With 360 miles of coastline and over a thousand miles of backwaters, Kerala is something of a paradise for seafood aficionados. There are reminders everywhere:
Rows of giant Chinese fishing nets are poised at the edge of the water near the port of Kochi and fishing boats with foamy piles of drying nets idle at minuscule villages. Baskets of fresh fish are hawked by fishermen in colourful lungis, and frail catamarans with patchwork sails ply up and down the backwaters. The Taj group’s most successful restaurant across all six properties in Kerala is a replica of a boat in Kochi’s Taj Malabar called Rice Boat. Featuring only seafood, guests have the option of choosing their dinner from a live display counter or bargaining through the open windows, with passing fishermen for the freshest catch of the day, then getting the chef to cook it to their specifications.
It’s not just at the Taj where you’re assured of impeccably fresh fish: the jetty behind the Chinese fishing nets are at the opposite end of the spectrum as far as grandeur goes, but even here, the day’s catch is displayed in plastic buckets outside dilapidated shacks. “You catch, we fry” they claim. And that’s exactly what intrepid travellers do.
Thanks to the network of backwaters that run through most of the state, you are never far from freshly caught seafood. The backwaters yield pearlspot or karimeen, highly prized by the locals, while saltwater varieties include pomfret, mackerel, sardines and squid. There are a few rules for cooking fish in Kerala. The cardinal one is to cook it in an earthenware pot. The flavour is incomparably superior to metalware. All over the state fish curries contain a souring agent: the Muslims of the north use green mangoes, the Christians of central Kerala use kodampuli, or smoked, dried fish tamarind, and in the south, tamarind is used.
When Sunil Nayar, Executive Chef of Taj Garden Retreat, Kumarakom, fantasizes about food, it’s not, as one might imagine, about imported exotica. Rather, his fantasies revolve around a meal he once enjoyed at a colleague’s village, not far from Allepey. There was a fish curry tart with green mangoes and thick with lashings of grated coconut. Fiery green chillies added bite; onions and shallots were a whisper in the background. They ate it with firm, nutty brown rice. The fish was freshly caught, the coconut was plucked off the family’s trees and most of the other ingredients came from the garden, but that’s not unusual in Kerala. What Chef Sunil remembers with a sigh was the earthy flavour of the meal. “You can follow the recipe and get a decent result,” he says, adding “but it’s only in Kerala that you can replicate the full flavour.”
Shankar Menon, Manager of the same hotel, has traversed the globe more times than he cares to remember, but if you ask him for his favourite food, his answer is the kappa and idichamanthi of his childhood days. Kappa or tapioca is an extraordinarily versatile tuber that Menon’s grandmother used to steam and top with spicy idichamanthi to go with evening tea. Chef Nayar and Shankar Menon embody the spirit of Kerala, where food, just like every other aspect of life in the state, is all about going back to your roots.
Wherever you travel to in Kerala, food is not only fresh, it is plucked or caught as and when it is needed. Just as the Tuscan housewife walks over to the tomato vine in the garden ten minutes before lunch, and stops by the basil bush, so too her counterpart in Kerala reaches out of the window for curry leaves. Every household has a garden, no matter how small. Flowering plants and ornamental leaves are considered secondary in god’s own country. Of paramount importance are vegetables like ash gourd and drumsticks. Rare is the garden that does not contain at least one coconut tree and a small patch for ginger and turmeric.
My culinary journey began in Varkala, at the extreme southern point of Kerala. It’s a unique spot where the backwaters flow into the sea, and where high cliffs are eternally poised over the beach fifty feet below. Chef Nitin Mathur of Taj Garden Resort, Varkala fed me with every variant of the basic appam batter: idiappam, kalappam, even palappam for breakfast. Pootu served with black gram in an onion based gravy is another breakfast favourite. Pootu is made from coarsely pounded rice and grated coconut that is filled into a hollow bamboo container and steamed. It’s an inspired combination, in much the same way that lacy appams go with creamy chicken stew.
Continuing north, I reached Kumarakom on the banks of the gigantic Vembanad Lake. Kumarakom was where Chef Sunil Nayar prepared a selection of Syrian Christian specialities – the stronghold of the community, Kottayam, lies a mere 12 kms away. Njandu pacha curry featured crabs in a subtly flavoured green chilly and coconut gravy; karimeen, the prized catch of the backwaters, was wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. There was duck roasted with a combination of spices strong enough to balance the strong flavour of the meat and banana flower cooked with grated coconut.
At Thekkady, on the edge of the Periyar Reserve, I was in cardamom country. It’s at a high enough elevation to be cool all the year round. It is also the ideal altitude for Kerala’s spices to grow. Cardamoms, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, bayleaf and the most famous of all – pepper – grew in profusion at the plantations that covered the hillsides. Each large plantation has its own drying chambers where the precious spice is prepared for its journey to the warehouses of Jewtown, Kochi, and subsequently to most parts of the world.
According to Laiju Jameson, Executive Chef of the Taj Garden Retreat, Thekkady, cooking with spices in Kerala is an extension of the theory that all your ingredients are growing in your backyard. All the spices that grow around Thekkady find their way into cooking pots in the region, black pepper being the most commonly used one.
Chef Jameson patiently demonstrated how to make the fiery oolarthiyadu mamsam, that calls for cubes of lamb fried gently with sliced shallots, fragrant curry leaves and shavings of coconut. “Never fear if you’ve put in too many chillies and peppercorns. You can always temper it down with a spoon of coconut milk.” The other dish that he demonstrated, Malabar chicken, is a masterpiece that uses coriander seeds as well as minced fresh coriander in coconut milk. Coconut milk seems to be one of the ingredients for the signature Taj dessert, tender coconut souffle. Whisper light with the merest hint of gelatin, it was invented by a genius and served in all Taj properties in Kerala.
Kochi, my last port of call, was where the kitchens of the Taj Malabar are presided over by Chef Rasheed. Uncovering long forgotten recipes from all over the state is something of a passion with him. The little known cuisine of North Kerala’s Muslim community is a particular favourite. “This is one area which biryani is made using prawns,” he says, “that has its base in biryanis all over the Arab world. The prawns and coconut however, are particular to Kerala.” North Kerala is also where lamb vies for pride of place with fish and where breads – fried and baked – are eaten. Many Moplah (Kerala Muslim) festive dishes have been traditionally cooked by professional caterers whose numbers are dwindling.
What is patently in no danger of lessening, is the passion for fish curry, made in a clay pot. To recreate the flavour of god’s own country.