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Meals from God's own country

There is a lot that goes in the making of authentic food from Kerala; search for original spices and people preserving the tradition. SUMITRA SENAPATY tastes the same at The Oberoi's Kandahar and returns with interesting tales too... .

Tempting Kerala delicacies on offer at the Kandahar.

EVER WONDER just where some of your favourite delicacies come from? And how they get to the table? Join intrepid The Oberoi Chef Suresh Vaidyanathan who is hot on the trail of traditional Kerala food, visiting, observing and collecting age-old recipes from grandmothers, housewives and cooks.

The ongoing Kerala Food Festival at hotel's restaurant, Kandahar, is an experience emanating from the chef's exotic Calicut culinary journeys - from the spicy marinated Alleppy grilled fish to the North-Kerala Malabar biryani to the Travancore curd curry and the Trichur rice kheer. Here you will follow these typical preparations and many others, around the backwaters, before they finally land in the kitchens of creative, modern day chefs like Vaidyanathan, who turn them into culinary masterpieces. Simplicity, loads of flavour, fresh ingredients freshly ground and food served in earthenware utensils are some of the aspects that particularly impressed this Palghat Iyer chef from God's own country. In Kerala he noticed that the spices are slightly sautéed to retain taste and juices instead of being fried till dark golden brown. Marinating the fish also seems to be a significant stage of cooking, generally with a paste of tamarind water, red chilly, onion, ginger and garlic. Fiery red Kerala curries denotes the use of `badge' chillies that bring about vibrant colour, but are not so hot to taste.

Through a network of friends, he even manages to accompany the Moplah women in purdah to the local markets to observe their selection of spices and fish. Attending Moplah cultural dances seem to add to his knowledge of their traditional cuisine. Cooking seems to be quite a relaxed event in the villages. Women venture out into the little kitchen garden to pick some mangoes, and curry leaves from the garden. Roasted coriander seeds and black peppercorns are mixed with fresh ground turmeric, while strips of chicken breast are fried along with mustard seeds, garlic and fresh ginger. Freshly squeezed coconut milk and ground spices are added to the chicken. Finally cubes of sweet juicy mango and fragrant curry leaves are put in before the family sits down to eat.

The Moplah women, who have just demonstrated their skills, also offer a mouth-tingling array of food items. Besides the famous Malabar biryani, fine as the Calicut muslin handkerchiefs, are the pathiri or rice phulka, made from rice flour, also the appams and iddiappams served with fiery fish curries and typical Kerala tapioca chips and Malabar parathas. Chef Suresh also takes us through central Kerala, where temple meals are served to the devout and faithful. Strictly vegetarian, these meals are prepared without any onion or garlic. A visit to the `Gramam' near Palghat reveals a unique system - a row of 25 houses all connected to each other by a single window, wherein the housewife has access to her neighbour's kitchens. So, unexpected guests are no hassle, all she has to do is to give a shout through the `window network' and help arrives in the form of food preparations!

The sweets are another story, all by themselves, from thin rice cakes with jaggery and coconut milk, caramelised bananas with fresh coconut and the delectable rice and coconut desert in banana leaves. But a trip to Kerala would be necessary to savour the rich Calicut halwa, of which recipe and know-how seems to have survived till today, but is made only on rare festive occasions. Made at extremely high temperatures, the fermented flour dough is passed through a fine muslin cloth and dipped in boiling sugar syrup. The thread connecting these anecdotes together is Chef Suresh's quest for culinary perfection: does it exist? Is it possible? How is it even measurable? Vaidyanathan does indeed stumble onto the realisation of his high-minded ideal, serving up a palatable conclusion for foodies equally obsessed with the perfect meal.

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