Alistair Shearer on the cuisine of Kerala
My daughter and I arranged a trip to Southern India just before Christmas last year, finishing with a flourish at a five-day wedding ceremony, A hectic year had left us exhausted. A couple of hours before meeting at Heathrow I found I had caught the mother and father of a head cold; and I’d been issued with the wrong contact lens prescription.
Arriving in Mangalore, we discovered that our bags (including specially commissioned wedding presents for bride and bride’s mother) were still circling interminably on packed conveyor belts at a chaotic Mumbai airport.
A tense hour or so later, arriving at our hotel, the Neeleshwar Hermitage, suddenly none of that seemed to matter.
We had dinner at the beachside restaurant to the sound of the waves lapping and a far-off flute; and the sight of a white gull cleaving through a pink-blue sky which merged blearily into the sea at the far horizon. Palm trees bent solicitously above us.
The following day my daughter cajoled me into an early morning yoga class, followed by an ayurvedic massage… what a place, what a paradise… I began to rejoin the human race.
And of course, I was interested in the food. Every day, I was told, the chef buys the fish from fishermen mooring further down the beach, and guests could pair what was on offer that day with a variety of sauces combining different nuts and spices. I discovered that Alistair Shearer, one of the co-founders of the hotel, was an authority on the local culture, including the cuisine and I invited him to contribute a guest contributor post on the subject. I was delighted when he accepted.
Alistair Shearer has been visiting India on and off for forty years: researching for books and lectures; leading tours all over the country; taking photographs; meeting the people. He is fascinated by all the different aspects of India, “an extraordinary country” he tells me, “which never fails to intrigue and astonish.”
Alistair Shearer is the author of Views From an Indian Bus.
Kerala is a place that has been abundantly blessed by Mother Nature, with hot sun for nine months of the year, heavy monsoon rainfall for three and the resultant richness of soil. No wonder it is known as ‘God’s Own Country’! A verdant land of coconut-palmed beaches stretching down a long and navigable coastline, tranquil inland waterways and gently rising hills, this south west strip of India has attracted visitors from all over the world since earliest times.
The variety of the Karalan cuisine
The astonishing variety of Keralan cuisine today is a clear testimony to the blending of her indigenous traditions together with manifold influences received due to the geographical position and commercial history. Over the centuries traders, refugees, proselytisers and adventurers washed up on Kerala’s welcoming shores and each wave left its mark.
First perhaps were the Arabs who came in search of spices but also brought coffee, pistachio and asafoetida with them.
Early Christian visitors, especially the Syrian orthodox communities, brought many non-vegetarian dishes that made generous use of fish, duck, chicken and lamb.
Next were Persians
Later, from the seventeenth century onwards, Persian influences dominated the refined courts of the Mughals in northern Lucknow, Delhi and Agra and over time this royal culture filtered down south to Kerala, bringing her biryanis, dishes containing dried fruits and nuts and especially rich ways of cooking rice with saffron, oil and the clarified butter known as ghee.
The Mughals encouraged foreign trade and before long the Portuguese came in numbers to India. When Vasco da Gama landed in Kerala, he famously declared that he had come ‘for spices and Christians’ and while he and his successors exported many of the former they also introduced many foods from their New World colonies that are now considered staples in the subcontinent: chillies, capsicums, potato, tomato, cashew nut and sweet potato among them. The Portuguese also brought yeast, which radically (and literally!) expanded the range of Indian breads.
“The Portuguese also brought yeast, which radically (and literally!) expanded the range of Indian breads.”
And finally the British
Finally came a nation not perhaps renowned for its cuisine, the British. The Raj though did bequeath several important culinary influences to their prized colony, of which tea was the major one. Bushes initially imported from China were from the early nineteenth century onwards cultivated in the hills of both north and south India, particularly in the elevated Western ghats that form Kerala’s eastern boundary. The tea and coffee growing hill-area of Coorg, now connected with the ports of the western seaboard, also added its hallmark dishes of pork and game accompanied by spiced dumplings and rice-breads to Kerala’s burgeoning menu.
And then there were dishes enjoyed especially by the Anglo-Indian communities: soups, cutlets, croquettes and for the sweet-toothed, those assorted ‘nursery foods’ we really shouldn’t eat too much of but just can’t resist: jams and jellies, puddings and cakes.
This last legacy is still thriving in local bakeries. Thalaserry, a little town in Malabar – north Kerala – that was formerly a base of the East India Company, recently produced the world’s largest cake, no less than 353 feet in length and decorated with iced scenes from the state’s history!
