Karimeen pollichatu or pearl spot smoked in banana leaf at Kumarakom Lake Resort.
I can’t get enough of its big, bold flavours.
Blame it on the beef ban in Maharashtra. The moment I set foot in Kumarakom, I can think of little else besides indulging in endless plates of erachi ularthiyathu. The darkly sinful stir fry of spiced beef with slivers of fried coconut is madly addictive. I can’t get enough of its big, bold flavours. Predictably, the dish, together with flaky Malabar parottas, is my first meal here.
But I have a different culinary agenda during my three-day visit: to sample as many regional delicacies of central Kerala as I can. Kuttanad, the emerald green swath of paddy fields and tranquil backwaters that encompasses the districts of Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam, offers its own multicultural mix of intriguing dishes. Though duck and beef are a huge draw, the cuisine here is really a poem dedicated to the fresh catch from lake Vembanad - mackerel, banded snakehead, kalanchi, and the much prized pearl spot, popularly known as karimeen.
Karimeen pollichatu or pearl spot smoked in a banana leaf is the star delicacy in these parts. There are two camps when it comes to making the dish. Some prefer to lightly fry the fish before coating it in masala and wrapping it in the banana leaf while others like to keep the fish raw. Deepak Sundaram, executive chef of Kumarakom Lake Resort, takes the latter approach and delivers a more refined version of the dish than the one you would find at a kallu shaap (local toddy bar). His masterpiece arrives in a banana leaf, and unfolds to reveal perfectly grilled fish covered in smooth, rich sauce of fried shallots, ginger-garlic paste, ground masalas, curry leaves and coconut milk.
Meen mappas belongs to the Marthoma Syrian Christians. Photo: Sona Bahadur
Pearl Spot is acquired taste, bony as hell, with a distinctive ‘muddy’ taste. It’s fussy little creature found only in brackish water with a particular salinity level. But I like it. A lot. Deepak serves it to me again that evening, this time fried to a golden crisp. The karimeen fry comes with a side of boiled, sliced kappa (tapioca) and a simple relish of crushed shallots, bird’s eye chilli, garlic, coconut oil, vinegar and salt. The sun, a blazing ball of orange, dips into lake Vembanad. Heaven is not some place up in the clouds. It’s right here.
Over lunch the next day, the topic of conversation is central Kerala’s largest community, the Syrian Christians. Food is at emotional heart of this community, which maintains exceptionally close ties to its traditional kitchen. Deepak introduces me to meen mappas, a dish of the Marthoma Syrian Christians, who claim to be the direct descendants of St Thomas. The mild, thick fish gravy, made with onions, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, coriander powder and curry leaves, is finished off with the first extract of coconut milk. The secret ingredient is kudampulli or fish tamarind, a mangosteen-like fruit that's used as a souring agent in these parts.
I can’t leave without eating at a kallu shaap. The KLR team treats me to a memorable meal at Karimpumkala in Pallam near Kottayam. This 53-year old institution is a gem, bare bones yet home to some real-deal local cooking. The menu is crammed with backwater beauties: Kakka (oysters), konju (tiger prawns), njandu (crab), chemmeen (shrimp). We call for karimeen pollichatu, tharavu (duck) curry, chemmeen fry, chemmeen roast, and kappa kari, with puttu and appams. The duck, generously spiced with a special garam masala and cooked in its own fat, takes my breath away. Suffused with flavour, it beats any confit duck I have eaten.
Cooks at Vaidyaradu Kada (l); tapioca or kappa mash. Photos: Sona Bahadur
The final stop on my culinary journey is the hole-in-the-wall Vaidyaradu Kada located at the Pathiramanal Junction, Kaipuram near Muhamma. The owner Vijaya Tilakan holds a degree from an Ayurveda college, hence the moniker (vaidhya means physician). I find rustic dishes that are almost electric in flavour, with a gazillion seafood options - freshly fried konchu and karimeen coated with special masalas made in the kitchen here; fish head curry served with a starchy kappa mash; and crab roast so hot it makes my tongue singe.
Rendered giddy by the cuisine of this region—a mix of superb local produce, technique and local tradition—I vow to return in time for an Easter feast to try all the alluring dishes I have missed during this trip. Duck roast, duck mappas, fish molee,kalanchi curry, kallan.
Back in Mumbai, the spicy kick of the coastal curries I ate in Kumarakom and Kottayam haunts me. One night, surfing the net, I discover that Karimpumkala actually has a website. The home page reads: “If Kerala is God’s own country, Kumarakom is its paradise and the Karimpumkala Restaurant is probably where Adam And Eve dined on their day out.” An image of the fig-leaf clad Biblical couple tucking into a plate of tharavu curry flashes through my mind.
Give me this version of the Original Sin. Any day.