Kerala is at a similar latitude to south east Asia and touching down in Trivandrum (or the post-colonial Thiruvanananthapuram if you like a tongue-twister), the state capital, with its dusty potholed-roads, banana trees, motorbike ricksaws and the stylised script gracing shop fronts you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh. A quick glance at the people though, the gentleman in their mundus and lungis and the elegant, colourful shalwar kameez of the ladies, remind me that I’ve left the familiar oriental region and headed somewhere new.
Whilst the population may differ the crops don’t and leaving the confines of the city, heading into the region's backwaters, one is soon surrounded by coconut palms and rice paddies and these crops are reflected in the cuisine, the reason I have come to this part of the country. India is a vast country though, spanning a good 2,500 miles north to south and the southerners take full advantage of this with wheat from the north also prominent in their cooking. No meal better shows the use of local and the non-local grains side by side than the first of the day.
On the Keralan breakfast table rice is transformed into a number of flatbreads – liquidised into batter the previous evening the overnight fermentation lends a sour twang to the huge, paper like dosai. This same batter, sometimes with the addition of curd, is poured thicker to create uthappam, served plain or sprinkled with onions, tomatoes or both. Another version called appam is thicker in the middle, thin and lacey around the edge. This fermented
batter isn’t only cooked on the tawa (griddle) though, poured into egg poacher-like steamers the bubbles provide lift, creating the tender idli with a texture not unlike the middle of a soft white loaf. The wheat of the north is ground into white flour and made into a simple unleavened dough which is skilfully stretched, swung, rolled and twisted – oiled at every stage – into the delightfully layered porotta, the slightly chewier forefathers of the Malaysian Roti Canai. Whole-wheat flour is turned into chappatis and their deep fried, pillow-like puri.
Whilst there is a broad array of carbohydrates the accompaniments are much narrower as all are served with coconut chutney and sambar, the local thin vegetable and lentil curry fresh with the flavour of tamarind. This is India so you eat with your hands, and only one of them too, the locals pinning the bread to tray with their middle and index fingers whilst the thumb and ring finger deftly tear lumps off from under their palms. The few tourists ignore the no left hand rule or at least try not to break it through the sneaky use of an elbow.
Whilst the breakfasts were a highlight, what had drawn me to the region were the vegetarian dishes I’d tasted in the south Indian restaurants of London, lightly spiced and heavy on coconut. Our first meal didn’t disappoint as we squashed our way onto a communal canteen table, the only white faces in a sea of locals digging into cheap vegetarian thalis, or Kerala meals as they were called in many places. Metal trays were slapped down in front of us, quickly followed by a ladleful of rice from a communal dish hanging from a waiter’s arm. A few small metal dishes followed, one containing lime pickle, two more the aforementioned sambar and coconut , something sour, something yoghurty and a payasam –semolina and sweet milk – for dessert. The meal still wasn’t complete though, finished by two more staff, one depositing a poppadom and the other the dishes I had been waiting for – the first a cabbage thoran (a dry stir-fry with coconut and vegetable), the second the bright colour of diced beetroot, yet more coconut and the crunch of fried urad dal. Taking our queue from the locals, who now seemed more interested in us than their dinners, we crushed our poppadoms onto the rice, pouring on the sambar and mixed it all through - with the fingers obviously. Far easier than tearing the bread one-handed but the sloppy handfuls from table to mouth more alien to our Western upbringing.
It was here that we hit a wall with our Keralan ordering, or the dishes I was familiar with anyway. Wanting to be more picky in what we ate we left the cheap vegetarian hotels (a term also used for places that just served food) and headed to restaurants with menus, hoping to order things by name rather than taking potluck on the ladle. Looking at menus though everything was new to me, what I thought was Keralan food wasn’t in sight and I was confronted with chicken 65, garlic chicken, ginger chicken, beef and chicken fry. The thorans we’d just enjoyed were not present in the vegetarian section, replaced with peas curry, peas roast, vegetable curry and vegetable roast alongside things more familiar from home - paneer muttar, aloo gobi and bhindi masala - the same transport that brought the wheat from the north also bringing
recipes from there too. This isn’t to say the food wasn’t fantastic or interesting, chicken 65 – a vinegar and chilli batter coated snack from Chennai – ended up as one of the highlights of the trip and before I investigated the heritage of dry dishes of beef and chicken fry - simply cooked with chilli and onion - I hadn’t really thought of Kerala’s Syrian Christian community, known it existed even. I was also happy to learn that ginger and garlic chicken were both Chinese in origin, adopted by the Indians and given a local twist, which also explained the fried noodles. Where was the food that I thought I’d be able to order though?
A trip through the backwaters on a houseboat started to unravel the mystery as the home-style dishes we were dished up, as well as being arguably the best food we had, were Kerala through and through: cabbage thoran, lightly spiced with mustard seed and turmeric, was joined by okra thoran and another of green beans. Firm steaks of fish were marinated red and deep fried, topped with raw red onion and the fried curry leaves so common to the south’s food. This was cheap, local food drawing on the local ingredients, the stuff served up at home or in a working mens’ hotels and stirred into rice with fingers, not the food you ordered by name from a menu, well not in our experience anyway. Throughout the remainder of the trip, whenever we fancied the crunch of lightly cooked vegetables and sweet coconut we headed to a vegetarian hotel, washed our hands in the communal sink and were guaranteed a ladleful of at least one would make it onto our partitioned metal tray.
