The cuisine of Kerala is linked in all its richness to the history, geography, demography and culture of the land. Since many of Kerala's Hindus are vegetarian by religion, and because Kerala has large minorities of Muslims and Christians that are predominantly non-vegetarians, Kerala cuisine has a multitude of both vegetarian and dishes prepared using fish, poultry and meat.
For over 2000 years, Kerala has been visited by ocean-goers, including traders from Greece, Rome, the eastern Mediterranean, Arab countries, and Europe. Thus, Kerala cuisine is a blend of indigenous dishes and foreign dishes adapted to Kerala tastes. Coconuts grow in abundance in Kerala, and consequently, grated coconut and coconut milk are widely used in dishes and curries as a thickener and flavouring ingredient. Kerala's long coastline, numerous rivers and backwater networks, and strong fishing industry have contributed to many sea- and river-food based dishes. Rice is grown in abundance, and could be said, along with tapioca (manioc/cassava), to be the main starch ingredient used in Kerala food. Having been a major production area of spices for thousands of years, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon play a large part in its food.
The unusual cuisine of Kerala brings to the fore the culinary expertise of the people of Kerala. Producing some of the tastiest foods on earth, the people of Kerala are gourmets with a difference.
The cuisine is very hot and spicy and offers several gastronomic opportunities. The food is generally fresh, aromatic and flavoured. Keralites are mostly fish-and-rice eating people.
The land and the food are rich with coconut, though one can't imagine Kerala food without chilies, curry leaf, mustard seed, tamarind and asafoetida.
Just a pinchful of tamarind can substitute tomatoes, but there is no real substitute for curry leaf. Since time immemorial, coconut has been an integral part of the cuisine of Kerala.
These people put to good use whatever the land offers and the result is a marvellous cuisine that is simple yet palate tickling. They relish equally a dish as simple as 'kanji' (rice gruel) or as extravagant as the 'sadya' (feast).
The Tangy Rasam
The hot Rasam, served after a delectable array of sweets, is a tangy deviation from the symphony of tastes and is poured on another serving of rice. The famous British 'Mulligatawny Soup' is said to have derived its flavour from Rasam.
Rasam is a mixture of chilly and pepper corns powders boiled in diluted tamarind juice. The pulissery is seasoned buttermilk with turmeric powder and green chillies. 'Moru' or plain sour buttermilk comes salted and with chopped green chillies and ginger.
Appam is the soft pancake made from toddy fermented rice batter, with a soft spongy middle, which is laced with crispy edges. It is generally consumed with either vegetable or chicken or mutton stew, thoroughly mellowed with thick coconut milk and garnished with curry leaves.
A type of steam cake, 'Puttu' is made from rice flour and steamed in long hollow bamboo or metal cylinders. Depending on the taste preference, Puttu can be had with steamed bananas and sugar or with a spicy curry made from gram or chickpeas.
Tapioca And Fish Curry
A sumptuous, mouthwatering delicacy, it's a not- to- be-missed combination of 'Kappa' and 'Meen curry'. With natural flavours erupting out of it liberally, the fish curry is made with garlic paste, onions and red chillies and seasoned with mustard seeds and curry leaves.
The rich and irresistible desserts form an essential part of the meals. These are served midway through the meals.
Payasam is a thick fluid dish of brown molasses, coconut milk and spices, garnished with cashewnuts and raisins. There could be a succession of payasams, such as the lentil payasam and the jackfruit payasam, Bengal gram payasam and so on, though 'Adapradhaman', a rich payasam with thin rice wafers, is arguably the ultimate delicacy.
'Palppayasam', made with sugar, ghee and spices, brewed in creamy white milk is regarded as the last word in sweet dishes. This is served with a golden yellow sweet pancake known as 'boli'.
