As I’m traveling in southeast Asia, I’m going to venture far away from French cuisine for a few blog posts. Let’s start with a focus on the food in Kerala. Keralites are often called Malayalis which refers to the language they speak (Malayalam) and their ethnic group.
India is such a diverse country that each region has its own style and the cuisine of Kerala is very different from northern Indian cuisine for example. No butter chicken here, and they add cari leaves and coconut to almost any dish. I also find the food here to be less spicy than what I had in Rajasthan a few years ago. Even when I eat at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant catering to locals, I can handle the level of spiciness.
Also, Malayalis eat everything. I mean by that they’re not strictly vegetarians nor do they follow any particular food diet. Even Hindous may eat beef here if they want to. You will find a lot of vegetarian restaurants though, and a lot of people eat vegetarian but most restaurants offer meat options on the menu and you won’t find sacred cows on the streets. You might find cows grazing here and there but they’re not sacred. In some parts of town (mostly the old town), goats roam the streets.
The shore of Kerala stretches along the Arabian sea and there is plenty of freshwater rivers and lakes in the backwaters. As a consequence, fish is in abundance. It’s usually fried and served with meals but may also be cooked as fish curry.
As everywhere in India, you eat with your right hand. The left hand is reserved for other purposes. Touching the food even before you put it in your mouth is part of the experience and my friends told me they don’t have the same sensations, and don’t feel satiated the same way, when they use cutlery. When you’re a tourist, you’re usually given a spoon but after a while I got used to eating with my fingers. As my dad (who’s French) likes to say: “Food tastes better when you eat with your fingers.” 🙂
One thing I found in common between Malayalis and French people is the love of food. A lot of the Malayalis I know love eating and talking about food and I met quite a few good cooks!
As in France, meals are a time when people get together and talk about their day and lives. They frequently share their food among each other, it is a very convivial moment. I wish it were the same in Canada!
To be fair, I should add that it is a convivial moment when shared among people of the same social standing. Although maybe not as visible in Kerala as in other parts of the country, the Indian society still perpetuates some kind of hierarchy between individuals depending on which cast they were born into so you probably won’t see people from a “higher” caste sharing food with people from a “lower” caste (or even touching food previously touched by these people), but let’s get back to the food!
What you’ll find in a Kerala kitchen
- A pressure cooker to cook the various kinds of dal and rice
- many pots and pans
- a small electric grinder
- a gas stove
- a round wooden board and mini rolling pin to make chapatis
- sometimes a small oven if the cook likes to bake cakes
- Spices and other ingredients to add flavour: cari leaves, onions, shallots, ground turmeric, ginger, red and green chilies and red chilies powder, seeds (mustard, cardamom, fenugreek, cumin…), salt, pepper
- Fresh grated coconut
- Pulses (dal, lentils, dried beans, chickpeas…)
A typical meal in Kerala
A simple meal in a restaurant typically consists of:
a generous portion of boiled rice
some cooked vegetables (cabbage, green beans…)
a portion of curry (different kinds)
raw onions, carrots, etc
All these are placed on a large stainless steel plate (thali) and you mix as you want. The vegetables and curry are served in small portions but you can ask for refills.
On the table are small pots with gravies you can add to your meal to suit your taste:
sambar (vegetables in thin gravy, typical of Kerala)
another kind of gravy (spicier, with red chillies) which name I don’t know
lassi (which is particularly useful if you put too much of a spicy food on your plate)
Meals like that in a local restaurant will typically cost around 50 rupees (less than $1), or some people will cook their meals at home and bring their lunch box and small containers with gravies, meat/fish, vegetables and curries to work.
People usually eat meals at lunch and have a lighter dinner.
More elaborate meals
The base is the same as a simple meal, the difference is that there are more varieties of curries served along with the rice. Meals may be served on a banana leaf or a regular plate.
Breakfast usually consists of some rice pancakes (there are different kinds like idli, appam) served with dal and curry.
Masala dosa are also a popular breakfast item.
Popular dinner foods are chapatis, parotta or plain dosas (just the crepe, no filling) served with curry.
Chapatis are also called rotis, they’re a kind of flatbread similar to naans made with atta (whole wheat flour). Parottas are also a kind of flatbread but they’re made with maida (white flour) and they’re more moist and layered.
A regular meal doesn’t usually include dessert but whenever there’s a special occasion, Malayalis know how to make yummy sweet dishes. There are also different kinds of sweet snacks.
One of my favourite dishes is called payasam which may be made with rice noodles or payasam rice. It’s a kind of milk pudding flavoured with cardamom powder and garnished with roasted cashews and golden raisins.
The recipe to make rice payasam is online on the blog. In a future blog post I’ll talk about some of the other recipes I learned about in the cooking classes I took.
There is so much to say and so little time, thanks for your patience!