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Kerala: India’s multicultural spice garden

Kerala: India’s multicultural spice garden

by Great British Chefs 08 October 2018

One of India's most diverse states, the southern region of Kerala is home to Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities, each of which have influenced the local cuisine. Take a look at the ingredients, flavours and food that make Kerala responsible for some of India’s best dishes.

The way Indian food is cooked and eaten in the UK is changing. Instead of heading to local curry houses to eat Anglicised versions of Indian dishes with no sense of where they come from in the country, we’re getting to grips with just how diverse and exciting regional Indian cooking can be. We now know that you’ll rarely find a coconut curry from the north of the country, and naan breads are virtually non-existent in the south. Whether we’re cooking at home or looking for somewhere to eat out, more and more of us are looking for authenticity and real flavours above all else, hoping to discover the flavours of a particular part of India to learn more about its culture.

One of the regions that has risen to prominence in recent years is Kerala, a southern state along India’s Malabar coastline. It’s easy to see why, with its beautiful palm trees and golden beaches by the sea, rolling hills further inland and striking, rugged mountain ranges to the east. But what Kerala is really becoming known for in the UK is its food – a wonderful array of fresh, fragrant, often coconut-heavy dishes which make the most of the local ingredients.

To understand Keralan cuisine, you have to look at the history of the region. As one of the most important locations for trading spices for over 5,000 years, it has always had visitors either passing through or settling down in its cities, towns and villages, who would bring with them new ingredients or cooking methods. Even today, just over half of Keralans are Hindu, a quarter are Muslim and eighteen percent are Christian, making it one of the most multicultural states in India. Over time, these different communities have been influenced by each other, taking on cooking and eating habits to create a new type of cuisine entirely.

It would be impossible to cover every aspect of Keralan cuisine in just one article, but if you’re after a basic grounding in the ingredients, flavours and dishes that make the state one of the most exciting places to eat, read on.

Spices and aromatics

Kerala is known as India’s spice garden, as it is where the majority of India’s most prized spices are grown and harvested. The state was an important trade hub as far back as 3000BC thanks to its spices, and continues to be where you’ll find some of the finest examples of them in all of India. Kerala’s spice plantations (or gardens) are absolutely beautiful to see in real life, and are often high up on the must-see lists of tourists visiting the region.

When it comes to using these spices in local dishes, Keralans tend to keep things subtle. Think peppercorns, cardamom pods, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon rather than the stronger, bolder flavours of cumin and coriander. There are mustard seeds, which are often cooked in hot oil until they start to crackle and sputter, while aromatics such as garlic, ginger and turmeric play an equally important role. Asafoetida, a lesser-known ingredient in the UK (although now available in many supermarkets) is also widely used, with just a small pinch of the pungent spice adding bags of onion-scented flavour to dishes. You’ll also find tamarind widely used as a souring agent, giving recipes of all kinds a pleasant tang, and fresh chillies providing heat.

Arguably the most important ingredient in Keralan cooking is coconut, as it can be found in the vast majority of dishes the state is famous for. There are coconut trees all along the coast, and the region is actually named after them (kera means coconut and alam means land). The fresh juice is turned into drinks; the flesh and milk is used in cooking and most foods are cooked in coconut oil.

Vegetables, grains and pulses

Despite being famous for its versatile mix of fish and meat many Keralan dishes are vegetarian, which make the most of the region’s locally grown produce. Cauliflowers, okra, potatoes, squash, carrot, cabbage and aubergines are among the most common, often simply cooked in coconut milk and spices. Black chickpeas are the key component of kadala, a simple curry flavoured with coconut.

Rice is the most common staple in Kerala and is what you’ll see served with most dishes, but there are also some wheat-based flatbreads such as paratha, comprised of flaky, buttery layers that are perfect for mopping up sauces. The majority of breads and starchy accompaniments, however, are made from rice and lentils.

