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What’s Cooking in Kerala

A diverse people share a sophisticated palate

If Norman Rockwell were alive and working in India’s southwestern state of Kerala, he would have delighted in the scene unfolding at the home of Mary and James Vadakumpadan and would have set about capturing it on canvas.

The Vadakumpadans live in the leafy suburb of Korathy, some 18 miles from Ernakulam, Kerala’s second largest city. Here, modern pavement and rice paddy share the landscape in equal measure. But on this late afternoon, the Vadakumpadan home recalls an idyllic scene from old-fashioned country life in Kerala.

A government contractor in his mid-40’s, James sits in the kitchen near the pantry hunched over a chirava — a wooden tool with an iron tongue attached for grating — scratching out a coconut kernel from the shell. At his side stands a tall vat of homemade uppumanga (mango soaked in brine for a year). Sunlit steam wafts in the air from the freshly made pappadam (a crispy lentil flour flatbread) and puttu (a steamed cake made of rice flour, coconut and salt) cooling on the counter.

On the deck out back, his wife, Mary, operates the ammikallu, a traditional food crusher made from a flat stone slab and granite rolling pin — these days more of an antique than a household appliance. With a splash of water, she wets the slab and rolling pin, bunches up some chopped red onion, grated coconut and green chili pepper and flattens the mixed ingredients until their colors begin to blend into one.

At Mary’s feet, spread over a shallow, sun-bleached basket, tamarind basks in the late afternoon sun. A loose pile of coconuts picked from the trees towering overhead spill into the walkway leading to the garden. On a nearby clothesline, banana leaves hang out to dry. And on the roof, rice harvested from the adjacent paddies waits to be threshed.

The wide array of produce harvested from the Vadakumpadans’ relatively modest family garden surpasses some of the best mid-summer farmers’ markets. Fruits, vegetables and herbs seem to grow on every inch of the property. And all of this bounty — mangos, plantains, jackfruit, chili peppers and other fruits, herbs, grains and vegetables — will find its way into their homemade curries, chutneys and breads.

Mary adds a pinch of salt, grabs the heavy rolling pin and with a few last strokes — presto, coconut chutney! She knows the recipe by heart, having learned it as a child.

The Vadakumpadans’ son, Anoop, returns home from work. At the same time, his grandfather appears from the paddies and approaches the house. The whole family sits down together to catch up and enjoy a late afternoon snack.

But this quaint snapshot of traditional country life in Kerala is fading fast. Once staples of Keralite society, country homes such as the Vadakumpadans are now fewer and farther between. As Kerala urbanizes and more people migrate to cities, the rural life left behind struggles. Many worry that much of Kerala’s unique and diverse culinary culture — deeply rooted in family tradition and regional food products — may not endure the state’s changing economy and way of life.

If you enjoy food, you should come to Kerala!” said Father Sebastian Kalapurackal, a Syro-Malabar Catholic priest and director of Naipunya Institute of Management and Information Technology, which boasts one of the state’s top hotel management programs. Each year, the program graduates some 100 students, many of whom land jobs with five-star hotels, major cruise lines and airline companies.

Keralites unquestionably take great pride in their local cuisine — and for good reason. Its diversity and sophistication have earned the state worldwide fame.

What is more, it is unique. A narrow strip of coastland bounded to the east by the Western Ghats (mountains) and to the west by the Arabian Sea, Kerala has been largely disconnected from the rest of India for much of its history. Isolated from the prevailing trends of Indian cooking, Keralites developed a distinct culinary tradition unlike any other on the subcontinent.

The secret to Keralite cuisine is its special blend of produce and other indigenous ingredients: rice from the paddies; pepper, cardamom, coriander, turmeric and asafetida from the forests and fields; and fish caught off the coast or in one of the many freshwater rivers. However, what gives many Keralite dishes their signature flavor is coconut. Translated from the local language of Malayalam as “land (alam) of the coconut (kera),” Kerala produces a vast quantity of the fruit, which grows just about everywhere and is one of the state’s principal exports.

The essence and complexity of Keralite cuisine, however, should not be reduced to the sum of its ingredients. Religion and region have also played significant roles in the development of Kerala’s diverse menu of tasty entrees and treats. Christians, Hindus and Muslims approach food differently. And in Kerala, each faith community possesses its own variant culinary tradition.

“Ninety percent of what Muslims eat is meat, Hindus are 100 percent vegetarian and Christians eat everything, including pork,” said T.C. Noushad, a Muslim restaurateur who owns Royal Food Court, a chain of five establishments across Ernakulam.

“I serve everything and anything, just give me 15 minutes,” he added.

According to Father Kalapurackal, to Christians, taste matters most.

“That’s the problem with our people. They worry too much about their taste buds and not enough about their health. We should learn from the Hindus and eat less meat.”

But many modern Keralites admit they do not always observe their respective religious dietary restrictions, often reciting a common local saying: “When we are eating, there is no religion.”

As much as Keralite cuisine varies from one faith community to another, it also differs from one village to the next. Whether inland or coastal, north or south, each of Kerala’s regions offers a unique and savory spin on its dynamic culinary palate.

