Mushrooming food blogs on Malayali cuisine reveal a thriving network in cyberspace that goes beyond food, finds Esther Elias

Honey Sarah Naveen was newlywed and new to the kitchen when she moved to the United States in 2009. Her first cooking experiments were built on recipes inherited from her mother and grandmother. “They eyeballed ingredients. A little coriander here, some chilli there. I ended up with beef curry that had more coriander than chilli!” she says. After several successful tries, Honey began quantifying recipe ingredients and uploading them on her blog named Vazhayila. Soon memories of her childhood in Kerala appended the recipes, photographs were added and the number of blog followers rose. Today, Vazhayila is among the many top-notch Kerala cuisine blogs that average several lakh hits each month.

People prefer blogs over cookbooks because there’s a personal connection with the author, says Nashira Usef, who hails from Kochi and runs her blog Plateful from Doha. “I began the blog because people often think all there is to Indian cooking is butter chicken masala, and I wanted to introduce them to the rich cuisine of Kerala,” she says. Her posts walk readers through recipes with detailed tips, possible disasters and her own experience of putting the dish together. “I realised soon that people were looking for simple, every-day recipes that they could replicate. Basic thorans have received great response,” says Ria Mathew of Ria’s Collection. Her most popular post has been a 12-layered Chatti Pathiri, nicknamed the Malayali lasagne for its minced chicken stuffing soaked in coconut milk, a Malabar special.

There are entire blogs devoted to particular traditions of Kerala cooking such as Syrian Christian recipes, north-Malabar cuisine, Tamil Nadu-influenced Malayali food, etc. For instance, Nimmy Paul’s blog, Indian Kerala Food, focuses primarily on Syrian Christian cooking styles and is targeted at those alien to Kerala’s ingredients. “In my cooking classes, I do a series of recipes with one ingredient. For example, with coconut, there’s a thoran with grated coconut, avial with ground coconut and fish moily with coconut milk,” says Nimmy. Her husband V.J. Paul photographs her sessions and updates the blog.

Most food bloggers say the biggest attraction on their blogs have been their photographs of in-progress and finished cooking, often embellished with ingredients as props and shot in favourable lighting. Many bloggers have evolved into self-taught food stylists and photographers, besides blog design and coding experts themselves. They also have active Facebook pages on which they promote their latest work. “Creating a post takes several days. I shoot the ingredients at their freshest, then cook and make notes along the way, photograph during the day to avail of natural light and finally write the accompanying text which has an introduction to the dish and an anecdote,” says Rose M. of Magpie Recipes.

A quick glance at the comment sections on these Malayali food blogs will tell you of their immense popularity. Readers are primarily from the United States, UAE, Europe and India, since many Malayalis have migrated to these areas, says Honey. “In my recipes too, I ensure I use ingredients that will be easily available across the globe,” she says. Reader responses ask for the best ingredient and kitchen appliance brands, as well as talk of having tried out the recipes themselves, besides narrating their goof-ups. “I’ve had people who are entirely new to cooking, mail in and ask for detailed step-by step photographs of my cooking,” says Tina who runs Kaipunyam. “Many have sent me photographs of their version of my recipes, asking me what went wrong, or whether their food looks like mine did.”

What the comments don’t reveal is how well-connected the food blogging community is off-line as well, says Ria. “Like Julia Child who says, ‘People who love to eat are always the best people.’, I’ve made many amazing friends online from whom I have learnt much. It's also great to meet people, who have a common passion for food, in real life as well,” says Rose. Adds Ria, “Followers on my blog have known me from when I was a bachelorette, through my wedding and to my baby’s first birthday, often sending me gifts on special occasions even!”

Many times, the spin-offs have been monetary as well. Several bloggers earn such heavy traffic that advertisers have approached them for online space. Ria says she frequently does monthly giveaways where she sends readers across the globe sponsored goods at the end of online contests. Others have considered turning their blog lives into cookery books at the request of publishers. Although, the greatest pleasure, says Sarah, is creative satisfaction. “I began this blog to relive my days in Kerala. When readers say my work takes them down the memory lane too, that’s when I’m happiest.”

Birds of a feather

Besides their individual blogs, Kerala food bloggers congregate on common platforms such as The Kerala Kitchen. Begun by Ria Mathew and Rose M., the club hosts monthly bloggers’ events where all participants cook the same dish or share recipes on a particular cuisine. The online community which is also present on Facebook has become a onestop forum for bloggers to find and exchange Kerala recipes, as well as for readers to upload photos, ask questions and discuss food with like-minded people, says Rose.B