Appam, a pancake made from fermented rice batter which is crisp and thin on the outside with a soft, spongy centre, is one of Kerala’s most iconic foods. It’s served alongside stews and curries across the region, as are dosas, another batter-based pancake which is made using a combination of rice and lentils then usually stuffed with potatoes flavoured with mustard seeds, curry leaves and chillies. A more unusual dish is idiyappam; thin strands of rice dough which are then steamed until light and fluffy (a popular breakfast dish when served with an egg curry).

Lentils are often cooked until meltingly soft into sambar, a thick wet curry that’s heavily spiced and perfect for dipping appam, dosa and idli or puttu (types of steamed rice cakes) into. They’re also used to make the incredible medu vada, deep-fried savoury doughnuts made with a lentil-based batter and full of spices.

Fish and seafood

With such stunning beaches along its coast, it’s no wonder that Kerala is famed for its fish and seafood. Further inland (especially up in the more mountainous areas) you’ll find meat and vegetarian dishes more prevalent (although freshwater fish are eaten along Kerala’s many rivers), but if you’re by the sea then expect a wealth of delicious, coconut-flavoured curries containing the day’s catch. Whole fish are often rubbed and marinated before being wrapped in fresh banana leaves and steamed, while others are dusted with spices and shallow-fried in coconut oil. One of the most iconic edible species is karimeen (or pearl spot fish), found in brackish waters throughout Kerala, and Malabar is one of the only places in India you’ll find biryanis that include fish and seafood.

When it comes to curries, the most well-known is molee (or moilee), which is mild, full of coconut and bright yellow. It was thought to be invented by Kerala’s Christian community, whose cooks added coconut milk to traditional fiery fish curries for a more tempered finish. Others include plenty of tamarind, which gives the sauce a tangy flavour (often to contrast with the creamy coconut), and there are fierier, more peppery fish curries which include stronger-flavoured species such as sardines (known as Meen Mulakittathu). Jaggery, a golden-brown raw granular sugar made from sugarcane and palm tree sap, is often used to sweeten the sauces alongside tamarind.

When it comes to shellfish and seafood, you’ll find prawns of all shapes and sizes in abundance, but mussels, crabs and squid are popular too.

Meat

As a general rule, Keralan meat dishes tend to be spicier, hotter and drier than those made of vegetables and pulses, but they are also some of the most diverse in all of India. That’s because it’s one of the few places in India where beef is eaten, due to the state’s Syrian Christian community (although it is also eaten by the local Hindus and Muslims). It’s usually fried in plenty of garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, curry leaves and spices until very dark, without any sauce. Chicken is also cooked in a similar way, served dry and heavily spiced on top of a banana leaf, but you’ll also find it in saucier curries, made creamy with Kerala’s ubiquitous coconut and favoured by the local Christian community.

Biryanis from Malabar (which covers the northern part of Kerala’s coastline) often contain meat, and there are some spicy mutton or goat curries from the region too. Keralan Christians are also responsible for the state’s pork dishes, cooked in a similar way to beef.

Desserts

Keralans seem to have a serious sweet tooth, and no wonder – with all those fresh coconuts, bananas and other exotic fruits grown locally, there’s plenty of opportunity to create some seriously delicious desserts. Many of them are associated with religious festivals and special occasions, so they are often full of rich, sweet flavours.

Ada pradhaman is one of the most popular puddings, where small sweetened rice cakes are boiled or steamed and then placed in a thick coconut milk flavoured with jaggery, cardamom, cashews and raisins to soak up and absorb all the flavours. Pal payasam is similar, although replaces the coconuts with regular milk and whole rice grains are cooked in the liquid rather than being formed into cakes. Rava laddoo are little spheres of spiced semolina flavoured with spices and coconut.

As you can see, the food of Kerala is truly unique, offering up dishes different to anywhere else in India. With coconuts aplenty, the best spices in the world, the freshest fish, inventive rice and lentil dishes and a whole variety of meats, it’s where you’ll find some of the best plates of food in the entire country.

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