Although most of Kerala recipes use a standard set of spices and ingredients, each dish has a distinct flavour. The Reluctant Gourmet takes a tour through the region's spices and styles, recipes and revisitations. If you simply enjoy food and dining, and all the drama built around both, this weekly column could be your new best friend.

Kerala is irresistibly easy to fit into a postcard for tourists. But the truth is air-conditioned houseboat kitchens and tourist shacks on the beach selling picturesque fried fish are a world away from local Kerala cooking. For that, you need to turn native. Eat gently sizzling chicken served with flaky parathas at roadside stalls. Molten, sweet banana enrobed in crisp batter at tea shops. Or get yourself invited to a Kerala home, where the century-old dining table groans under the weight of elaborate stews, home made pickles dried on the terrace and fish still fragrant with the smell of the waves.

Displaced Keralites all over the world tend to love setting up restaurants, and cooking food they’re familiar with. Their twitchy travelling feet and the aggressive marketing of Kerala as a tourist destination over the past decade or so have combined to make the State’s cuisine comfortably familiar. Orkut, the popular social networking site, even has communities dedicated to it, such as ‘Mallu grub, zimbly superb.’ Facebook, not to be outdone, features the group ‘Mallu babes – hot like your amma’s meen curry,’ a statement to both the State’s women and fish curry in one breath. Considering it has more than 800 members, amma must be dishing up one mean meen curry.

Different styles

Culinary skills and styles differ vastly from region to region. Moplah food, the vegetarian food of Thrissur and Palakkad and, of course, the food of the Syrian Christians. And though I’m valiantly trying to be unbiased, I can’t resist pointing out that Wikipedia states “marrying into a Syrian Christian home can be the best thing that can happen to a food lover.” Not surprisingly then, it’s the State’s best represented food, surfacing brazenly at every Kerala restaurant.

Although many restaurants do Kerala food, all of which are popular and crowded, most don’t really bother with more than the basics. The universal rule seems to be: keep it simple, keep it easy and, of course, keep it cheap. So what is usually served up, like in tourist Kerala, is a series of —usually — admittedly tasty clichés.

Actual Syrian Christian home cooking is rather different, and hasn’t changed much over the decades, probably because the entire community tends to follow the recipes of a handful of legendary women, primarily from Kottayam. The late Mrs K. M. Mathew, for one, who authored more than 20 best-selling books. In ‘Kerala Cookery’ she talks of how “cooking, to the older generation was almost a ritual… Utensils were earthenware or stoneware, ladles were wooden and storage was done in china jars.”

At my grandmother’s house, like in most traditional Kerala homes, for instance, spices are still ground on a hefty stone slab. Banana jam is stirred over a wood fire for hours, until it turns purple and fragrant. Red fish curry is made in a mud pot, and kept for a day so its flavour intensifies. All this isn’t considered exotic, or even particularly meticulous cooking. It’s just the way things are done.

Most of these recipes live on, in spite of pressure cookers, microwaves and takeaway menus: coconut flecked vegetable preparations with drumsticks, raw mango or jackfruit seeds; pickles made with fish, minced raw mango or meat. Or vattayapam, a spongy concoction of rice flour, toddy and grated coconut. Then there are the more painstaking preparations, like the elayappam, wrapped in a plantain leaf and filled with jaggery-drenched coconut, or the fudgy white halwa, made with thick milk, rice flour and molasses. And sweet homemade wines: rice, pineapple and grape.

There are, however, recipes that seem to be quietly fading away. My mother talks of summer holidays in the rubber plantations, and conical ‘kumbli appams,’ steamed in leaves picked from the forest, and bursting with sweet jackfruit pulp. I sneezed through a pile of dusty books before I found the recipe, calling for — again — rice flour, jaggery, coconut and fragrant ‘vazhana’ leaves.

Although most of these recipes use a standard set of spices and ingredients, each dish has a distinct flavour. That’s where careless Kerala cookery blunders: there’s the danger of every other dish becoming just a reckless flurry of curry leaves and coconut oil.

The good thing is, with this current obsession with authenticity, restaurants are revisiting old recipes. Otherwise only the most popular dishes might survive time. And imagine how boring that would be: a surfeit of lacy appams and red fish curry.

Chennai restaurateur Mahadevan — for instance — has made an attempt to find real Kerala with ‘Ente Keralam,’ which opened recently in Chennai. But that’s another column.

Keywords: kerala cuisine