A Malabar biryani is served with pickles and raita. Photo: Dreamstime
That Kerala has so much to offer food lovers is something I only recently started appreciating. I am but at the beginning of my journey with the food of my native state and yet, when I sit down to make a list of must-try dishes in Kerala, I find that the list goes way beyond the 10 I wanted to propose. But then, if you start breaking down Keralite food, you realise that there is so much that’s going for the rich and varied cuisine of this state.
Besides the influence of the Hindus, Christians and Muslim cultures that make up the population of Kerala, and the people from all over the world who have gravitated to the state for its spices and produce, there is a range of fantastic ingredients this region enjoys.
There is plenty of rice, yam, colocasia, ash gourd, a variety of beans and bananas, tapioca root, mushrooms, bitter gourd, jackfruit, fresh seafood, all kinds of meat including beef, pork, chicken, duck and rabbit and some of the best spices and aromatics in the sub-continent (ginger, garlic, shallots, tamarind, kodam puli or the now famous garcinia cambogia, black pepper, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, clove, cumin, bay leaves, coriander and turmeric). It’s no wonder that some of the dishes Kerala has to offer are truly distinct from the rest of the country.
My 10 favourite dishes include many of the foods that I’ve eaten all my life on my yearly visits to cousins and grandparents' homes, and now quarterly visits to my own parents who live in Kochi. Each dish brings with it memories, moments, flavours of childhood, nostalgia for home. For those of you who are visiting, I know you may not have the luxury of eating at a local home, but do go beyond the stereotype of idli-dosa (which I have to say is better consumed in the neighbouring Tamil Nadu) and ask for these at the restaurants you visit.
Parotta and beef ollarthiyathu
A parotta and Chicken 65 sojourn to an old cafe in Kochi used to be the highlight of our Kerala trip during my childhood. Now, for me it’s parotta with beef fry, which is a must-do, irrespective of anything else I may or may not eat on my trips to Kerala. Similar to the lachcha parantha of the north, but made from maida with gossamer-like thin layers that are flaky and light, this is a bread that’s as indulgent as it is delicious. A good rendition of the accompanying beef will have chunks of meat that are butter soft, shrouded in a gorgeous heady mix of roasted coconut, shallots, curry leaves and spices. If you don’t do beef, go for a mutton or prawn version of the same dish and you won’t regret it. I promise!
Sadya is a celebratory meal and comprises a variety of seasonal vegetables. Photo: Reshmy Kurian
Sadya with brown rice and the works
In Kerala, the sadya is normally eaten either at Onam or as part of a celebratory meal like a wedding. Traditionally, these large meals were cooked and served with the help of the neighbours. The vegetables used were seasonal as well as specific to the region of Kerala one was eating in. Today, these generous unending meals are available at restaurants catering to tourists and local guests all over the state. The Kerala matta rice that is the central feature of this meal, is distinctive for the fluffy texture because of its plump grains as well as the sweet-nutty taste. Notwithstanding its high nutritive value, I have to say that this is the very best foil for Kerala's coconut curries.
Typically served on a banana leaf, the sadya will have you gorging on mountains of steaming rice with pachadi (subtly vegetables cooked in yoghurt, ground coconut and mustard), aviyal (my absolute favourite version of mixed vegetables, these are cooked in fresh coconut that’s been ground with cumin and ginger and seasoned with coconut oil), kuttukari (black chickpeas cooked with yam and raw plantains), kalan (a thick version of kadhi cooked with plenty of yoghurt and raw plantains), olan (blackeyed beans and ash gourd cooked in coconut milk), injikkari (ginger and tamarind chutney), rasam (sour, thin curry not unlike the rasam from the other southern states), Kerala style pappadam (oh those lovely puffy papads!), pickle (minced or tender mango with mustard seeds and curry leaves in a super spicy red chilli base), two or three different types of payasam (kheer) along with banana chips. And my very favourite dish, theeyal, which is a curry of shallots cooked in a base of dark roasted coconut, coriander and tamarind.
If you are the type for whom no meal is complete without something non-vegetarian, ask for some fish fry, mutton/beef/pork or prawn olarthiyathu or fish curry with this meal and most non-vegetarian restuarants will oblige.
Kerala duck roast is a flavourful dish served with rice chapatis or pathiri. Photo: Dreamstime
Pathiri and duck roast
Famously hailing from the Kuttanad region, the duck is a bird that’s much prized in Kerala for its rich flavourful gamey meat. This is therefore one of Kerala’s favourite dishes when in the mood to indulge. The duck meat is cooked in a thick creamy coconutty base of onions, shallots and tomato and spiced heavily with coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. The accompanying chapati like soft bread that is very similar to the Maharashtrian bhakri, is made by cooking rice flour in hot water and then kneading till soft. All over Kerala, the pathiri is a much sought-after bread, synonymous with the Malabar region. Using it to scoop up the delicious curry is an experience worth every foodies' time.
Appam and meen moily
One of my most favourite breads, you know I’ve already waxed lyrical about the appam. Soft and fluffy with just a hint of sweetness in the middle and fantastically crisp at its frilly edges. Versions of appam have travelled far and wide out of India to other south-east Asian countries, but the Syrian Catholics of Kerala serve one of the best renditions. A favourite accompaniment to the appam is mutton stew, but the meen moily lends its silky curry for a wonderful pairing with the appam too. One of the rare curries where the fish is fried before being added to the gravy, the moily is a milder fish curry than the others, but richer because of the delicious thick, creamy coconut curry.
