on the roadside.
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
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.
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.
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.
soured rice cakes, Idlis.
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 leaves are used is several Keralite
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.
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.
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
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.