We Indians can be proud of the close family ties that keep us united whatever the conditions may be - for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, now and forever. When a bad time falls upon a family, everyone comes together to express solidarity and offer help and support, and surprisingly most of it is sincere.
Now that you have a background understanding of how things are, it would be wise to give you an insight on the ground rules required to fit in with the large family unit, assuming you are not familiar with it (say, you were brought up outside India?). For now, I choose the scenario of visiting relatives in hospitals because someone in the family is bound to be hospitalized sooner or later. (Morover, I am about to be hospitalized soon because of a misbehaving appendix, so right now hospitals are on my mind more than anything else). There is a chance you will be seeing the remainder of your family on a hospital visit, so you should be know how to conduct yourself in an appropriate manner. Remember that these rules apply only in the unique conditions that exist in India. Elsewhere, you may be considered irresponsible and possibly unstable for abiding by them. OK, here goes:
• You are expected to visit irrespective of whether your relative is suffering from H1N1 flu, or is simply under observation after experiencing false pains during pregnancy, and irrespective of whether you carry something contagious yourself.
• That you may be very distantly related or that you didn’t even know such a person existed before you got the call in the morning (much before your usual wake up time) informing you that he/she is hospitalized is NOT an excuse not to drop by. Unless you are ready to be stricken out of the good books of the remainder of his/her family.
• It would be nice to take oranges and apples with you. It does not matter that the patient may not be in a condition to eat or is allergic to fruits; the others with him will appreciate the gesture.
• Once you are there, it is important to let people who matter know about it. Otherwise, it would be a wasted effort.
• You are allowed to sit on the bystander’s bed without being invited to do so and sift through his reading material if you get bored. Though I must warn you that it is better to talk as much as possible to whoever is listening (or even if no one is listening) because reserved people are generally considered arrogant.
• Ask the sick person LOUDLY, “Appacha, engane ondu? Enne manasilayo?” even if he is sleeping or appears to be groggy under the influence of drugs. If you are not a malayali, Appacha is what you call an old man, and the sentence translates to “How are you? Do you recognize me?” Such conversations are considered to be an expression of your love and concern, believe me!!! And yes, mop his forehead with your saree pallu or your handkerchief.
• DO NOT call a man below 80 years appacha (or the equivalent in your language), you may be doing his already poor health condition further harm (assuming he can hear you). Men also can be touchy when it comes to age.
• Spread the news of the hospitalization far and wide. Not informing others is almost as bad as not visiting at all.
• Keep your ears open for fresh gossip. After all, you will be meeting many cousins and aunties and uncles you last saw when someone else was ill or on the occasion of someone’s marriage. So much must have happened between now and then and I see no reason why these visits can’t be as much fun as possible.
And speaking about fun hospital visits, I used to do lot of it when I was in my home town. You see, diabetes runs in my family, and many a time, an inability to resist rice, pastries, jackfruit and cassava coupled with a dislike for exercise (all of which I seem to have inherited) often landed my aunt in hospital with blood sugar levels shooting through the roof. And since she was not actually ill and my mom was usually the bystander, the day time would be spent happy gossiping about everyone who dropped by, and everyone who didn’t drop by, and just about everyone (in short). The party would be at its best around tea time when others (my dad and uncles) would visit, and the canteen people would come by with large kettles of tea and coffee and trays of ettaka appam(plantain fritters) and uzhunnuvada(savory rice fritters). Though these ettaka appam were nowhere as good as homemade ones, we always bought them, and the snacks used to add immensely to the fun.
Malayalis have a soft spot for ettaka appam and it finds a place on the tea table regularly as an after school/college/work snack or when guests come home, or simply when a craving hits us (which happens quite often). Do try it out and find yourself getting addicted.
You will need:
3 ripe plantains
3/4 cup plain/wheat/rice flour or a combination of these flours
4-5 tablespoons of sugar or according to taste
2 teaspoons gingelly seeds (optional)
Oil, to shallow fry
Make a smooth batter with the flour, sugar and water. Add the gingelly seeds and mix well. The batter should be a little thicker than low fat cream.
Cut each plantain into 3 pieces, along the length of the plantain. Heat oil in a pan over medium heat. Coat each plantain slice with the batter and place in hot oil. When one side is lightly browned, flip and fry the other side. Remove from oil and serve hot.
Some people add cardamom powder to the batter, while others add a pinch of salt. Some also add baking powder so that the coating gets crispy. But I like ettaka appam best with the simplest of flavours.