Nowadays, Indian cuisine is justly renowned all over the world but when people speak about Indian food they often mean north Indian tastes, usually influenced by Mughal and Punjabi styles. South Indian food is also becoming well-known, but the undiscovered jewel of the subcontinent's palate is the culinary expertise of Malabar.
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 astonishing variety of Keralan cuisine today is a clear testimony to the blending of her indigenous traditions with manifold influences she received due to her 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. 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 byrianis, 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.
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!
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’.
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.
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. 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.
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 Malabar’s premier resort, Neeleshwar Hermitage, is plated with an eye to its colour and served in attractive and calming surroundings so that the senses of sight and smell are stimulated and while the mind is silently prepared to increase its enjoyment. The main restaurant, the Annapurna (named after the Goddess of Nourishment) is built in traditional style as an airy and tranquil space under a high-raftered roof supported by beautifully carved teak pillars in temple style. Our seafood restaurant, the Meenakshi (named after the Mother Goddess) 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. The food here could not be fresher, as we buy our fish each morning from the fishermen just down the beach, and the menu is ever-varied, depending what has come in that day.
One thing is for sure: you may not be a foodie when you arrive at The Hermitage but we guarantee you will be by the time you leave! We wish you the best of enjoyment in cooking and eating, or, as we say in Malabar: aswathichu kazhiku – enjoy your food!