Eat-Treats In Kerala
It was with happy anticipation I had looked towards my trip to Kerala, recently concluded. Not least for the eating I hoped to experience; also for the breathtaking splendour of the tropical frondescence that the monsoon months accord it. Little wonder this period, karkidakam in local parlance, is considered most suitable for rejuvenating therapies. Having had a first-row view of it, I will never tire of saying this – it is the rainy season which truly underscores this coastal land’s validation for the ‘God’s Own Country’ moniker.
The cuisine was to blow me away in equal measure. A delayed early morning flight into Kochi was compensated well by a massive coconut-flavoured bowl of succulent prawn curry with iddiappams at the harbour-facing Armoury Lounge at Brunton Boatyard. Notwithstanding arrival at the hotel deferred further by the cabbie having to undergo a breathalyser test mid-morning en route! Leaving my near-exhausted spirits (no, don’t go there) somewhat amused and alarmed at the same time.
The menu at the in-house History Restaurant was a reflection of the melting pot that Kochi has been since the Portuguese dropped anchor at the end of the 15th century. Followed closely by the Dutch, the Arabs, the Jews and the British – all of them gradually chose to spice things up a bit for both trade and palate. First Class Mutton Curry is one of many such piquant albeit delectable reminders of their residence here. Later, the cafetiere in my room would brew me the most fabulous Chikmagalur cuppa of recent times.
Then there were the gobsmacking varieties of pickles I confronted at the Spice Village, up in the plantation enriched highlands of Thekkady. Alongside the usual suspects, mango and lemon, amongst many others were the gourds, bitter gourds, pumpkins and pineapples. (Pickled prawns would show up on my plate at Marari Beach a few days later). It was however the many avatars of the beetroot that had me quite amazed – more so on chancing upon a beet rava ladoo at the dessert counter. I confess it made a welcome chaser to the allspice avial and chicken roast I may have just swiped off my plate with any one of endless appam types.
The estuaries throw up their own specialities – topping charts is the pearl spot fish, karimeen in Malayalam. Its most popular avatar–karimeen pollichathu–comes wrapped and scorched in banana leaf after having been marinated and sautéed in generous amounts of spice and coconut oil. A staple of the rice-bearing Kuttanad region that snuggles along the backwaters from Kollam to Kochi, this delicacy is eaten with rice or appam variations. I had my first helping of this bony fish on a Spice Coast kettuvallam (traditional rice barge) that alternated between cruising gently and rocking furiously in step with the rhythm of the falling rain as it made its way across Lake Vembanad.
I spent two magical days at the Coconut Lagoon in Kumarakom, something I had been meaning to do since a decade-earlier visit that had left me smitten with the backwaters. Amidst sunset cruises, country-boat rides, kalaripayattu demonstrations, cultural performances, yoga sessions, bird-watching, and Ayurveda massages, there was the glorious food. You would think the buffet counter along the sizeable length of a recreated tharawad (heritage home) would suffice for yours truly. But no, I had to go and request them for a full-on Syrian Christian meal. Duck roast with appam was followed by a spicy fish (sea brail) curry with mashed tapioca, and accompanied by a karimeen. The third course comprised of red rice (a Kerala staple) and beef curry with sides of vegetable preparations. Dessert was made up of a lentil payasam and banana. My insides are forever indebted to the chef for his prescience at moving the pork course to dinner and saving me the ignominy of meeting a gluttonous end.
A sadya–traditional wedding feast of an inexhaustible number of dishes, also prepared during Onam the harvest fest–was the first purely vegetarian repast since my arrival in Kerala. This happened to pass at Chittoor Kottaram, charming heritage villa, former regal rest-awhile, dreamy destination, all rolled into one. The royal kitchen is customarily out of bounds for animal protein, a tradition reinforced in respect for the Nair way of life. Usually eaten off a banana leaf, seated cross-legged on the floor, service at a dining table appears to be the only concession. It is still quite ceremonial and follows a curious order of appearance. The upper half of the leaf is usually reserved, from left to right, for pickles and tiny portions of vegetable preparations – avial, thoran, raita-like kichadi and a tangy pichadi; the lower for fried banana or jackfruit crisps, pappadams, rice and lentil variations sambar or parippu kari, and payasams.
All unmarked images courtesy CGH Earth.