Kerala fish curries are a delicious blend of flavours and typically cooked in earthen pots. Photo: Dreamstime
Kappa and meen curry
To most Syrian Catholic Malayalis of my parents’ generation, this is the quintessential Keralite dish. A pairing that was served to plantation labourers at tea time every single day, this is a full meal loaded with plenty of starch, protein and nostalgia. The kappa, or tapioca root, is typically peeled, cubed and boiled before being slow cooked with a paste of coconut, turmeric, chilli, garlic, shallots and cumin and finally tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves. The resulting stew is perfect for pairing with the tangy coconut home-style fish curry. The accompanying fish is most often mackerel, sardine, seer fish or tuna and the curry is sharp and fiery.
The typical Kottayam style version of this curry is sans the ubiquitous coconut milk and is flavoured with curry leaves, shallots, ginger and garlic. But, the most critical elements in cooking the fish are the chatti (or the earthen pot) and the souring agent unique to Kerala - kodum puli or garcenia cambogia, which is now touted as a miracle fruit for weight loss. My maternal grandmother used to make a version of this curry that was thickened purely with chilli powder; that should give you a hint on how fiery this delicious curry can be.
Pazham pori, kozhikottai, ellai ada
Despite the abundance of bakeries and some very good renditions of plum cakes that have emerged from the Malayali Christian community, it has to be said that Kerala does not have too strong a sweet tooth. The three exceptions to this, for me, are dishes that are more snack than dessert. Pazham pori, or banana fritters are sweet, ripe Kerala plantain that are batter fried so that the inside gets cooked to a beautiful soft, gooey texture while the outside is crunchy. The ripened bananas are sweet enough that the batter coating ends up a lovely contrast both in texture and savouriness. You really need to eat these when they are hot out of the cheen-chatti or kadhai to understand why this is such a favourite with children.
The kozhikottai and ellai (leaf) adas are both variations along the same theme. Similar to Maharashtra's modak, these sweets have an outer coating made of rice flour kneaded into soft dough and the filling is a chewy, abundantly sweet mix of coconut, jaggery, cardamom and cumin. The kozhikotta is shaped like a dumpling while the ella ada is like a filled pancake wrapped in banana leaf and both are steamed in the traditional appa-chembu (steamer). Not exactly decadent, but definitely healthy and yummy.
A typical egg curry is cooked with lots of shallots with a hint of curry leaves. Photo: Dreamstime
Idiappam and egg curry
This is another one of my favourite breakfasts and a typical dish at most Malayali homes. A unique version of vermicelli, here the rice dough is pressed out into noodles, layered with freshly grated coconut and steamed. The texture of the soft noodles combine with the chewy nutty sweetness of the coconut to create a rather unusual main dish. While the Tamilians often eat idiyappam with cardamom scented sweetened milk and that’s a perfectly lovely combination, the popular way to eat this in Kerala is heaped with a generous helping of egg curry that’s replete with caramelised onions and curry leaves. I'd say, go local, use your finger to squash some of the sunny boiled yolk into the gravy and then mop it up with the thin long strands of idiyappam.
An important reminder of the Mughal-Arab contribution to Keralite cuisine and the pride of the Mapilla community, this biryani is one of the most well-known exponents of the Malabar Coast of Kerala. Served with date pickles, pappadum, coconut-coriander-mint chutney and raita, the Malabar biryani is distinct from the other versions of this fragrant dish in the kind of rice used (the fragrant khaima rice, not basmati) the use of locally found aromatics (shallots, curry leaves, pandan leaves), cashew nuts and raisins besides the prevalent seafood variations that include prawn and fish. While it has always been ubiquitous to festive and celebratory occasions among Muslim households, this dum biryani is now a popular dish on the menu at several Christian and Hindu festivities too. No reason to complain there!
Beef cutlets are eaten as a snack and can be found at local bakeries. Photo: Reshmy Kurian
Another dish I’ve already waxed lyrical about, the cutlet is ever-present at every Christian festive occasion, and while versions of everything from chicken to fish and mutton abound, the beef version is the hands-down winner. The perfect cutlet will be crumbed to a crisp perfection, filled generously with cooked and shredded beef and liberally flecked with caramelised onions and boiled potatoes. A dish that is often sold at bakeries as a quick on-the-go snack, it is also served as one of the initial courses at weddings and other festivities, along with its signature accompaniment - the onion salad or challas. Make sure you grab a couple when you get the opportunity. I always do.
Fish fry is a huge hit, favourites being sardines, anchovies, tuna and mackerel. Photo: Dreamstime
Fried and roasted locally-caught fish
It goes without saying that Kerala has access to some fabulous seafood. A stellar fish preparation you absolutely cannot miss out on is Karimeen Pollichathu. The Pearl Spot is probably Kerala’s favourite freshwater fish and one of the more expensive ones to buy. Here it is blanketed in a flavourful tangy masala made of tomatoes, shallots, aromatics and spices that have been cooked in coconut cream. The blanketed fish is then wrapped in a banana leaf and toasted on a hot iron griddle or grilled over an open fire preserving its delicate flesh and perfuming the fish with the masala as well as the subtle grassy/earthy aroma of the banana leaves.
And then there is the famous Keralite fish fry, which is marinated in a spicy paste of red chillies, curry leaves, shallots, ginger, garlic, mustard seeds and turmeric. Fried to a crisp in pure coconut oil, the fresh succulent flesh is fantastic both as an accompaniment to rice or as a bar snack with drinks. One of my mother’s tricks to coax me to eat lunch was to quickly fry up leftover rice in the leftover flavoured oil, so aromatic is this marinade and so flavourful the fish. A fixture at almost every single meal in Kerala, the fish used will vary from the meaty shark to tuna or mackarel but for me, must-try versions are the ones made with kozhuva or anchovies and matthi or sardines.