Blog: My Love-Hate Affair with Kerala's Cuisine

   |  Updated: December 04, 2014 21:17 IST

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Blog: My Love-Hate Affair with Kerala's Cuisine
It troubles me that 'home' to my parents always means our ancestral home in Kerala's Syrian catholic headquarter - Kottayam. Each summer, we take the 48-hour train journey to Ernakulam Junction at the opposite end of the country.

A hired open jeep picks us up from the station to take us to my father's village, bumping through the potholed road. And as we watch the tarred, rain beaten road recede into a winding coarse ribbon, I can't help but think wistfully of the world we come from - the North Indian, modern, concrete city of Delhi, where all my friends are.

A couple of hours later, the landscape becomes more familiar, the local church is sighted and the jeep inevitably slows down as people start calling out greetings to my father. As the jeep makes its way through the neighborhood which is peppered with houses belonging to relatives, glimpses of the land that he grew up around and still loves deeply, makes my father's eyes twinkle. A deep, silent joy. As we get closer, his smile grows wider and the landscape more lush. 

Drying pepper and tamarind that are spread out on threadbare gunny bag sheets, bursting ripe jackfruit orbs, tress and shrubs heavy with coconut, cashew, mango, guava and nutmeg, my grandmother's beloved cows and goats, smoke from the hearth and rubber sheets that are drying - all combine to make a thick perfume that to me is the signature of our visits 'home'. 

The Taste of Kerala

As we descend from the jeep and climb up the long moss covered black sandstone stairwell that cuts through the thick green plantation and leads to the main house, the aroma that curls out of my grandmother's thatched-roofed kitchen gets more assertive. Familiar, yet alien, this old house has a peculiar entity. It's like a dream I don't want to be dreaming. Home to my parents, yet so foreign to me.

My father's eyes search the vicinity as he yells out for his mother. 'Chachi' to her kids, siblings and grand kids alike, she is the formidable force behind the large clan that is the Puthenmanayil family. The woman who gave life to 9 strapping men and 2 devout nuns. The matriarch who rules the house with a soft-gloved iron hand. She will step out of the house any minute, one hand outstretched. Her black plastic slip-ons squeaking as she slowly walks forward in her white mundu and pristine blouse; her face wreathed in smiles, her eyes damp, a rosary inevitably hanging around her neck, clanging gently against the gold chain she wears. My grandmother.

The trip is the way all others are. Reluctantly dragging my feet behind my parents who joyfully visit their siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, I cling silently to my sister as she dazzles with all her charm. Predictable, food is the only reluctant point of interest for me. An array of snacks and lemonade are inevitably laid out at generous teas, especially composed for the visitors from Delhi.

Freshly fried plantain or as we called it, banana chips - plain as well as coated in caramelized jaggery spiced with dried ginger, jackfruit crisps, sesame flecked rose cookies that are just a tad sweet, crackling tapioca chips, crunchy sesame and Jaggery Undas (laddoos), coconut and jaggery filled steamed rice dumplings, jack fruit jam, Pakavadas (ribbon shaped fried savouries) and my favourite - Ethaka Boli or plantains batter fried until they are sweet, melting soft inside and golden-crunchy outside.

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And yet, as I look back today - a couple of decades hence, it's surprising that Syrian Catholic Cuisine doesn't feature large in my food laden childhood memories unlike the cuisines of North India that were almost a touchstone for deliciousness to me.  For the longest time, friends would come back from visits to Kerala and rave about the food and I would be surprised. I would confess that it just wasn't my thing. When Bengali friends at design school spoke longingly of mustard laden fish curries, and turned to me expectantly, waiting for me to join in with Keralite zeal, I would shrug and look away.

Truth be told, in those days if there was one curry that represented Kerala to me, it was the omnipresent fish curry.  It was served at almost every single meal in Kerala. The ever-present meen (fish) curry, though eaten every single day, also puts in an appearance at Christmas and Easter, weddings, baptisms, death anniversaries and betrothals.

Even in Delhi, at the Christmas table, it would have its own little corner amidst far more seductive offerings like mutton curried in a roast coconut gravy, stir fried pork with black pepper and whole spices, crumb fried beef cutlets accompanied by its signature onion salad - challas, chicken curry, beef fried with coconut, masala fried fish, yoghurt curry (moru kachiyathu) and fresh green salad. 

