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Meals-Ready! The Food of Kerala

Cuisine from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala is an explosion of tastes, smells and textures.

“MEALS-READY” said a comforting sign in front of a typical vegetarian restaurant in Kerala. Inside, dozens of customers hungrily devoured their lunches at marble-topped tables. There was no choice, just “the meal,” a tasty extravaganza served on a banana leaf. Rice, vegetables, lentils and curd, lightly spiced and oiled, formed the basic ingredients, which are eaten with the right hand in a ritual often considered religious. Although enjoyed by all, such vegetarian food is typically Hindu. The Muslims and Christians of this southern Indian state have their own culinary specialties, which favor meat and fish, but the Hindus tend toward the vegetarian – the more orthodox Nambudiris strictly so. All communities cook delicious food, its quality derived in part from the hot, rainy climate and rich soils of Kerala. Its waterways provide an abundance of fish. Kerala is also noted for its spices: cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, mustard, anis, caraway, fenugreek and asafoetida are exported worldwide.

My favorite Keralan restaurants are the thousands of Meals-Ready establishments scattered throughout the state. They are sometimes known as Brahmin restaurants because they are typically owned and operated by Brahmin Hindus, although the servers and cooks are not necessarily of that high caste. The food is similar to that served in Hindu homes, sometimes presented on a stainless steel thali plate with several compartments. In restaurants it is still often served in the traditional way, on a banana or plantain leaf, which provides an untainted, uncontaminated surface. The leaf is later discarded and eaten by a cow or goat. Diners eat with their fingers to avoid utensils used by anyone else. For that reason, Keralan restaurants always have a sink with plenty of soap and water to wash one’s hands thoroughly before eating. The left hand is not involved with food; it is saved for “unclean” functions.

The meal, or sadya as it is known in Malayalam, the language of Kerala, is served in a ritualistic fashion. Although the often-noisy Meals-Ready restaurants are used by thousands of people daily, there is a sacred atmosphere, and the cost is low, at about fifty cents per meal. Eating spaces are spotless and the restaurants provide some of the best vegetarian fare in the world. South Indian cuisine is less oily and spicy than North Indian, and easier to digest.

The traditional Keralan food “plate” must come from the end section of the banana or plantain leaf. It is placed with the narrow end at the diner’s left side. Serving begins from the bottom left half of the leaf, where a server first places a small yellow banana. Next come fried banana chips coated with sweet jaggery, or palm syrup, and a papad, a fried, crispy cracker. From the top left are placed lime curry; lime pickle; mango pickle; injipuli, a thick ginger and tamarind curry; thoran, a dry vegetable mix with coconut; olan, a gourd vegetable stew; aviyal, a thick vegetable mix in a coconut-based gravy; and pachadi, a raw mango and curd mixture. Fried or curried fish are optional extras. Finally rice, a staple of all Keralan meals, is served at the bottom center of the leaf. Keralan rice is unpolished and boiled with little red bits of the nutritious germ. Over the rice the server pours sambhar, a lentil-based gravy cooked with seasonal vegetables such as eggplant, okra, spinach, peas or potato.

Once the leaf is full, the diner begins to eat. The left hand remains out of sight under the table while the right hand molds the food into little balls before eating. Nobody uses a spoon, although spoons are sometimes available for foreigners. The food is gobbled quickly. Servers keep a watchful eye and return with overly generous second helpings ladled out of brass buckets. Sometimes these helpers must be refused several times. At the end, health-giving rasam, a fiery pepper water containing tamarind and spices, is served. Payasam, sweet milk rice, is offered as a simple dessert. At the end of the meal, the diner folds the banana leaf and returns to the sink to wash.

Kerala society is diverse: roughly 50 percent are Hindus; the rest are Muslims and Christians. Over the last two thousand years, voyagers lured by the spice trade came from Greece, Rome, China, Phoenicia, Egypt, France, Portugal and England. Many left their own culinary influences.

On my journalistic travels for CNEWA I have stayed with several Catholic priests, bishops and sisters and enjoyed their Keralan food. Compared to Hindus, Catholics in India are meat oriented, although during Lent they are virtually vegetarian. Lenten fasting ended suddenly last Easter with a Sunday breakfast cooked by a community of sisters: chicken, beef, mutton and pork mixed together with not a lentil or lady’s finger in sight!

