"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." - St. Augustine. I'm not sure when the 'travel bug' bit me but I think it was somewhere between the time I was packed up and relocated to a small town in England and when I decided to renounce my cushy Delhi life for studying in Manipal. I went from a butter chicken and naan loving Punjabi to someone who developed a fondness for the unpredictable and unexplored.
I was hooked. Not to 'luxury travel' but to 'good travel'. One that pulled me out of my comfort zone and put me in a place unknown with people unknown. Not the kind that was featured in glossy travel magazines but the kind that needed to be experienced firsthand.
While in college, I was surrounded by an eclectic mix of intelligent Malyalees who convinced me that I hadn't seen anything till I'd seen god's own country, Kerala. Their argument was so persuasive that a few days later I found myself on an over-night train that took me 650 odd kilometers away to Kannur.
Kannur, formerly known as Cannanore is the Northern most city of Kerala. Its name is derived from two words: 'Kannan' which stands for Lord Krishna and 'ur' which means place, making it the place of Lord Krishna.
Kannur welcomed me with open arms - its coconut palm lined coasts, beachfront restaurants, rustic and worn-out brown bungalows, high red-bricked walls and its pleasant aroma of the sea. I felt confident that this journey would be a magical one but I wasn't aware that it would be a gastronomical one too.
Kerala, unlike its neighbours Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, takes pride in its wide variety of non-vegetarian food. They've got chicken, mutton, beef, pork and a thrilling variety of seafood - mussels, crab, tiger prawns, king prawns, tiny prawns, oysters, sardines, mackerel, tuna and gorgeous red lobsters. This 'land of spices' has many exquisite foods to showcase but there few ingredients that I found common to most foods - coconut, chopped, grated or shaved, coconut milk or paste used in gravies or as oil for cooking. Chillis, curry leaf, mustard seeds and tamarind also dominate the dishes.
During the wee hours of the day, I stood glaring at a list of breakfast items on a chalk board. My eyes darted from puttu and kadla curry to ghee roast masala dosa to the rest of the items on an inexhaustible list of vegetarian delicacies. They were all priced reasonably from somewhere between Rs.30 to Rs.60 and each dish came straight off the stove and into my lap.
Puttu and Kadala Curry - Puttu is a cylindrical steamed rice cake cooked with coconut shavings and is an extremely popular breakfast dish, not just in Kannur but through other parts of Kerala as well. It's usually served with kadala curry (black chickpeas/kala chana) but can also be relished with ripe bananas and grated coconut.
Appam with Stew - Honestly, appam is a revolutionary food. Not once did I devoid myself of the pleasure of its company. It's got a soft and thick center and a paper thin outside. It's essentially a rice pancake which you can pair with almost anything and it will still steal the spotlight. In a typical Southern stew you'll find chunks of chicken or meat bathed in a beautifully spiced and dreamy coconut gravy. Dosa Ghee Roast with Kerala Style Sambar- Dosa is listed among 'World's 50 most delicious foods' and for good reason. Made from fermented rice and lentils, the ghee roast dosa is cooked in pure ghee and roasted till it gets as crisp as it can. (Recipe: Onion Rava dosaand sambhar by Niru Gupta)
Idiyappam with Egg Curry - Idiyappam, also known as noolappam is made of rice flour, salt and water. A number of thin strands or sevai are entwined together to make this lovely appam. It's plain texture is what makes it versatile and allows it to be paired up with all kinds of curries.
After consuming what felt like a truckload of breakfast food I walked for miles every day. I walked along the coast of Payyambalam beach till my feet hurt. I walked through the Kannur Fort which had the sea on one side and a garden on the other. I walked on the Ezhimala Beach and against my better judgement I even went to Kannur's snake park!
In-between all of this sight-seeing I managed to gather a lot more insight into what makes Mallu food special. Here are some of my ultimate favorites that I wholeheartedly endorse and would urge you to try on your visit to Kerala -
Nadan Kozhi Varuthathu aka Spicy Chicken Fry - As mundane as chicken fry sounds, this version is downright delicious. Served up on a banana leaf, chicken is fried with onion, garlic, chilli, vinegar and coriander. Let me warn you, this fiery feast will get you hooked!
Kerala Prawn Curry - It's amazing to see how simple ingredients come together to make a lovely dish. The traditional prawn curry is sprinkled with chilli, salt, pepper and then dipped in a whole lot of coconut milk, jaggery and finally finished with curry leaves. (Recipe: Chicken fry by Niru Gupta)
Kallumakkaya Ularthiyath or Mussel Stir Fry - Mallu food makes me want to believe that everything from the sea can taste delicious. This mussel stir fry requires additional preparation time as the mussels need to be cleaned out but the wait is worth it. The mussels are cooked in shallots, garlic, chillies, turmeric, garam masala and a heavy dose of grated coconut.
Erissery or Pumpkin and Lentil Stew - This is probably one of the most popular vegetarian curries in Kerala. It uses a slightly sweet pumpkin and dried lentils as core ingredients and goes brilliantly with a bed of rice and neer dosa.
Kerala style Fish Molee/Moly - Don't mistake this for just another fish curry because it's absolutely sensational. The flavour of coconut and cocoum also known as kudampuli take this dish to a whole new level. (Recipe: Meen Moilee by Manish Mehrotra)