There maybe duck, rabbit, quail, squid, mussels, prawns or crab gracing the table but the ever-present red coloured meen curry would never go away. Indeed, it seemed that this was the only way a Malayalee was to accept fish. Often I tried to plie my parents with fish dishes from around the world and was met with confusion or even amusement - why would anyone eat fish that wasn't curried red with spice, darkened with the sharp taste of Kerala's tamarind, toned down with coconut and made fragrant with curry leaves.

Seeing the meen chutti (earthenware pot made specially for fish curry) endlessly on the dining table made me pout and wrinkle my nose in disdain.  It's unique tangy, coconutty aroma and bright red colour would elicit adolescent annoyance and a firm refusal to even venture in the vicinity. Giving into meen curry represented having to willingly go to Kerala in summer vacations instead of heading for what seemed like far more fun vacations in the mountains near Delhi. It meant giving in to a singular, Malayalee identity. It meant always being the outsider in both Kerala and Delhi. Thank you, but I would much rather have butter chicken.

It's been almost two decades since and things have changed. I left Delhi to go to college and my parents, much to my dismay, shifted back to Kerala. Chachi passed away a few years after they shifted base. I moved to Mumbai and eventually got married to a Punjabi. While I never got around to living in Kerala, my visits got far more enthusiastic as well as frequent.

Disinterest turned into curiosity and then an appreciation for the unique mosaic of history, spirituality and closeness to the land and all it begets that I recognized as my (much undeserved) cultural heritage. Distant disdain, defensive reserve and painful shyness evolved into familiarity, nostalgia and eventually a longing for home. It's no coincidence that my relationship with the quintessential meen curry (fish curry) walked the exact same trajectory. It took time but I finally recognized mastery in the balance of flavours, honesty in the simplicity of the technique and wisdom in the use of local ingredients.

Today, I need to have a healthy serving of that spicy-pungent-fragrant curry ever so often. It's now the taste of home, childhood, and the joy on my father's face as we made our way towards his people. Somewhere, hidden in that glorious red gravy that begs to be mixed with steaming hot rice, is my own past. In fact, I even possess my own meen chatti now. One that I am forever terrified of breaking and being left without, again.

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Recipe - My Mother's Fish Curry - Meen Vevichathu

Preparation Time: 30 - 35 Minutes
Serves 4 - 6 People

It's a well-known fact among family and friends that my mother's fish curry is one of the very best you can eat. The great news is that it's simple and easy to play with. Fry the spice paste longer and you have a richer flavor, cook for a shorter time after adding the coconut paste and you have a fresher creamier coconutty taste, temper with mustard, shallots and curry leaves and you have an indulgence.

You could make this curry with any medium or large sized fish that has been cut into pieces, though you should keep an eye on the cooking time and adjust it according to how meaty or delicate the flesh is. Swap out the Kodumpulli (Kerala tamarind used specially for fish) for regular tamarind paste/kokum/sour tomatoes/raw mangoes and it will work just as well. Make sure you adjust the amount of souring agent to the tang that's right for you. Malayalees like this rather hot and sour but it's absolutely a personal choice. And remember, when it comes to buying fish, fresh always trumps frozen.

Ingredients:

1/2 kg Fish. Cleaned and cut into curry size pieces

3 sprigs Curry leaves

2-3 Tbsp Coconut oil - 2-3 tablespoons (You can replace it with any other cooking oil)

1.5 tsp Chilli powder (mild)

2 pieces Kerala tamarind (kodum pulli) (you can replace this with the ingredients mentioned in the note above)

1/2 tsp Sugar

For the spice paste:

1 cup Grated coconut

1 tsp Chilli powder (hot)

1/3 tsp Turmeric

1/4 tsp Fenugreek powder

4 Garlic cloves, peeled

For pounding:

1 inch piece Ginger

6 Garlic cloves

6 -10 Shallots, peeled and trimmed ends

Method:

1. Add 1 sprig of curry leaves to the fish and set aside.

2. Coarsely pound together the peeled ginger, garlic and shallots. (You can also coarsely grind this in a mixer but pounding these aromatics together in a mortar helps release and blend the flavours much better. On the other hand the chopping action of the mixer blade oxidises the ingredients, altering the flavour slightly)

3. Grind the ingredients listed for spice paste to a fine paste, adding as much water as you need for the mixture to grind well.

4. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of coconut oil in an earthen ware pot (preferably) or a wok. Add the pounded shallot mixture along with the remaining 2 sprigs of curry leaves. Stir for about a minute till the shallot pieces start to turn golden.

