My earliest memory is about food: in all forms, almost all the places I know. The three years that hold the most entrenched memories of food in my life were the first three years I spent with my grandmother in Kerala. Hot piles of fat boiled rice with fiery fish curry at home. My legs would be against a wall as I sang along A.R. Rahman songs (‘Muqala, Muqabla…’) while waiting for the bells of the peanut vendor. I would rush in munching on the peanut brittle candy: eager not to fill my belly with such snacks. Kanji and payar (rice gruel and smashed lentils) at the Anganwadi was what I looked forward to. A simple meal, but it was sublime. All kinds of chips – banana, jackfruit, yam and tapioca prepared by my countless aunts were enough to keep hunger away.
If the neighbors made fish curry, I was there with my nose up, sniffing in the spicy, tangy, glorious air. I was the ‘neighborhood cat’. I’d enter their kitchens for fish and slip out with stolen hot crunchy pappadums (fried cousins of the khakhra) fresh out of the wok, teary-eyed as I would not let them go even when they burned my small palms. I would wolf them down by twos or threes, till I had to be shooed away by my mother.
Through all these memories, what stood out is that Kerala does not discriminate against picky eaters. The cuisine being linked to its geography, history, demography, and culture is diverse – Mappila cuisine, Syrian-Catholic food complimented by the traditional smorgasbord of vegetarian delicacies found in the traditional Hindu sadya.
Historically influenced by the visits of the Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, Roman, and Greek traders to the port towns, the array of dishes are numerous and the styles of cooking are aplenty. Local ingredients like rice, coconut, pepper and spices also play a crucial role in how similar preparations stand apart from the rest of the region.
Malayalis embrace rice as their staple food. Apart from rice, coconut features as a constant: it is used for its meat or flesh, water, milk and oil. How these and other ingredients used in the cuisine to deliver a plethora of dishes is actually quite magical.
Appam, idiyappam, puttu (fermented rice pancakes and hoppers) are the bread and butter equivalents. Kappa (tapioca, a root vegetable) is consumed with vigor – either steamed and eaten with mouth-numbing bird’s eye chilli chutney or maybe mashed and cooked tinged yellow with turmeric, chilli, and to be eaten with hot fish or meat gravies.
Vegetables are eaten with as much gusto as meat and fish; thoran (chopped and stir-fried vegetables with coconut), pachadi (raita of sorts), avial (mashed up roots and vegetables with a coconut base) are a few ways to prepare them.
Meanwhile, snacking is a state past-time. The sweet smell of pazhampori (fried plantain fritters) – its crisp exterior giving way to a piping hot over-ripe plantain as its core, parippuvada (fried lentil discs), suhyan (a distant cousin of modak) and bonda (fried banana dough balls)are drool-worthy. Steamed snacks are a class of their own. Kozhukkata, dumplings filled with fresh coconut and jaggery and kumbilappam, banana-wheat-jaggery dough stuffed in bay leaf cones have such distinct flavors when steamed, it belies the simple ingredients used.
At its core, this cuisine keeps you wanting more. Through its all-embracing nature, Kerala cuisine has a bit for everyone. So next time, come on board and try all that the state has to offer!