Our forefathers were so particular about food. It wasn’t just about adding spices,” said the priest, who lived in two of the world’s culinary centers — Rome and New York — before establishing Naipunya 10 years ago.

“Everything was important, from the medicinal effect down to the color of the gravy. They experimented a lot,” he added. “When you compare European cuisine to Keralite cuisine, you understand better how difficult it is to prepare Keralite food.

“These days, much of that know-how remains with the 86-year-old grandma. She’s the only one who knows the right amount of spices — no more — and how much coconut milk to pour.”

But as any Keralite chef — or grandmother for that matter — knows, cooking traditional dishes also requires time, something few Keralites have in today’s hustle and bustle.

A 23-year-old graduate student in engineering and mother of twins, Safna Ahamed typifies the modern Keralite woman. Busy with school, she still finds the time and energy to rear her children, often without the help of her husband, who frequently travels out of the country for work. But as with many young people her age, she admitted, “I have no time to cook, let alone learn to cook — unless you count the cooking shows I watch on television. The kitchen is my mother-in-law’s domain.”

“It was the culture of Kerala that girls prepared the food and boys earned the money. Now things are changing,” Father Kalapurackal said. “Both men and women — husband and wife — work outside the home. Little time is left to prepare meals.

“So naturally, they start eating out or getting take-out. There’s not much harm in that. But neither is there as much love or care in the preparation as before. That leads to problems.”

But while urban Keralites may cook less now than did their rural counterparts a generation ago, they still remain passionate about their culinary heritage.

Mrs. Ahamed and her in-laws, for instance, were among the hundreds who packed Ernakulam City Hall on a Sunday afternoon to kick off a one-day food festival showcasing cuisine from Malabar, a predominantly Muslim swatch of Kerala’s northern coastline.

Restaurateur T.C. Noushad, who also cofounded the Malabar Cultural Association, which hosted the event, took turns with Malabar dignitaries addressing the members of the public, journalists and television crews gathered around the podium.

“We started preparing at 8 last night, stopped at 11, got up at 3 a.m. and have been cooking ever since,” he said.

“We do this because we’re proud of Malabar food and want to show it to the people of Cochin. They’ve heard of it, but they haven’t tasted it. This new generation moves too fast for that. So a festival like this is the easiest way to bring it to them.”

Outside in the courtyard, crowds swarmed the tables, where Malabar chefs offered freshly made samples of the many delicacies native to their region. Mrs. Ahamed kept to the sidelines with her children, looking on as her in-laws elbowed themselves to the table with samples of rainbow biryani, a colorful rice dish with layers of carrots, beetroot, beans and prawns.

While Keralites may relish their culinary heritage for generations to come, many still worry that, as Kerala continues to urbanize, it risks losing a lot more than how to make some of its lesser known traditional dishes. If Keralites do not take steps to protect its agricultural base and the way of life that goes with it, they may forsake once and for all their traditional rural family values and much of what it means to be Keralite.

“In 15 years, Kerala will be the longest city in the world,” predicted Mr. Noushad. By then, the few remaining open spaces will have been developed and the state of Kerala will be an overwhelmingly urban environment.

“As it is now, people can’t grow their own food anymore,” he continued.

“Only fish, coconut, chili pepper, black pepper, cloves and cinnamon are grown here. Everything else comes from outside Kerala.”

Kerala now imports rice — a staple in Keralite cuisine — from the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.

“My father had 20 to 25 acres of paddy. Now my brother has only 10 acres,” said Father Thomas Karukakalam, a soft-spoken Syro-Malabar Catholic priest who is a spiritual director at the Niranam Seminary in Tiruvalla, 42 miles south of Ernakulam.

“It’s not profitable to have these paddy fields. Worse, the culture of agriculture is looked down upon. That mentality needs to change.”

To traditionalists like Father Karukakalam, rice farming represents more than simple food production. It lies at the heart of Keralite society and culture.

The rice-growing cycle sets society’s tempo: slow and meditative. It cannot be rushed. It ties family together and requires community collaboration.

“In agrarian culture, we have group farming. I have to depend on him. She has to depend on me. There is a communion. There is an understanding. There is a belief in one another,” Father Karukakalam said.

Most important for the priest, farming inspires faith in God and a respect for nature. “Agrarian people have always had a greater dependence on God than urban people, because they always depend on nature.

“ ‘Without the grace of God, tomorrow it won’t rain,’ we say. ‘Without the grace of God, our crops may be damaged or lost.’ So, the agrarian people of Kerala come from a place of deep faith.”

According to Father Karukakalam, as Keralites abandon the countryside for white-collar jobs in the city, little by little, they let go of their faith and commitment to traditional values.

Echoing his concern, Father Kalapurackal expressed similar alarm about the changing eating habits of Keralites.

“We’ve lost the holiness. We’ve lost the sanctity of our culture,” he said.

“Consumerism and globalization have started to creep in. The influence of Western culture, the food habits of other countries, fast food, the use of chemicals and colors — all have come here. It’s injurious to our health, our culture and our family life.”

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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