Kerala is a stunning region blessed with one of India’s most exciting cuisines: we take a look at the flavours and culture of the region.
Finding a native of Kerala in Dubai is easier than pie: an overwhelmingly high percentage of the city’s Indian community hail from this beautiful area in the southern subcontinent. Geographically closest to the UAE, its citizens started boating over in search of work at the country’s inception, and have been instrumental in its growth ever since. Their job hunt has been aided by a reputation for education: thanks to the attentions of successive left-wing and Communist governments, they currently have the highest standards of schooling in India and a 100 percent literacy rate.Kerala has been the source of huge foreign interest for years, a fact attested to by the number of ancient Chinese, Greek and Roman artefacts unearthed throughout the state. Current global interest is focussed on Keralite ayurvedic medicine, a 5,000-year-old holistic practice allegedly handed over to the people as a gift from the Lord Brahma. This massage and oil-bath-based treatment has become the latest obsession among health-conscious Western urbanites, with overstressed execs from London to LA queuing up to be rubbed down in seaside resorts along the Malabar coast.
Historically, however, it was Kerala’s key location as a trading post and its vast production of highly lucrative spices that pushed it into the global limelight. Since before the days of Ancient Rome, Keralite spices have been perking up dull meals the world over, with traders pouring in by sea and over ancient caravan trails to get their mitts on a few sackfuls of the good stuff. The Phoenecians, Egyptians and even, apparently, King Solomon sent ships to Kerala in the quest for seasonings. Legend has it that after Vasco da Gama’s first sortie into the area, the cheeky mariner left with spices worth sixty times the cost of his trip.
Unsurprisingly, Kerala’s unlimited access to high-grade spice and its constant influx of travellers has spawned a vibrant and sophisticated food culture. From Kasaragod in the far north to Thiruvananthapuram, the tortuously-named capital in the south, every tiny tenement with a scrap of land has a spice garden. The roads are lined with fruit trees and as the largest fishing state, Kerala enjoys top quality fresh seafood plucked from over 330 miles of shoreline. Fish dishes form the backbone of the cuisine, and as in other southern states vegetarianism is widely prevalent, particularly among the higher castes. Feasts of delicious, exotic dishes are spread out on banana leaves and picked at by hand.
Several thousand years of trading have brought a cosmopolitan mix of peoples to Kerala, with Muslims, Hindis and Christians all bringing their own food heritage to the table. Further influences have come from colonising Europeans who have left quirky food-based reminders of their domination. Although the British are long gone, for example, their culinary bequest lives on in the surprisingly popular dish of Christmas cake, which is available all year round in Kerala.
If you want to get a flavour of Kerala in Dubai, you won’t have to look far. A large number of the smaller, cheaper Indian restaurants serve Keralite specialities, although they often lump them in with food from other states. The best Keralite lunch we’ve tried in Dubai was at Coconut Grove in Rydges Plaza Hotel (04 398 3800), although they too jumble up their cookery genres, throwing Goan and Sri Lankan dishes into the mix. We picked the brains of their restaurant manager to get the expert Keralite’s-eye view on the best places in town for an unadulterated slice of authentic cookery (see page 58).
To get you in the mood for new food discovery, we’ve taken a long hard look at the history and culture behind Kerala’s dishes and spice and uncovered the stories behind the building blocks of Keralite cuisine. Kerala’s is a fascinating and ancient culture which has influenced the world and particularly our part of it. If your whistle is whetted, why not kick off your Keralite education tonight with a trip out for appam, and make this summer a truly Indian one?
India devotes more land to cultivating rice than anywhere else on the planet, and Kerala has its fair share of paddy fields, situated in lowlands by the coast. The native version is nutty-flavoured, unpolished red rice, the lynchpin of Keralite cooking: travel round the countryside and you’ll see women stood over vast pots filled with the stuff. Eaten at every meal, it’s also ground down into flour and used for making appam, the omnipresent, wafer-thin pancakes, and idli, a bulbous cakey snack. Appam comes in a million different varieties, from the noodlish idiappam to the ultra-sweet uniappam. Keralites also combine rice flour with lentils to make dosa rolls, served at breakfast, lunch and dinner, stuffed with sambar, a spicy traditional Keralan dessert, is a rice pudding filled with cashews, cocnut shavings or fruit.
