Kerala is a state in the south west of India, known as the ‘Land of Spices’ due to its historical trading ties with Europe and many other ancient civilisations. Ingredients typically used in Indian cuisine, such as chillies, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, ginger, garlic, asafoetida, curry leaves, mustard seeds and cinnamon are all commonplace in Keralan dishes. However, due to the region’s diverse range of indigenous fruits and vegetables, the food experience here is a unique one. Plantains, bitter gourd, yams and ash gourd are just some examples of produce that won’t be found on the menu elsewhere on the Indian subcontinent, and although imports from the Americas include tomatoes and potatoes, these are used more sparingly in dishes. Abundant with coconuts that are grown locally, the grated white flesh and milk are widely used to flavour and thicken dishes, while tamarind, another popular additive, lends a characteristic tang to pickles and curries.
The main staple starches are rice and cassava, and meals range from simple rice porridge known as kanji, to full-on feasts called sadya, which translates as ‘banquet’ in Malayalam. These are meals of pure vegetarian food that comprise 20 courses or more, served on a banana leaf and accompanied with plain boiled rice. These feasts are traditionally cooked by men for weddings and other large celebrations and are consumed while sitting cross-legged on the floor and eaten with the right hand without cutlery.
Owing to its multi-religious society, the Keralan diet offers an abundance of vegetarian dishes that cater to Brahmin Hindus and other upper castes of Hinduism that don’t consume meat, while equally, influences from the Middle East, North India and Pakistan have widely contributed to the evolution of non-vegetarian dishes in the region, incorporating the use of eggs, mutton, beef and chicken, in addition to the staples of fish and seafood, due to Kerala’s vast coastline and numerous rivers.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this isn’t the place to explore the cuisine if you have a sweet tooth, although cold desserts are rare, and rather than being eaten post-dinner, they tend to be teatime snacks that are served warm. However, if you’re craving something a little more familiar, historical European influences will make you feel more at home, having contributed to the numerous bakeries dotted around the region. Here you’ll find the cream-filled pastries and yeast-leavened breads that are more common in the West.
There are many tasty breakfast options in Kerala but puttu and kadala curry is easily the most famed and most beloved dish. Puttu is a cylindrical-shaped rice cake layered with coconut, which tastes even better when dipped into kadala curry, made of black chickpeas, shallots, spices and coconut milk. Nothing better than that to wake you up each morning!
When craving a snack, look out for unnakai (also known as unnakaya, kai ada, unnakka and kai porichathu), which is a sweet and beloved dessert. Mashed plantain (a variety of banana) is used to make these tasty treats, which are rolled into patties and then stuffed with sweetened beaten egg, coconut, nuts, raisins and cardamom – the fillings can vary depending on what you like. Then, the spindle-shaped snack is deep fried before being devoured. You can also opt to top it with a sago-based white sauce for extra sweetness.
A signature dish of the state is Kerala prawn curry (chemmeen curry). Prawns are thrown into a flavourful concoction consisting of sautéed onions, green chilies, ginger, garlic and curry leaves mixed in with fiery turmeric, red Kashimiri chilli, coriander powder and tomatoes, before the coconut milk is added in for freshness and sweetness. Kudampuli (brindleberry) is also used to give it a bit more of a sour taste.
Indians are very fond of their tea and there’s nothing quite like sipping on tasty, thick masala chai morning, noon and night. The name translates into ‘mixed-spice tea’, a fitting name for this brew that is made from black tea mixed with aromatic Indian spices and herbs. Another of their popular refreshments is lassi, a traditional yoghurt-based drink that originally comes from the Punjab region but which is enjoyed throughout the country. Variants include mango lassi and sweet lassi, all refreshing in equal measure!
WHERE TO STAY
If you’re looking to learn the secrets to cooking this indigenous cuisine from the locals themselves, foodies will be hard pushed to find a better destination than Spice Village. Nestled within a lush green spice garden in Thekaddy, this is the ultimate destination for the eco-traveller. Amid the thatched cottage accommodation, which is complete with modern amenities, you’ll find the quaint restaurant Tiffin Room, which is reminiscent of a bygone era. The authentic cuisine is some of the freshest that you’ll sample, with the resort priding itself on locally sourced produce, obtained within a 50-mile radius. This is where you’ll also receive a culinary education with evening cooking classes showcasing fresh spices at their finest. INFO: Kumily Road, Periyar, Tamil Nadu, +91 4869 224 514, cghearth.com/spice-village
TOP 10 STREET FOODS TO TRY
Kerala’s very own traditional salad is made from chickpeas that have been soaked with salt overnight and then boiled the following day. They are then tossed in a pan with oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves and chillies and finished with a garnish of grated coconut.
These huge wafer-thin crispy pancakes are made from rice batter and black lentils, which are rolled and filled with vegetables or served with sambar, a lentil-based stew flavoured with tamarind. Coconut chutney and Indian pickles are also traditional accompaniments.