Historical and cultural influences
Pre-independence Kerala was split into the princely states of Travancore and Kochi in the south, and the Malabar district in the north; the erstwhile split is reflected in the recipes and cooking style of each area. Both Travancore and Malabar cuisine consists of a variety of vegetarian dishes using many vegetables and fruits that are not commonly used in curries elsewhere in India including plantains, bitter gourd ('paavaykka'), taro ('chena'), Colocasia ('chembu'), Ash gourd ('kumbalanga'), etc. However, their style of preparation and names of the prepares dishes may vary. Malabar has an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes such as pathiri (a sort of rice-based pancake, at times paired with a meat curry), porotta (a layered flatbread, said to come from South-East Asia), and the kerala variant of the popular biriyani, probably from Arab lands. Central Travancore region boasts of a parade of dishes that is largely identified with the Christians of the region.
In addition to historical diversity, the cultural influences, particularly the large percentages of Muslims and Syrian Christians (also see Syrian Christian Cuisine of Kerala) have also contributed unique dishes and styles to Kerala cuisine, especially non-vegetarian dishes. The meat eating habit of the people have been historically limited by religious taboos. Brahmins eschew non vegetarian items and Hindus historically do not eat beef. However, most of modern day Hindus do not observe any dietary taboos, except a few of those belonging to upper caste (Nambudiris, Nairs of Malabar). Muslims do not eat pork and other items forbidden by Islamic law.
Historically, Kerala had been a part of the Tamil-speaking area, and Tamilian influence is seen in the popularity of sambar, idli and dosa. European influence is reflected in the numerous bakeries selling cakes, cream horns, and Western-style yeast-leavened bread, and in Anglo-Indian cuisine. The import of potatoes, tomatoes, and chili peppers from the Americas led to their enthusiastic use in Kerala, although except for the ubiquitous peppers, the other ingredients are used more sparingly.
Spices in Kerala Cuisine
As with almost all Indian food, spices play an important part in Kerala cuisine. The main spices used are cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, green and red peppers, cloves, garlic, cumin seeds, coriander, turmeric, and so on. Few fresh herbs are used, unlike in European cuisine, and mainly consist of the commonly used curry leaf, and the occasional use of fresh coriander and mint. Tamarind, kodampuli (Garcinia Cambogia), and lime are used to make sauces sour, as sour sauces are very popular in Kerala. Sweet and sour dishes are however, rare, but exceptions like the ripe mango version of the pulissery and tamarind-jaggery-ginger chutney known as puliinji or injipuli are popular.
Kerala cuisine offers many delicious vegetarian breakfast dishes that are often relatively unknown outside the state. These include Puttu (made of rice powder and grated coconut, steamed in a metal or bamboo holder) and kadala (a curry made of black garbanzo beans chana), idli (fluffy rice pancakes), sambar, dosa and chutney, pidiyan, Idiyappam (string hoppers - also known as Noolputtu and Nool-Appam), Paal-Appam, a circular, fluffy, crisp-edged pancake made of rice flour fermented with a small amount of toddy or wine, etc. Idiyapam and Paalappam are accompanied by mutton, chicken or vegetable stew or a curry of beef or fish moli (the most common dish is black pomfret in a coconut based sauce).
LUNCH AND DINNER
The staple food of Kerala, like most South-Indian states, is rice. Unlike other states, however, many people in Kerala prefer parboiled rice (Choru) (rice made nutritious by boiling it with rice husk). Kanji (rice congee), a kind of rice porridge, is also popular. Tapioca, called kappa in Kerala, is popular in central Kerala and in the highlands, and is frequently eaten with fish curry.
Rice is usually consumed with one or more curries. Accompaniments with rice may include upperis (dry braised or sauteed vegetables), rasam, chips, and/or buttermilk (called moru). Vegetarian dinners usually consist of multiple courses, each involving rice, one main dish (usually sambar, rasam, puli-sherry), and one or more side-dishes. Kerala cooking uses coconut oil almost exclusively, although health concerns and cost have led to coconut oil being replaced to some extent by palm oil and vegetable oil.
Popular vegetarian dishes include sambar, aviyal, Kaalan, theeyal, thoran (dry curry), pulisherry (morozhichathu in Cochin and the Malabar region), olan, erisherry, puliinji, payaru (mung bean), kappa (tapioca), etc. Vegetarian dishes often consist of fresh spices that are liquefied and crushed to make a paste-like texture to dampen rice.
