By Sudha Mathew
I love this quote by Pavarotti, the legendary Italian opera tenor. “One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” If that great man is culpable of the same sin, it makes me feel less guilty about my irrepressible interest in eating and reading about food. Note that I did not mention cooking.
An essential part of my holiday research along with great places to stay is where and what to eat. I will devour blogs, reviews and obscure magazine listings in search of interesting restaurants and recommended dishes. I admit it is fairly painful and masochistic but when I eat a sublime Pappardelle al Cinghiale in a tiny Tuscan town, all is forgiven and I am ready to do it all over again. Apart from the gustatory ecstasy, going to local favourites provides an insight into real life away from the tourist beat. If I had not eaten at da Mario or Il Latini inFlorence, I would have missed the small town friendliness, unexpected amongst its architectural grandeur.
But back to basics! The food I know best is the Kerala cuisine I grew up on, more specifically Kerala Syrian Christian cuisine. Though we lived in different Indian cities while growing up, the food on the table harked back to our heritage. As kids we took Amma’s effort to make meals tasty and interesting for granted and would yearn for pizza and noodles. But today when my siblings and I visit home, all we want is the food from our childhood.
Luckily, my parents live in Kerala now and Padmini Chechi remains their cook since the last three decades. So tasty food is easy to come by when I visit. The good news is that it’s not difficult to have a similar experience on your Kerala holiday. The best option would be to wangle an invitation for a home cooked meal. But if that’s not possible, take the time to check guidebooks or ask friends for recommendations. It’s worth it. You could also ask the concierge, receptionist or travel desk to refer a restaurant known for its local specialities. If you are not keen on small eateries, you should check out the Kerala speciality restaurants in the larger hotels rather than multi-cuisine restaurants.
To understand this delicious South Indian cuisine, it helps to know that Kerala has an abundance of spices like pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. For this reason alone, sea-faring traders like the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and English have visited it for over 2000 years. These foreign influences and availability of spices along with plentiful coconuts shaped the culinary map of Kerala. Though there are many regional variations, broadly Kerala cuisine can be divided into Christian, Malabar and Hindu vegetarian.
Let me take you through some of my favourite food. On Onam, Kerala’s harvest festival, we eat an elaborate “sadya”, a feast on a plantain leaf with only vegetarian dishes. There is usually kalan and olan (yogurt, coconut and vegetable combinations), thoran, pachadi, avial (vegetable and grated coconut melange) and banana chips. The feast usually ends with payasam, rice or lentils sweetened with sugar or jaggery (cane sugar molasses). The Syrian Christian community I belong to focuses mainly on fish and meat dishes. My must-haves here are the flavorful stews, delicate fish mollee, beef fried with tiny coconut slices and meen pollichattu (fish steamed with spices in a banana leaf).
For me, the most intriguing area of Kerala is the Malabar Coast since I have not visited much. Strongly influenced by Arab traders in the past, this region has an extensive range of meat and seafood dishes. The best-known ones are the biryani and porotta. Biryani is a rich one-pot meal with rice and meat cooked slowly with delicate aromatic spices and clarified butter. The Malabar porotta is a soft, layered flat bread made of refined wheat flour and eaten with spicy meat gravies. This region has a plethora of innovative creations like arikadukka, a labour intensive mussels dish involving steaming, stuffing AND frying or mutta-mala, a sweet made by dribbling egg yolk through a hole in a coconut shell into boiling sugar syrup. Whew!
As always, the hardest part of a post is knowing where to stop. I will end with a few time-tested restaurants famous for Kerala cuisine that I personally love.
Fort Kochi - Kayees for biryani, Taj Malabar’s open-air restaurant, Old Harbour Hotel and Old Courtyard for a European twist on Kerala food
Ernakulam – Grand Hotel, Frys Village, BTH (Sadya)
Alappuzha – freshly caught Karimeen Fish Fry on a houseboat stay.
Calicut - Zains, Sagar, Paragon, famous for its mutton biryani
Images credit: http://www.cghearth.com