still is the heartbeat of the home. My granddad loved to cook. It was very rare to see men in the kitchen in the 1980s. But he meticulously planned those special Kerala desserts with such passion and style.
As soon as the dessert was ready and still warm, we would also swarm around the large Uruli (large, shallow, cooking vessel) and wait to taste. At that very moment, food brought us kids close together. It truly was a beautiful thing.
Looking back, the carefully orchestrated symphony of smell, sounds, sights, and finally taste, seems like a magical journey that imparted my grandfather’s passion for cooking to me.
Great Food Creates Great Memories
“Jesus spent his time eating and drinking—a lot of his time. He was a party animal. His mission strategy was a long meal, stretching into the evening. He did evangelism and discipleship round a table with some grilled fish, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher of wine,” Tim Chester wrote in his masterful book A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community And Mission Around The Table.
The Bible presents food and the act of eating in some wonderful ways that brings people together. Jesus refers to himself as the Bread of life and the true Vine (John 6:35, 15:1). God shows his power and majesty in the Old Testament by feeding the Israelites with Manna (Ex. 16:31-32). He used a raven to feed a prophet in his time of need (1 Kings 17:2-4).
Without food, we go hungry and without a Saviour, we starve for spiritual nourishment. This seems like a perfect juxtaposition for humanity.
Leviticus 11 is like a smorgasbord of deliciousness made by our Creator for us to enjoy while on earth.
First Corinthians 10:31 reminds us to glorify God in whatever we eat or drink.
So, what is the significance of eating or the act of eating together?
In my teenage years, my parents told me that they had decided to serve as full-time evangelists to further God’s kingdom. I was very unhappy and angry, fearing that my comfort would be compromised. I began to doubt my parents and their ability to put food on the table. I was afraid we were going to starve.
He is ever enough, more than enough, and forever enough. This is what makes great food memorable.
And then one day my dad invited a few guests, as it was customary to do so on Sunday after church. Mum, as usual, was busy behind the stove conjuring the fastest meal that would put even the 2-minute Maggi noodle experience to shame.
That’s when a profound truth dawned on me. It was not just the food itself, or even the spread, but the love, joy, laughter, conversation, and communion of people with which it was cooked and enjoyed that made food so memorable.
We were not made to eat in our solitude. We were made to rejoice in God’s provisions together—to be thankful and grateful to Jehovah Jireh for our family and loved ones. He is ever enough, more than enough, and forever enough. This is what makes great food memorable.
The Table, The Gospel—A Meal of Hope
“We have cut ourselves off from the abundant life that God intends for all people. This is a most serious matter, for it goes to the nature and destiny of human life: to glorify God and to enjoy God forever! We have become disoriented and estranged from God, neighbour, and self.
One glaring way we have forsaken abundant life is that we no longer fully appreciate or enjoy God’s great gift of food. We have forgotten the purposes behind the blessing of food and have been satisfied with an impoverished appreciation of eating.
Eating is a spiritual practice that reminds us of who we are in the global ecology. Forgetting what food means we also forget who God is, who we are, and the nature of the world we inhabit,” says L. Shannon Jung in his book, Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating.
Think of this famous scene from the New Testament. Jesus is about to share a powerful message by instituting a meal that will forever become a moment to pause, remember, and reflect.
In Matthew 26, from verse 17 onwards, we see that this meal was not created in a hurry. It was meticulously planned with the disciples going ahead and getting the Passover ready.
Finally, as Jesus relaxed into this wonderful gathering, he knew his time is coming. There were hard conversations to be had. He knew one of his own that was sharing in this meal would betray him. But he still pushed forward with this powerful analogy.
After taking some bread he broke it and shared it by saying “Take, eat, this is my body” (Matt. 26:26). He repeats the same with some wine. And says “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:27-28).
Jesus shared some of the most poignant moments with people around the table with food. It seems like Jesus used the act of eating together to show his disciples the powerful experience of remembrance and food.
That is where the gospel and food come together in redemptive harmony to show us God’s gift of a Saviour as a once-and-for-all offering.
In his suffering on the cross, where hurt, insult, and anger were thrown at Christ, he was counting that the memory created over a meal would be etched in the heart of his disciples forever. “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke. 22:19).
The gospel—Christ’s life on earth, his death, and resurrection—is the antidote to every malady humanity faces in this temporary life we call home.
The next time we smell the flavours in the kitchen or the sounds of grinding, toasting, blitzing, or frying, may we be reminded of the love that Christ had for us. May all the love that our mums, dads, chefs, and home cooks pour into a dish remind us of the greater love of Christ.
To Cook is to Love and Serve
For me, cooking is also a way of loving people, as Christ loved me.
For most of my early cooking days I found it hard to get around the fact that I had to stand on my feet for hours on end to make my guests happy with my cooking.
In his suffering on the cross, where hurt, insult, and anger were thrown at Christ, he was counting that the memory created over a meal would be etched in the heart of his disciples forever. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’
There were conflicting thoughts on days when I could have spent time with my family. Here I was making someone else’s family happy.
But I soon realised that my cooking was a vehicle of blessing. This was my calling, my ministry.
That, in a nutshell, is the joy and beauty of being a chef. Tasting and understanding that God has made all things for his pleasure and ours.
My plate of food with all its splendour pales in comparison to the Creator and the wonderful produce he lovingly made for our consumption. And yet, God’s glory is reflected in every plate of food we eat.
No great meal is cooked with an attitude that is underprepared, disorganised, and has no respect for produce. It is the same with our Creator.
We are not a result of time plus matter plus chance; not an accidental coincidence made by a lazy, indulgent Creator. We are made with love. We are made for a purpose and with purpose.
May all our food and fellowship enhance the aroma of the gospel in our lives.