Kerala's cuisine celebrates spices like black pepper and cardamom, influences from Arabia and Europe, and dishes like Kerala Sadya, Karimeen Pollichathu, and Thalassery Biryani.
Kerala, often referred to as "God's Own Country," is a lush and vibrant state located in the southwestern part of India. It is not only renowned for its picturesque landscapes and backwaters but also for its rich and diverse culinary tradition. Kerala's cuisine is a sensory journey that takes you along the Spice Route, a historical network of trade and cultural exchange, to savour the aromatic secrets that have enriched the state's food culture.
In this exploration, we will immerse ourselves in the flavours, ingredients, and cooking techniques that make Kerala's cuisine unique. From the aromatic spices that define its dishes to the diverse culinary influences that have shaped its identity, this journey will delve into the culinary treasures of God's Own Country.
The Heart of Kerala's Cuisine: Spices and Seasonings
Kerala's cuisine is synonymous with its exquisite use of spices and seasonings. The state's equable climate and fertile soil have made it a prime location for the cultivation of a wide range of spices, and Kerala's cooks have masterfully incorporated them into their dishes.
1. Black Pepper: Kerala is often referred to as the "Land of Spices," and black pepper is the king of spices here. The Malabar coast, in particular, is famous for its black pepper cultivation. Kerala's cooks skillfully use this spice to impart a robust, pungent flavour to their dishes.
2. Cardamom: Known as the "Queen of Spices," cardamom is another jewel in Kerala's spice crown. It is often used in both savoury and sweet preparations, contributing a unique and captivating aroma.
3. Cinnamon and Cloves: These spices are essential in Kerala's spice repertoire and feature prominently in many traditional dishes. They add warmth and depth to curries and stews.
4. Turmeric: A staple in Indian cuisine, turmeric lends its vibrant colour and earthy flavour to Kerala's dishes, including its famous fish and seafood preparations.
5. Coconut: Coconut is not only a key ingredient but also a way of life in Kerala. It's used in myriad forms—coconut oil, coconut milk, grated coconut, and even coconut water. The sweetness of coconut is the backbone of many Kerala sweets.
Diverse Influences on Kerala's Cuisine
Kerala's culinary traditions are a harmonious blend of indigenous flavours and those influenced by history, trade, and cultural exchanges. Here are a few key influences:
1. Arab and European Influence: Kerala's coastal location exposed it to the influences of traders from Arabia and Europe, who introduced ingredients like dried fruits, cashews, and certain cooking techniques.
2. Malabari Influence: The Malabar region of Kerala has a distinct culinary identity that is characterised by its diverse use of spices, coconut, and a multitude of seafood dishes.
3. Syrian Christian Influence: The Syrian Christian community in Kerala has contributed significantly to the state's cuisine. Their dishes often include unique ingredients like kokum (a souring agent) and a variety of meats.
The Culinary Treasures of Kerala
1. Kerala Sadya: A grand feast that features an array of vegetarian dishes served on a banana leaf, the Kerala Sadya is a testament to the state's culinary heritage. It includes dishes like Avial (mixed vegetables in coconut sauce), Erissery (pumpkin and lentils), and Parippu (yellow lentil curry).
2. Karimeen Pollichathu: This is a quintessential Kerala dish featuring pearl spot fish marinated in a mixture of spices, wrapped in banana leaves, and then grilled. The banana leaves impart a unique aroma to the fish.
3. Kerala Appam with Ishtu: Appam is a rice-based pancake with a soft, fluffy centre and a crispy lace edge. It is typically served with Ishtu, a coconut milk-based stew with vegetables or meat.
4. Puttu and Kadala Curry: Puttu is a cylindrical steamed rice cake that is often paired with Kadala Curry, a rich and spicy black chickpea curry. This is a popular breakfast combination in Kerala.
5. Thalassery Biryani: Biryani in Kerala takes on a distinct Malabar flavour, characterised by the use of short-grain rice, aromatic spices, and slow-cooked meat, often seasoned with ghee and fried onions.
6. Payasam: No Kerala meal is complete without a serving of Payasam, a sweet rice pudding made with milk, sugar, and sometimes jaggery. The variety of Payasams in Kerala is staggering, each with its own unique flavour.
7. Karikku (Tender Coconut) and Its Delights: Kerala's love for coconut extends to its tender form. Karikku water is a refreshing drink, and the soft flesh is a treat on its own. Additionally, it is used to make dishes like Karikku Payasam.
8. Idiyappam and Egg Curry: Idiyappam, or string hoppers, are a common breakfast dish in Kerala, often served with a spicy egg curry. The delicate texture of idiyappam complements the bold flavours of the curry.
Kerala's cuisine is a reflection of its rich history, geographical diversity, and cultural influences. It celebrates the art of using spices, the richness of coconut, and the diversity of local ingredients. A journey through Kerala's culinary landscape is an aromatic voyage through the Spice Route, where each dish tells a story of tradition, flavour, and the ever-present warmth of God's Own Country.