Kerala is not only famous for its vegetarian food though, sat long and thin down the south west edge of India it has a vast coast with the Arabian sea. Its backwaters – separated from the sea by narrow banks of coconut palms - are loaded with large fishing boats that come night fall set off into the ocean to trawl. The backwaters aren’t just a day time parking lot for the boats either, their saltwater is full of fish and their edges are lined with huge cantilevers, Chinese fishing nets, that are lowered into the water at dusk to catch whatever happens to swim by. Small boats also ply them, throwing nets or diving for shellfish.
In the travellers haven of Fort Cochin fishmongers set up by the Chinese fishing nets and you can buy the days fish and shellfish then pay a 100 rupees for local stalls to grill it for you. Huge prawns, weighing over 400gr each and stretching over half a metre from toe to tail, come it at 600 rupees, or £9, a kilo - similar crustaceans were £45/kg last time I saw them for sale here. Tucking into the body the meat was the equal of any lobster even if the size was a little disappointing for such a vast beast, braving the spikey legs though – all 50cm of them – yielded at least a normal king prawn’s worth of meat for each of their four sections.
Cochin was also the first place whose restaurants offered some Keralan classic fish dishes, even if their pandering to the adventurously-challenged visitors meant they shared the menu with attempts at Western food. Fish molee was tasty and more delicate than expected, steaks of firm fleshed fish and slices of tomato simmered in a lightly spiced coconut milk base. Fish fry took the same firm fleshed fish, coating it in a fiery paste of chilli powder, spices and vinegar (not unlike a chicken 65), and fried till crisp but tender. Fish pollichathu wrapped the fish and spices in banana leaves before grilling, the leaf protecting from the heat and keeping everything inside beautifully moist.
The food-related interest in this port town didn’t end with the restaurants though. Once capital of the Indian spice trade it stills sports some large spice warehouses that any rikshaw driver will take you to, the owners happy for you to wonder between the sacks of spices whilst they go about their daily work. The smell was intoxicating, sackfuls of vanilla pods vying with similar quantities of star anise, cumin, fennel and any other spice you could think of. Another room brought more cassia bark than I’ve ever seen, stacked in boxes floor to double height ceiling, literally 15 foot high of Chinese cinnamon, some lower boxes splitting under the weight. I’d rued the missed opportunity when I walked past a small flour processing mill in Trivandrum but another request of our driver found us at this cottage industry, a small shop front laden with bags of chappati, white and rice flour hid a hive of manufacturing activity behind. The mill worker ecstatic that we took interest in his daily job, walking us through room upon room of different machines, one
grinding and bagging turmeric, another brown rice flour, him passing us a pole and encouraging us to get involved. I’m not sure who had the biggest grins by the time we left. Winding through the streets on the way back to our hotel brought something of interest on every turn, a stall overflowing with bananas – green, yellow and red – or ladies sat on the pavement rolling poppadoms and laying them out to dry in the sun.
Heading inland and into the clouds of Munnar you arrive at a land of tea and spice plantations, the altitude bringing the temperature down and the moisture up, just what these plants want. As far as the eye can see was a mosaic of rich green, spotted with tea pickers and the egg-shell blue of their villages. Supplied free of charge by the plantation owners the accommodation, small or not, is a welcome perk to supplement the 6 rupees a kilo they earn when picking tea, averaging 21 kilos a day the 126 rupees (£2) doesn’t go too far. We learned around a thousand wild elephants lived in the nearby forests and are regularly seen amongst the tea when they come out in search of food, the closest we got to seeing them was dung and flattened grass though. In town the culinary highlight was a restaurant that eschewed the usual metal plates or trays in favour of banana leaves, the sambar and coconut chutney poured directly onto the green leaves to join huge dosai and the doughnut-like vada, made from ground lentils then deep-fried.
Our final destination was Varkala, one of Kerala’s main resorts which for many is all they will see of this state on their trip. All along the cliff-top come evening the restaurants fill stands with ice and lay out beautifully fresh fish – bright eyed and red gilled pomfret, sear and king fish are staples with the occasional impressive guest, a 1.5 metre sail fish or large barracuda that steaks are cut from. What should be heaven is marred by a look at the preparations on offer. There’s not a molee or pollichathu in sight, or the opportunity to have it in a local curry. Instead we’re offered it with garlic butter or cooked on the tandoor, tasty and Indian but not an India anywhere near here.
To add insult to injury they’re served with chips and buttered vegetables and share the menu with pizza and pasta. The same happens at breakfast, it’s far easier to find a low-grade French toast or croissant than it is the life-affirming dosai and porotta. I found it quite upsetting and by the end of our few days relaxation here I was taking rikshaws into town for my breakfast, the transport there and back costing more than the meal but worth every rupee.
With the trip at an end we just had time for an afternoon in Trivandrum, desperate to immerse ourselves one last time in Keralan life and, more importantly for me, Keralan food after the last few days of global tourism. A tray of rice, sloppy with sambar, crunchy with thoran and eaten with the fingers was just the ticket.