Savouring coconut country
The ongoing Kerala food festival at ITC Hotel Windsor Sheraton and Towers' Dakshin Restaurant is more palatable for the export market, rather than those used to eating the perfect sadya in a Malayalee friend's home.
Toned down flavours from the land of spices Photos: K. Gopinathan
IF YOU imagine Kerala food as a composite cuisine distinguished by coconut oil, coconut milk, grated coconut, and coconut-curd gravies, think again. Even a taster meal at the ongoing Sadya food festival at the ITC Hotel Windsor Sheraton and Towers' Dakshin Restaurant (July 25 to August 3) makes culinary subtleties surface.
How? By showcasing "Kerala's culinary heritage with Mopala, Nasrani, Travancore, and Kuttanad cuisine," according to a press release from Kerala's Department of Tourism, which flagged off the food festival as part of its polished, unrelenting media blitz to hard-shell "God's Own Country". And that is despite the fact that at the end of the taster meal for the media, the distinctive character of each sub-cuisine remained hazy.
What flavours did it foreground? Our tongues began to tingle at the first bite of a dry shrimp-coconut-chilli chutney powder (chemmen chutney podi), which was irresistible, as was a grated raw mango chutney which left us with memorable spicy, tangy notes.
An adai followed, its ground lentils mixed with curry leaves and fried to golden crispness. And then came the high point of the starters konchu porichathu (Rs. 450). Would you like to guess at its goodness? Tiger prawns marinated in ginger and garlic, then fried to an exquisite tenderness, juicy at every bite. That made us wish for a second serving without a second thought.
The next arrivals on our banana leaf-lined silver thalis were a crisp thoran of carrot and beans, stir-fried with grated coconut (Rs. 225) and a tamarind-sour ulli theeyal (Rs. 225) of tiny sambar onions. The dishes were well done, but unremarkable.
What made us sit up and think with our tongues were the steamed idiappam (Rs. 75), thin rice noodles perfectly cooked with grated coconut, teamed with kozhi mappas (Rs. 300), or chicken cooked to succulence in coconut milk. The robust, rustic kappa (Rs. 75), tapioca done with onions and green chillies (known as the farmer's favourite) tasted just as good with Alleppey meen curry (Rs. 350), small slices of bekti fish swimming in a curry redolent of ground coriander and sour starfruit.
Our ever-ready palates were treated to lacy-edged, soft-centred, bowl-like appams (Rs. 75), with a very mild, coconut milk ishtoo (Rs. 225). Its Palakkad-style small potatoes lacked bite because its ginger component had failed to infuse the gravy enough. I have had superior versions with Malayali friends.
What we missed were all-time favourites like kalan, yam and raw banana cooked in a curd-coconut base and fresh-tasting seasonal avial (both Rs. 225) of vegetables enhanced with curds, coconut, and jeera. And unusual preparations like vazhakoombu thoran (Rs. 250) or banana flower cooked dry with coconut and curry leaves, or kaya-chena mezhukupuratti (Rs. 250) of yam and raw banana tossed with onions and green chillies in coconut oil.
The naranga rice (Rs. 125), a Kerala version of Karnataka's chitranna, proved to be a pale imitation, not really tangy enough or worth recall. The chamba rice (Rs. 75), described as "healthy and home-grown steamed rice", was not as rich or earthy to taste as red rice tends to be in its native state. Both the sambar and rasam, so impossible to go wrong with, did not leave a lasting impression. Could that be because we have grown used to home-cooked flavours?
Media tasters were denied the array of desserts or milk-based payasams that a traditional Kerala feast or sadya ends with. Longing for a jackfruit payasam or pazha prathaman (Rs. 150) of bananas cooked in jaggery and cardamom-imbued coconut milk, we had to content ourselves with a southern version of rice kheer.
Perhaps the tone of the food festival was set by the serviette-wrapped tender coconuts, garnished with sliced pineapple and cherry that we sipped from prior to the press meet on July 25. Was the food festival de-spiced and made palatable for the export market, already wooed by the exotic travel menu of backwaters, beaches and Ayurveda? If that was its intention, it tasted perfect. But for the home market, it could do with more authenticity. Or would we need to journey to Kerala for that?
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