“…..cakes…..This last legacy is still thriving in local bakeries. Thalaserry, a little town in Malabar – north Kerala – that was formerly a base of the East India Company, recently produced the world’s largest cake, no less than 353 feet in length and decorated with iced scenes from the state’s history!”
Malabar – a source of spices
Malabar has, of course, been the source of spices since classical times. Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Europeans all came here to find medicinal and culinary plants and herbs unavailable in the West: including pepper, ginger, cloves, chillies, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, aniseed and vanilla. In earlier times these were not just the optional taste-enhancer they are today. Fragrant Malabar spices were placed among the flowers and herbs of nosegays used to block out the stench of London’s streets and waterways, while in the mid-seventeenth century they were also used in the ‘plague masks’ that people hoped could protect them from the dreaded disease.
Until the early eighteenth century, unable to feed cattle over the harsh winter, European farmers routinely slaughtered their herds each autumn and used spices to preserve the meat, their pungency adding to the taste but also conveniently disguising anything that had gone off.
At the very end of the sixteenth century, the first cargo of spices from the East Indies raised a profit of 2,500% when sold on the Antwerp market and the European spice rush began in earnest. They were soon so highly valued that they were accepted as payment of income tax, and even became a type of currency, from which we get our phrase ‘a peppercorn rent’.
“At the very end of the sixteenth century, the first cargo of spices from the East Indies raised a profit of 2,500% when sold on the Antwerp market….”
Food in Kerala today
Today the need for spices may be less dramatic, but it is always increasing as we continue to discover the delights of non-European cuisines. Kerala is remarkable not only for its flavours but its variety, a legacy of the fact that three distinct communities have historically inhabited the state: the Muslims in the north, the Christians in the central area and the Hindus in the south. Thus Keralan cuisine includes a wide variety of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.
The Muslim food, locally known as Mopla fare, looks to the meaty Middle East for much of its inspiration, while the Hindu cuisine is indebted to the vegetarian traditions of neighbouring Tamil Nadu, with its own variations on classic idlis, dosas and assorted rasams, sambars and curries.
Sandwiched between these two, Christian communities have long loved Kerala Fish Molly and Special Fish Fry, both legacies of the Syrians who settled here almost two thousand years ago in the steps of the Apostle Thomas.
Seafood on the Malabar coast
The fabled coast of Malabar has always featured sea food as a staple of its menus. The fresh fish curries here are legendary and very varied; they may contain mackerel, sardines or even lobster. Sea Bass, Pomfret, King Fish, all cooked on a slow heat and served in a banana leaf accompanied by aromatic rice or lightly prepared vegetables – steamed or stir fried – are typical favourites.
Kerala nuts and fruit – in particular the coconut
Whatever the main ingredient, whether fish, prawns or lobster, all Malabar dishes create their unique character by a subtle blend of the spices that have been Kerala’s gift to the world alongside local produce: coconut, banana, mango and cashew nut.
Of these coconut is especially used, both to calm curries and, when grated and pulped, to add a subtle creaminess to many dishes. The ‘water’ inside the tender green nut provides a refreshing and nutritious drink, high in vitamins and minerals, especially potassium, while the firm white flesh is also rich in nutrition and calories. Cut plant stems yield the sweet juice used in palm sugar, while the fermented sap produces toddy, the traditional local hooch. (NB If you are sampling this, drink it as fresh as possible, as it soon goes off and the taste rapidly becomes vinegary). Oil extracted from mature coconut plants has always been used for cooking; modern research shows it is high in good cholesterol and the constituent lauric acid gives the body instant energy while being high in antifungal and antiviral properties.
“….the fermented sap produces toddy, the traditional local hooch. (NB If you are sampling this, drink it as fresh as possible, as it soon goes off and the taste rapidly becomes vinegary).”
The Ayurvedic philosophy
An important ingredient of Malabar food is the Ayurvedic philosophy that nourishment is not confined to what is sitting on the plate. All the food at our hotel is presented in a way that stimulates the senses of sight and smell as well as taste. and while the mind is silently prepared to increase its enjoyment.
Our main restaurant, for example, the Annapurna (named after the Goddess of Nourishment) is built in traditional style as an airy and tranquil space in which to quietly prepare the mind for the pleasure ahead. The seafood restaurant is an informal beachside meeting-place set amidst the coconut palms, with the stars twinkling above and the natural soundtrack of the waves gently lapping on the shore.
As we say in Malabar: aswathichu kazhiku – enjoy your food.