Common non-vegetarian dishes include stew (using chicken, beef, lamb, or fish), traditional or chicken curry (Nadan Kozhi Curry), chicken fry (Kozhi Porichathu/Varuthathu), fish/chicken/mutton molly(fish or meat in light gravy), fish curry (Meen Curry), fish fry (Karimeen Porichathu/Varuthathu), lobster fry (Konchu Varuthathu), Spicy Beef Fry (Beef Ularthiyathu), Spicy Steamed Fish (Meen Pollichathu) etc. Biriyani, a Mughal dish consists of rice cooked along with meat, onions, chillies and other spices.
Although rice and tapioca may be considered the original Kerala starch staples, wheat, in the form of chappatis or parathas (known as porottas in Kerala), is now very commonly eaten, especially at dinner time. Numerous little streetside vendors offer an oily parathas (akin to the croissant in its flakiness and oiliness) with meat, egg, or vegetable curry for dinner. Grains such as ragi and millet, although common in the arid parts of South India, have not gained a foothold in Kerala.
Kerala is known for its traditional banquet or sadhya, a vegetarian meal served with boiled rice and a host of side-dishes served especially during special occasions and festivals. The sadhya is complemented by payasam, a sweet dessert native to Kerala. The sadhya is, as per custom, served on a banana leaf, and is a formal-style meal with three or more courses of rice with a side-dish (usually sambar, rasam, buttermilk, etc.). In south Kerala the Payasam in followed by more (butter milk). Whereas in North Kerala it is considered to be the last dish to be served. A typical sadhya would have
SWEETS AND DESSERTS
Due to limited influence of Arab & Central Asian food on Kerala, the use of sweets is not as widespread as in North India. Kerala does not have any indigenous cold desserts, but hot/warm desserts are popular. The most popular example is undoubtedly the payasam: a preparation of milk, coconut extract, sugar, cashews, dry grapes, etc. Payasam can be made with many base constituents, including Paal payasam (made from rice), Ada payasam (with Ada, a flat form of rice), Paripu payasam (made from dal), Pazham pradhamam (made from banana), Gothambu payasam (made from wheat) etc. Ada payasam is especially popular during the festival of Onam. Most payasams can also be consumed chilled. Jaggery or molasses is a common sweetening ingredient, although white sugar is gaining ground. Fruit, especially the small yellow bananas, are often eaten after a meal or at any time of the day. Plantains, uncooked or steamed, are popularly eaten for breakfast or tea.
Other popular sweets include Unniappam (a fried banana bread), pazham-pori (plantain slices covered with a fried crust made of sweetened flour), and kozhukkatta (rice dumplings stuffed with a sweet mixture of molasses, coconut etc.). Cakes, ice-creams, cookies and puddings are equally common. Generally, except for payasam, most sweets are not eaten as dessert but as a tea-time snack.
PICKLES AND OTHER SIDE-DISHES
Kerala cuisine also has a variety of pickles and chutneys, and crunchy pappadums, banana chips, jackfruit chips, kozhalappam, achappam, cheeda, and churuttu.
Being mostly a hot and humid area, Keralites have developed a variety of drinks to cope with thirst. A variety of what might be called herbal teas are served during mealtimes. Cumin seeds, ginger or coriander seeds are boiled in water and served warm or at room temperature. In addition to the improved taste, the spices also have digestive and other medicinal properties. Sambharam, a diluted buttermilk often flavoured with ginger, lime leaves, green chili peppers etc. was very commonly drunk, although it has been replaced to some extent by soda pop. Coffee and tea (both hot) drunk black, or with milk and white sugar or unrefined palm sugar (karippatti), are commonly drunk. Numerous small shops dotted around the land sell fresh lime juice (called naranga vellam, or bonji sarbat in Malayalam), and many now offer milk shakes and other fruit juices.
There are utensils that are used in Kerala which are significant to cuisine in Kerala. An aduppu is a square hearth, Mun Chatti is cooking pot made from clay, Cheena Chatti (literally Chinese pot) is a deep frying pan.