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Hiden India: The Kerala Spicelands Sunset with Palm Trees
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kerala & her spices
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Women sifting rice on the roadside
Women sifting rice
on the roadside.
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It is said that India has as many cuisines as it has languages and regions. There are 17 official languages, many local environments, and perhaps 40 different cooking traditions. Kerala is one of them, yet within the state there are distinct traditions. The reason is that Kerala is home to varied religious groups and lots of migrants who settled there. Yet, there are things in common that identify Keralite cookery.


Rice

Flooded rice paddies in central Kerala.
Flooded rice paddies in central Kerala.

First and foremost is rice. The central part of Kerala is perfect country for paddy rice. The low lying land with its many waterways is fertile and the climate allows multiple crops each year. For the past fifty years or more Keralites treat their rice in a special way, they parboil it. Raw rice is placed in huge pans and boiled quickly, then removed and cooled. This technique removes only the tough outer layer of the grains seven, leaving all of the important vitamins in it. Once dried it can be kept and cooked like any other rice. Highly processed white rice has all of it nutritional layers removed and has to be fortified with vitamins.


Coconut

Sorting oven dried coconuts in Calicut
Sorting oven dried coconuts in Calicut.

Coconut is another Keralite ingredient used by everyone. Keralites not only eat coconut in many dishes - it is a substitute for milk products - but they export it. Just inside the coconut's outer shell is a mass of fibers called coir in Malayalam and that is the word used for it around the world. Coir is used to make mats, ropes and many other fibre products in countries all over the world. Though the spice trade is important to Kerala's economy, coir is the main export today.


Fish

Chinese fishing nets in Cochin
Chinese fishing nets in Cochin.

Fish (called meen) appears on the tables of all but vegetarians in Kerala. With its long coastline and many inland waterways (more than 1,000 miles), Kerala is one of the top producers of fish in India. At every waterfront location fresh fish is available every day. None are more spectacular than the "Chinese" fishing nets at the port of Cochin. Sea fish include the long silvery mackerel, the bony pomfret, and a kind of salmon. The prized fresh and brackish water fish is called Pearl Spot. Fish are usually cooked in clay pots with sauce (curry), but are also delicious when baked or steamed in banana leaves. A special fruit called kokum or "fish tamarind" is used in many preparations because the acid in it is said to counteract the unpleasant flavors that rise from fish kept in Kerala's hot and humid climate. Shrimp, clams and mussels are also commonly eaten, especially in a baked rice dish found among Muslims called biryani.


Steamed soured rice cakes, Idlis.

Beans and Peas

Next to rice, dhals or grams are the most widely used staples. These are beans and peas in many shapes, colors, and sizes (dhal is whole, gram is split). A good source of protein, they are often ground into flours, added to rice dishes, and cooked with vegetables and meats. Two of Kerala's favorite dishes are made from slightly fermented dhal and rice, steamed dumplings called idlis and thin crisp pancakes called dosas.


Curry

Fresh Curry leaves are used is several Keralite dishes.

The word "curry" (Khari) is used all over the world and it is usually thought of as the typical Indian flavor: a strongly-spiced powder made yellow by the herb, turmeric. Curry powders are sold in stores all over the world, but this is not actually what curry means. The word khari is originally from south India and means simply "sauce" of any kind. Curried dishes, mainly stews, became popular among the British during the days when India was part of their empire. Not having the patience or ingredients to make the spice mixture fresh (as in India) British bought it already packaged by manufacturers in India and in England. In this form the word "curry" came to mean anything with this powder as flavoring.

In India there might be millions of curries because they are usually freshly ground from spices by each cook. With a population of a billion people and millions of cooks, so too are there many curries. But in south India, Kerala, most curries have these ingredients: curry leaves (the fragrant leaves of a small wild tree), coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, black pepper, hot chilies, fenugreek, turmeric, cardamon, and often cinnamon and cloves. These are all toasted in a pan and then ground on a flat stone with a stone hand grinder (or put in an electric blender). To make a dish, the curry is usually fried in a little oil or clarified butter (called ghee) and then the rest of the ingredients are added and cooked. Indian cooks say that the freshly ground spices taste better and that frying them before anything lese makes the flavors more vivid.


Pan

Betel nut leaves used for Paan
Betel nut leaves used for Paan.

While there are many interesting foods and ingredients that non-Indians do not usually use, one food is especially unusual. This is a product called Pan. The core ingredient is betel, the nut of the a kind of palm tree (Areca catchu) which grows all over southeast Asia. Areca nuts are chewed by many country people in this region of world because it a mild stimulant. Pan is more elaborate. The betel nut is dried and then either cut or crushed. It is often mixed with a red liquid made by boiling the wood of the Areca palm tree. A green leaf of a different tree, the Piper betle is spread out and the central thick stem removed (traditionally, a man kept one finger nail longer and sharper than the others for just this task). Then, a dab of white lime paste - the same chemical used to melt ice on roads in northern countries - is spread on the leaf, the nut placed in the middle and the whole wrapped into a small packet. This is popped into the mouth whole, chewed, but never swallowed. The effect is to anesthetize the mouth, something like a very powerful mouthwash. Indians find it refreshing and often take it after a meal to freshen one's breath. Westerners find pan very much an acquired taste.


Tea

Women sorting tea leaves.
Women sorting tea leaves.

From a distance, the landscape of wide areas of the Cardamon Hills looks as if it were clothed in velvet. In reality, these are the thick-branched bushes on which tea grows. Though northern and perhaps eastern India - the foothills of Tibet and the rivers along the Burmese border - may have been the native regions for several kinds of tea. It was in China that tea-drinking began about 2000 years ago. In the course of trading with China in the 17th and 18th centuries, the British developed a national taste for the beverage brewed from tea leaves. Beginning in the mid-19th century, British businessmen began planting tea from the northern Indian state of Assam all over India. Their goal was to take the international market from China, and they largely succeeded. Tea plantations spread across India and down into the Cardamon Hills where the conditions for it are just right.

There are many varieties of tea. The most famous are Assam and Darjeeling, known widely as the "champaign" of teas. Both originate in the north, but Assam-type teas are grown in many parts of India. When Americans buy tea, the package usually says "orange pekoe" on it. This is not a variety of tea but only means the "pekoe" or very top, most tender, leaves of the tea plant while "orange" refers to the Dutch merchants who originally sold it: orange is the color of the Dutch royal family and of the Netherlands.