5. Add the mild chilli powder. Stir well on medium heat till fragrant, while making sure that the spice doesn't burn. Turn heat down to low.

6. Add the coconut paste and stir well for about 3-4 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of water (my mother rinses out the mixie jar with this water to ensure that she uses up all the flavourful paste stuck to the walls of the jar). Stir well and then add just enough water to let the fish pieces be submerged when you add them in (Around 1 to 1.25 cup should be enough).

7. Add 2 pieces of tamarind along with salt and sugar. Bring the gravy to a boil over high heat before gently slipping in the fish and bring it to a boil.

8. Let the curry boil for 2 minutes and then shake the pot gently. (Do not stir or you may end up breaking the fish up). Cook on low heat for a couple more minutes till the fish is cooked through but tender.

There is so much that I am now learning about Keralite cuisine. From a recent Onam Sadya that I made with my sisters and hosted for friends to the traditional Christmas cake, the soft yet crisp appams. I've almost mastered to the very unusual rice dumpling dish of pidi, from stir friend mussels to Fort Kochi's delicious butter-fruit (avocado) shakes. But if I had to pick just one other curry for a favourite, it would definitely be the theeyal. If meen curry is the taste of home, this is the taste of joy.

A lovely, rich, brown curry of coconut that's been roasted till it's dark, nutty and fragrant, ground into a paste with spices and then cooked up with caramelized shallots and tamarind; this dish has a lot to offer in every mouthful. It's spicy, nutty and almost smokey from the roasted coconut, has a hint of tang from the tamarind and is sweet from the shallots. What's more, it's versatile.

While it's fantastic in it's most typical vegetarian form where it's made with the customary Kerala reserve (just shallots, spice and coconut), it's equally special when used as a base for variations that include bitter-gourd (karela), brinjal (baingan), dried prawns, fish and even chicken. From experience I can tell you that this recipe is resilient enough to do justice to many, many experiments and wow the most conservative eaters. I promise you, it works every single time.

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Recipe -Prawn and Drumstick Theeyal

Preparation Time: 1 Hour to 1 Hours 25 Minutes
Serves 4 - 6
People

Ingredients:

250 grams shallots, weighed whole

400 grams fresh prawns, weighed whole (You could also replace this with a generous handful of dried prawns that have been dry roasted in a wok till they change colour)

3 - 4 drumsticks (depending on their size)

1 lemon sized tamarind - (add more in case you want the curry to be more tangy)

1. 25 cup grated coconut

1 tsp red chilli powder

1 tsp coriander seeds (up to 2 if you would like the curry thicker)

1 pinch fenugreek powder

1/4 tsp turmeric

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 sprigs curry leaves

Jaggery - to taste

Salt - to taste

Oil

Method:

1. Complete your prep: Peel and devein the prawns. Peel, trim and quarter the shallots. Soak the tamarind in 1 cup of hot water till it softens and squeeze out the pulp while adding more water if required and discarding the fibre and seeds. Trim ends of the drumstick, remove the tough fibres on the outside and cut into 3 inch pieces.

2. Heat about 4 tablespoons of oil in a wok/kadhai and fry the shallots in batches till golden but not crunchy. Drain. Reserve 2 tsp oil in the wok, drain out the rest and keep aside. If you do not have any oil remaining after the shallots are fried, add 2 tsp oil to the wok.

3. Add the grated coconut to the same wok and fry, stirring constantly till fragrant and brown. Do this over a low flame or the coconut will soon burn. Make sure you take your time over this step. Proper caramalisation of the coconut is what adds the characteristic deep nutty rich flavour to this dish. Add the spices and stir fry till the colour deepens to a rich dark brown.

4. Grind the roasted coconut, adding as little water as possible.

5. Heat the oil you reserved from frying the onions. Add some fresh oil if you need to but ensure you have about 3 tablespoons of oil in the wok. Splutter mustard and curry leaves.

6. Add in the fried shallots, roasted coconut paste, drumsticks, prawns and about half a cup of water and stir through. Bring to a boil. Add more water if your curry is too thick.

7. Add salt, tamarind and jaggery boil gently for about 15 minutes till the drumsticks is cooked through and the oil separates from the gravy. You should have a thickish deep brown curry with a sheen on top.

8. Check the sweet-salty-sour balance and correct it one last time. Bring to a final boil and serve with freshly steamed rice!

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