People writing about diverse travel experiences in the land of coconuts, however, unite to praise Kerala food.
It is not just the food, it is the quantity too.
Watch someone in Kerala eating rice and see if you can keep your eyes from popping out, of sheer surprise.
Traditional food has undergone a lot of changes in the last few decades. Kerala food has mirrored social changes.
Let me explain. Traditionally breakfast used to be Kanji (rice porridge) and some side dish, mostly beans or Chammanthi (Chutney). Then the day of Kanji as a regular breakfast item was over. It happened several decades ago.
Kanji did not disappear from the dining table totally. It still is a sick man’s companion. It is also the cure for an occasional whim with a touch of nostalgia. The poorest of the poor still stick to it as they have no other choice.
Variety took over breakfast tables. Brekky became an enjoyable affair. Pathiri, Chappati, Puttu, Parotta, Vellappam, Idiyappam, Idli, Dosa – Kerala has such an impressive array to make any one kiss goodbye to breakfast cereals forever.
Some sort of delicious curry accompany them all. Veg, meat or fish.
There are some favoured combinations too. Puttu, the well liked steam cakes, goes with Kadala (Chana curry). Puttu is good with fish or meat curries as well.
Similarly most breakfast items match well with a wide range of curries and hence accompanied with some.
Don’t expect that to be the case with Idli and Dosa, two classical food items of South India. Sambar and Chutney are irreplaceable must with them.
Lunch is mostly rice. Households have it with Sambar and other vegetable curries and fish.
Ever noticed “meals ready” board in front of restaurants? If you happen to be in an ordinary class restaurant, and ask the waiter about lunch choices, the answer flows out somewhat like this – Meals, Chappathi, Parotta, Masala Dosa, Ney Roast, Vellappam, Biriyani.....
Meals is what you know as Thali – rice with assortment of dishes.
Dinner is pretty much similar to lunch. The only difference is there is less emphasis on rice although it is widely eaten at night too.
There is a saying, which goes like this - You should eat breakfast like a prince, lunch like a king and dinner like a beggar. We are accomplished masters in the first two, but can’t get our heads around the last bit:)
In taste and variety, Kerala vegetarian food is world class. Have any doubt? Try Sadya, the feast version of Thali, served on banana leaves. Usually eight or sixteen side dishes are served with rice. A better version of Sadya comes with impressive 32 side dishes.
Sadya is a part of Hindu weddings. Muslim and Christian weddings have Biriyani, Ghee Rice or buffets with a range of veg and non veg food.
Most Keralites, except the Hindu upper class, are non veg. Most Hindus eat fish. Many even eat beef which is considered a taboo among Hindus in North India.
Meat dishes of Kerala have a heavy North Indian influence. Mughal dishes are quite common, of which Biriyani is the undisputed favourite.
Traditionally coconut oil was used in cooking. Some vested interests did propaganda that coconut oil is not good for health. Palm oil and veg oil found their way to kitchen compartments. Price was a factor too. After a while, now Malayalee is starting to recognise the health benefits of using freshly pressed coconut oil.
The land of coconuts should have some coconut ingredients in food too, right? Fresh coconut milk is used in most dishes. Some dishes require coconut flakes.
Curry leaves are also liberally used in most cooking.
Kerala is a land of superior spices, for which ancient civilisations traded gold for. Spices are usually made to a paste before cooking.
While dining in Kerala, ever wondered where all that flavour came from? Spices, coconut and curry leaves – you got it right.
Kerala is heavily influenced by the sea and backwaters. That influence is most evident on the dining table. Fish is such an important part of Kerala cuisine.
One thing I can tell you certain. Kerala will make you rethink about sea food. If you know sea food as fish fingers, a whole new world of flavours and tastes will be wide open to you.
A simple yet healthy and tasty food is tapioca and fish curry. Oh my heavens, isn’t it popular!
Snacking is very important part of life here. If you want to know how important it is, look at the number of bakeries/snack shops even in small towns. They all keep impressive line ups of not so healthy food, both sugary and savoury.
One of the favourites for nearly everyone is banana chips. You will find some of the best tasting banana chips. Many towns have banana chip making shops right near the roadside, where they sell fresh and hot chips right out of the wok.
Parippuvada (Lentil Vada), Pappada Vada, Uzhunnu Vada, Pazham pori, Bonda, Sughian, Samosa, Ainas.....there is a range of snacks available from restaurants too. Finger food may be a more fitting description than snacks.
In Kerala, social and family connections are held strong. Traditional hospitality is spun into the fabric of social life. That explains why snacks are so popular.
Many readers may have this question – can I find some western food in your place? Absolutely so. Major towns and top tourist spots have western themed restaurants. Fast food houses such as KFC and Pizza Hut have reached even mid tier towns. Many resorts and hotels cater Western food to clients. However, do not expect Western food in every small town or tourist spot.
Let me also tell you that sometimes the Western food you are served may not be as authentic as you expected it to be. In the hands of a local chef, even western food may take an Indian or Kerala twist.