Kerala’s Christians love a meat stew called ishtew, which is derived from European stew. Particularly well-known in Kottayam, ishtew combines chicken and vegetables in a coconut sauce with cinnamon and cloves, pepper, chilies and lime. Erachi olarthiathu is a beef, mutton or pork dish cooked slowly in ginger, garlic, chili and other spices. Just before serving it is fried quickly with aromatic herbs. Beef cutlets and roast chicken are also popular.

Fish curries known as moilees are perhaps the most renowned of all Keralan dishes. Meen moilee is a yellow fish curry, meen mulligattathu is a fiery red fish curry and peera pattichathu is a dry fish and coconut dish. On feast days such as Easter and Christmas, as well as marriages, Christians enjoy toddy, a fermented palm wine and an arak liquor made from the same plant. Mango, papaya and pineapple juices are popular as is coconut milk. Sweet tea, called chai, and coffee are everywhere.

Muslims enjoy their meat and fish dishes, which are often influenced by Arab and Moghul culture. Biryani, a mouth-watering dish of basmati rice cooked with meat, onions, chilies and other spices, is well known throughout the world. As for seafood, mussels are a favorite with Muslims. Arikadaka is a concoction of mussels and rice flour cooked in the shell. A community of Muslims living in Kuttichara often feast on an entire roasted goat stuffed with chickens, which in turn are stuffed with eggs!

Rice is a staple in all communities; in addition to boiled rice there are many other preparations. Pounded into flour and mixed with a little fermented toddy, rice gives shape to the bamboo-formed puttu and a wide range of apams. Classically Keralan, apams consist of rice flour mixed with coconut and fried like a pancake in a wok called cheena chatti. There are many variations: the round, spongy vattayappam, the lacy-edged palappam, the pancake-like kallappam, the sweet uniappam, the fine, noodle-like idiappam and the stuffed ball called kozhikotta. Then there is pathiri, a chapati-like bread made from rice that can be stuffed with chicken, beef, mutton or fish and steamed.

The various forms of apam are popular as breakfast foods and served with sambhar vegetable gravy. Idlis, steamed rice cakes, and dosas, large savory pancakes stuffed with spicy vegetables that originated in neighboring Tamil Nadu, are breakfast and supper favorites. Puris, unleavened wheat breads deep fried and served with curried vegetables, are a great standby.

Tapioca is the other universal starch much used in Keralan cooking. Known as kappa in Malayalam, it became an important staple about 100 years ago when the Maharaja of Travancore tried to avert a famine. He searched for a suitable food plant that could be grown quickly and in large quantities: tapioca was the answer. Often replacing rice in the diet, this root has been a staple since that time.

Keralans don’t fall short in the sweet department either. Jaggery is a common sweetener often boiled and reduced to a thick treacle to add to curd or fruit. Milky rice, coconut or vermicelli sweetened with jaggery are popular. Inji thayir is ginger in curd. Kaalenan are bananas coated in jaggery and cooked in a sweet curd sauce spiced with cumin and turmeric. Malayali pachadi is sweet curd with grated coconut and mustard seeds. Unniappam is pulped jackfruit mixed with rice flour and jaggery wrapped in leaves and steamed. Prathaman consists of lentils boiled with coconut, cardamom, ginger, jaggery and cashew nuts. Western-style ice creams are also widely available.

Kerala’s natural geography has greatly influenced the development of its superb cuisine. The Western Ghat mountains, which run the length of the state, are famous for the cultivation of spices, tea and coffee. Abundant rainfall, rivers and easy irrigation at lower altitudes foster rice, fruit and vegetable production. Mangoes, bananas, pineapples, guavas, lychees, papayas and jackfruits are just a few of the tropical fruits that thrive in Kerala’s soil. Stroll along any market street and see the many exotic as well as familiar vegetables and fruits displayed. Along Kerala’s palm-fringed coastline the Arabian Sea provides shark, barracuda, tuna, pomfret, marlin, red snapper, kingfish, lobster and prawns. Freshwater backwaters also yield a variety of fish, including karimeen, a flat sole-like fish, and a freshwater variety of lobster.

Kerala’s food is among the healthiest in the world: low in fat, high in protein, vitamins and minerals and, despite the use of insecticides and fertilizers, very pure. The cuisine is thought to have been influenced by thousands of years of traditional Ayurvedic medicine, and is usually served under very hygienic conditions no matter how simple the meal.

If you would like to prepare your own Keralan dishes and have access to the Internet, many sites offer free recipes and listings of Keralan restaurants in North America and elsewhere. If only there were a world-wide chain: “McMEALS READY”! We’d all be happier and healthier!

Sean Sprague is a frequent traveler through “our world.”

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