Day breaks in Kuttanad in Alleppey, a village in Kerala in southern India, famed for its tranquil backwaters. Fifty-seven-year-old Deepa bends over a stove, stirring a cast iron pot. Around her are a myriad jars of spices and condiments. She’s busy preparing chicken stew and appams, a quintessential Kerala breakfast. Outside the kitchen window, you see golden brown paddy fields ready for harvest at the end of the long Indian monsoon.
“Like every girl in Kerala, I learned the art of cooking from my mother,” says Deepa, looking up from the pot; vapours fill the kitchen, delighting the senses. “We receive guests from all over the world in our home. I enjoy listening to their stories. Sometimes, they join me in the kitchen or ask for recipes to take back home. And so, we all take something.”
Homestays are a great way to experience local cuisine. Like Deepa, the people of Kerala welcome guests with open arms and hearty meals!
Centuries before Deepa and her guests, the Arabs, Sumerians, and Babylonians also regularly traded spices and stories with local kings as early as the 3 CE. Kerala’s cuisine has been marinated in this rich, spicy past, blended in cultures from the Portuguese, the Dutch, Arabs and Jews. Every dish tells a story of the rich history of this sliver of a state in southern India, making it a culinary destination for global foodies.
“Kerala’s cuisine is not singular,” says Akash Gopinathan, culinary expert and lecturer at the prestigious Institute of Hotel Management. “While distinctions may be blurred today, the cuisine comprises three distinct varieties,” he elaborates.
The Moplah-Malabar cuisine of the Muslims in the northern regions, influenced by the Arabs, the Syrian Christian cuisine of central Kerala with its Portuguese influences, and the predominantly vegetarian Travancore Hindu cuisine of the Brahmins in the south make up the three regional styles of food.
Begin your gastronomical journey at a chaayakada – the local tea shop with a meter chai. The sight of tea (chai) repeatedly poured from one cup held high above the head into another held a meter below is guaranteed to keep you spellbound.
Kerala’s breakfasts have been adjudged as one of the best in the world by Travel and Leisure, and for good reason. From soft idiyappam served with spicy egg curry in the Syrian Christian style to idlis, a steamed rice cake eaten with sambar, a tangy, spicy soup and coconut chutney, to log-shaped puttus, made by steaming roasted rice flour and fresh coconut, with thick flavourful kadala curry made from chickpeas, there’s much to try!
During the day, snack on pazham pori – ripe banana fritters that are a favourite of all Malayalees. Or munch fried banana or tapioca chips – Kerala’s crispy delight. A warning – once begun it’s hard to stop!
End your morning with a power lunch where you will be spoiled for choice. Start with the Nadan Kozhi Varuthathu, a crispy, spicy fried chicken and mouthwatering beef fry – beef cubes roasted in coconut and spices. The Thalassery biryani, a fragrant rice with mutton, chicken, or fish and loads of spices, competes with the Malabar style biriyani, which uses short-grained rice focusing on fragrance rather than spice. Or how about the Portuguese-influenced delectable pork vindaloo – a spicy pork dish with vinegar and chillies, not for the faint of heart or constitution!
Later, walk along Mittai Theruvu, or Sweetmeat Street in Kozhikode, where the Gujarati sweetmeat makers first set up shop back in the days of the Zamorin rule. The Kozhikode halwa – a colourful sweet loaded with cashews, almonds and pistachios, is to die for.
For dinner, step into a thattukada or roadside eatery for Kappa Meen Curry, boiled tapioca (kappa) with spicy and flavourful fish curry (meen) that goes with boiled rice or parottas.
“For a decadent end to your day, go for Ada Pradhaman,” says Gopinathan. This dessert, made from rice flour, coconut milk, and jaggery, comes from the Travancore cuisine of the south and is prepared in every Keralite home for the festival of Onam.
Foodies who love to cook, don’t hesitate to ask your homestay host for tips on cooking the Kerala way. What better way to re-live your vacation than cooking some of these flavourful dishes back home?
Nimmy Variamparambil has passionately shared her knowledge with her guests in Kochi for over 20 years. Nimmy believes food is a reflection of your personality. Her guests come from Europe, Japan, and the US to learn about the hot cuisine and return with warm tales about life.
“I do not share recipes,” she says, “recipes can easily be learnt on YouTube. Around my kitchen table, we talk about family, culture, and life and, of course, learn to cook!”
Every Keralite has a favourite dish. For Nimmy, it’s the Alleppey fish curry. “Oh, and the prawn pepper stir fry,” she adds.
With so much on offer, visitors are spoilt for choice. Every day you spend in this savoury state is a gastronomical delight. So, if you’re a foodie looking for an adventure, come to Kerala – God’s Own Country, and indulge in its delectable cuisine!