The fields of Kerala are crammed to bursting with coconut palms: the name ‘kerala’ itself is derived from ‘kera’, a Malayalam word for coconut. It’s impossible to overestimate of the importance of cocos to the people - the southern Indian word for the nut, shrifal, means ‘fruit of the gods’: they are broken in symbolic ceremonies and included in almost every Keralite dish. Every home in the state is equipped with a coco-grater, for adding fresh nut-flesh to curries or knocking up a chutney in a hurry. The classic Keralite dish of meen is a thick-gravied masterpiece made with coconut, fish and tamarind, often with the addition of generous slices of juicy mango. Fish moilee, another textbook dish, is steamed in coconut milk so the flesh is permeated with layers of gentle flavour. To wash down their moilee and meen, Keralans will reach for kurumba punch made with coconut, water, lime, mint and honey, or toddy, a liqueur made from coconut palm sap.
Vasco da Gama, swashbuckling explorer extraordinnaire, disembarked in Kerala in 1498 to a barrage of questions from the locals. Asked why he had come his response was clear: ‘For Christians and spices.’ His goal lay in the Cardamom Hills of Vandanmedu, stocked to the rafters with the precious green pods. A favourite import of Middle Eastern countries, where it’s used to flavour coffee, cardamom is the world’s third dearest spice after vanilla and saffron. In Kerala it’s used for a million purposes: chewed for fresh breath, dropped into pots of chai, and ground up in garam masala, the basic spice mix at the root of most curries. Keralans are keen on cardamom flavour in desserts, and aren’t averse to using them to flavour their payasam of an evening.
Occupying over a square kilmetre of space in the centre of Cochin are the enormous warehouses of the spice merchants: as you walk along, your senses are assaulted by a million and one scents, from juniper berries to star anise. When stocking up on spice at a smaller store nearby, Keralites will make sure to pick up a decent helping of mace, the bright red coating stripped from the seed of the nutmeg tree. When dried out it turns orange in colour and is ready to be ground up and put into action.
Though they didn’t arrive in India until introduced by the country-snatching East India Company, cloves have since taken off in a big way and been incorporated into local dishes. Keralites use them in ayurvedic medicine and betelnut preparations, as well as in ghee-fried birianis, another staple dish, often knocked up with mint and poppy seeds.
Ginger is yet another spice with its roots in south east Asia: India can boast of controlling almost half of the global ginger market. Kerala’s version, calicut or cochin ginger, is particularly highly thought of. It’s a key ingredient of coconut chutney, brought out on every possible occasion, but at its best is twinned with dal vadai, falafel-like discs of spicy lentil snack. Cochin ginger also inveigles its way into prawn moilee and is chucked into chai for extra flavour.
Known in France as safran d’Inde (Indian saffron) due to its yellow colouring, Keralite ‘Allepey finger’ turmeric is a vital component in sambar powder, a blend of asfoetida, fenugreek, coriander and a host of other spices used in making fillings for dosas. As well as being the cornerstone for a dozen variations on the theme of veg curry, it’s also used as a depilatory powder by the overly hirsute.
The innocent-seeming black pepper has had a disproportionately great influence on world affairs. For one, it has been claimed that Colombus was searching for allepey pepper from Kerala when he accidentally hit North America. Earlier on, Pliny the younger whinged mightily about the emptying of the Roman treasuries to buy the pricy spice, which he felt was sapping the strength of the empire. Alaric the Goth even demanded pepper as part of his pay-off for ending the siege of Rome. Originally from the Keralite forests of the Western Ghats, allepey black pepper is added to dal, the pulse dishes found all over India, and erissery, a special dish comprising curried cubes of plaintain or green banana.
The bark from a tropical tree native to Kerala gives us cinnamon, also known as dalchini, a spice which has been ferociously defended and protected for thousands of years. Wily middle eastern traders kept control of it, according to the historian Theophrastus, by convincing Roman spice merchants they’d be bitten by snakes if they tried to collect it themselves. Later on, the British East India Company simply took over enough land to maintain a complete cinnamon monopoly in the 19th century. Keralites use cinammon in garam masala spice mixes,and for flavouring soft drinks.
Chilli was first introduced to Kerala by the Portuguese in the 1500s, and the state became an important staging post in the spread of the fruit from its origins in North America to global domination. Keralans make generous use of kashmiri chilli, which is excellent for cooling down the body, but are still less heavy-handed in their chilli dealings than their Andhran counterparts to the east (see States on aPlate, p57). They also tend to introduce a sour element to provide contrast to the mix, often using hing, a gum known in the west as asfoetida.