Akin to the much-loved dosa, these are thicker and more flexible, like American pancakes, with the same ingredients whipped up in a batter and flavoured with onions, tomatoes, chillies and capsicum that serve as a topping. Uttapams are often characterised as India’s answer to Italy’s pizzas and are a delicious street food treat.
4 Thattu Dosa
This is one of the region’s latest street-food trends, and is a combination of a dosa and an omelette. The batter is the same as for traditional dosas, but the difference is in the shape and size – thattu dosas are smaller and thicker. Add some veggies with sambar and coconut chutney for a tasty snack.
Yet another type of pancake, the batter is made with fermented rice batter and they have a spongy texture. Their bowl-shape make them ideal for adding a generous lump of coconut milk (with a touch of cardamom powder for extra flavour).
A deep-fried Indian bread mostly eaten for breakfast or as a snack. It’s a crispy, golden, puffed-up and airy bread, served with a plethora of accompaniments ranging from curries to vegetable dishes.
These savoury cakes or rice dumplings are about 5cm in diameter and are made from fermented black lentils and rice, which are first soaked separately for four hours and then ground to a fine paste before being mixed and left overnight. The next day, the batter mix is put into an idli tray and steamed. Due to their mild taste, idlis are always eaten with a condiment, the most common being sambar or chutney.
Doughnut craving? This is the local version but unlike glazed or sugar varieties, these are savoury with a spicy kick. Made from fermented black gram then seasoned with cumin seeds, onions, curry leaves and chilies, they are shaped into doughnuts and then deep-fried for an outer crisp crust and a light and fluffy centre.
This is the local rice-milk pudding, which constitutes an integral part of traditional meals in South India and doubles up as a tasty snack option. Rice is soaked for half an hour and then cooked in milk until soft. Then cardamom and sugar are added for sweetness. Cashew nuts and raisins are then sautéed into a heated ghee-filled pan, before being combined with the rice mixture. There are variants to payasam and sometimes vermicelli replaces the rice as the main ingredient.
A traditional stuffed sweet flatbread that is most popular during festival days. The filling, made usually from ground roasted groundnuts and jiggery, is stuffed into a dough ball and then flattened and fried in a pan.
2 ripe plantains (not too ripe, or it will get very messy)
FOR THE STUFFING
1 cup grated coconut
¼ cup cashews or almonds, chopped
A handful of raisins
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp sugar
¼ tsp ground cardamom
3 tbsp ghee or butter
Rice flour, if required
1 Steam the plantains with the skin on. Once cooked, remove from the heat and allow to cool completely.
2 Once cool, remove the skin and halve them. Remove all the black seeds within, using a spoon.
3 Mash the plantains using a potato masher until smooth and free of any lumps.
4 Knead into a soft dough using your hands. If the mixture feels too soft, add a couple of tablespoons o rice flour to stabilise it.
5 Grease the palms of your hands with ghee and roll small balls from the mixture, before flattening into patties with your palms. Set aside.
6 Next, make the stuffing. Heat a non-stick saucepan over a moderate heat. Add two tablespoons of ghee, the grated coconut and the sugar, stirring frequently until the coconut turns golden brown. Add the ground cardamom and beaten egg, mixing to scramble.
7 In a separate pan, fry the cashews and raisins in a tablespoon of ghee. Add the cashew and raisin mixture to the egg and coconut pan and mix everything thoroughly to combine. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
8 Place about a tablespoon of the stuffing mixture into the centre of each plantain patty. Bring up the sides of the patty to conceal the filling and mould into oblong shapes.
9 Deep fry the stuffed patties until golden and crisp on the outside. Allow to cool slightly before serving.
400g prawns, cleaned and deveined
¼ tsp mustard seeds
1 large onion, sliced
1 green chilli, halved lengthways
1 tbsp garlic and ginger purée
1 stem of curry leaves
¼ tsp turmeric powder
1½ tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
1½ tsp coriander powder
¾ tsp garam masala powder
1 large tomato, chopped
1 cup coconut milk
½ cup coconut cream
Salt, to taste
3 tbsp sunflower oil
1 Heat the sunflower oil in a pan set over a high heat. Add the mustard seeds and cover the pan. Wait until you hear the seeds popping rapidly and the fragrance is released (don’t wait too long or they’ll burn, which will result in a bitter curry).
2 Add the onions, green chillies, ginger and garlic purée and curry leaves
3 Sauté until the onions turn golden brown.
4 Reduce the flame to low. Add the turmeric powder, Kashmiri chilli powder, coriander powder and ½ tsp garam masala powder.
5 Fry for about 30 seconds, stirring continuously.
6 Add the chopped tomatoes and mix well.
7 Cook until the tomatoes turn mushy and the masala starts to come away from the sides of the pan
8 Add the prawns and salt to taste. Mix well to coat.
9 Add the coconut milk and stir well. Cover and cook for about 12 to 15 minutes or until the prawns are tender.
10 Add the coconut cream and stir through. Allow the curry to come to the boil for about two minutes. Remove from the heat and sprinkle over ¼ teaspoon of garam masala. Mix through one last time before serving.
HOW TO BOOK
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