Secrets of the Kerala kitchen

Theresa Varghese, author of 'Cuisine Kerala'   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Evocative photographs of food and cooking never fail to whet the appetite. And showcasing the cuisine of a state like Kerala, seasoned by flavours brought in by trade winds from different parts of the world, is not an easy one. Cuisine Kerala attempts to do that by trying to discover spice routes that have made the cuisine what it is today.

Bengaluru-settled Theresa Varghese traversed the length and breadth of Kerala and traced the many paths that brought in the different ingredients that have gone into the melting pot of the Malayali. From the simple and pristine vegetarian fare of Kerala Brahmins to the painstaking cooking of the Moplahs of Malabar, the book is a ready reckoner of the food in Kerala.

“I enjoy reading about the history and culture of food and have always wanted to write about the food of my childhood. So when I finished working on a tourism-oriented book called Kerala (published in 2006) for Stark World, I put forth my proposal to the publishers, detailing every section comprehensively,” says the author and epicure in an e-mail interview.

It took her six months to complete the research on the book, which broadly divides the cuisine on the basis of communities. At the end of her research and travels, what impressed her was the “Malayli-ness of the people. Whichever region, whatever the religion, caste or economic background, there is a common ethos across the state. I believe this cohesiveness among the people stems from a connection with each other due to the language. The only other place I have seen something similar is in West Bengal.”

There are some interesting additions like food trends, a chapter on how many Malayalis, especially those living in suburban areas, still turn to their backyards and kitchen gardens for certain vegetables, curry leaves, banana leaves; a section on feasts and so on. Tantalising glimpses of cuisines of communities who came to trade but stayed on in Kerala is an interesting read.

“North Kerala was a revelation; my holidays to Kerala meant the central and southern parts. I made contacts that I tapped for this book. My own familiarity with the cuisine and its ingredients meant that the research was much more than an academic experience,” says the author. She feels that it was also the most difficult to write about as she had “little knowledge about Moplah cuisine. So I really had to research and talk a lot more to people for the section ‘Food of the Moplahs.’”

Snippets of interesting information garnish the main serving of the historical and socio-economic patterns that have had a decisive influence on the food of Keralites. For instance, there is a mention about how Malayalis are fastidious about the kind of plantain they use for different dishes and events. Now that is inside information that can only come from an author who has a close connection with the food of the region.

“Ah, the humble banana! I myself am not choosy but have met enough people who have waxed eloquent on this fruit so I know how important choosing a variety is for the Malayali,” she adds.

However, the popular kappa (tapioca) has been relegated to a side table while the vivid and spicy fare of erstwhile southern Travancore is conspicuous by its absence. “I did not go into specifics such as coastal cuisine as my focus was on the three main ones [read Central Travancore, parts of Kochi and Malabar]. This allowed me to write about the religious and historical backgrounds, which was the premise of the book.”

The other end of the spectrum is a chapter on ‘global yet local’ food that brings new flavours to the Malayali’s platter. Theresa says when she wrote that chapter, her focus was on showing how despite tourism being such a major income earner, people had not changed either their lifestyle or food habits to cater to outsiders. “I think Kerala was a front runner in serving ‘ethnic cuisine’ without dressing it up to suit foreign palates. Now, of course, travellers everywhere want to experience local food but that wasn’t the case 25-odd years ago when tourism made inroads into Kerala.”

At the end of the day, the gourmet avers that she does not have a favourite cuisine among the ones in Kerala. “But I do have a leaning towards certain dishes such as appam and fish curry, aviyal, ulli theeyal… At home my cooking is eclectic but my comfort food remains parippu curry and kadukumanga achar, with rice.”

Signature dishes

Recipes of certain dishes and drinks unique to Kerala have been included in the book published by Stark Publications. The suggestion to add recipes came from the publishers. “Once the main text was done, I made a list of recipes that would relate to the text, keeping in mind signature dishes of each community. Then began the arduous task of getting experts to provide written recipes. Sometimes, people I interviewed during my research gave pointers on who could best showcase the community’s recipes.”

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 2:37:07 AM |

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