Many years ago, I had my first taste of Malabar parotta and beef fry in a ramshackle one-room restaurant at Delhi University’s North Campus area called the Mallu Dhaba. Notwithstanding dodgy hygiene levels and the deafness-inducing volume of the 14-inch TV permanently tuned to Sun TV, the food was a delightful surprise. Meat, spices, and generous portions defined the meals here. Unlike the regulation diet of momos, virulent orange fried rice, and chole-bhature that were student staples around these parts, this was a window into a cuisine hitherto unknown to me. Soon Mallu Dhaba’s Sunday biryanis and weekday mutton stews and beef fries became the food treat that mattered the most.
Six years later, when I read about the history of the food of Kerala’s Syrian Christian community in Lathika George’s Suriani Kitchen, I was hooked. The cultural associations of the cuisine fascinated me, as did its simplicity and carnivorous tilt. Just like a medieval traveller lured by the aroma of cardamom and clove, I too wanted to go to this fabled land by the sea, redolent with alluring smells, rich coffee, and a treasure trove of stories. When I found myself with time between two jobs, I headed to Kerala for a week.
My first stop was Noah’s Ark, a homestay in Cochin’s ancient Fort Kochi neighbourhood run by Diana Jerry and her husband. It was a place of bright sunlight, great warmth, and wonderful home-cooked traditional meals. After welcoming me into their home and feeding me a delicious meal of fish curry, chicken stew, and rice, I was ready to take on the town.
Fort Kochi is a great place to observe Kerala’s multicultural past. The history of Kerala’s Dutch, Portuguese, Hindu, British, Muslim, and Syrian-Christian settlers became clearer as I wandered through museums and churches, took rides in a country boat, and sat down to eat. Each meal was a discovery. Every bite of seafood, of coconut-scented curries, of jaggery-laden desserts and meaty repasts took me on a journey through many countries, from which the residents of this region had come.
One day, I wandered through the spice shops on the cobblestoned lanes of Jew Town in Mattancherry nearby. I bargained, to the point of tears, to get a precious share of the queen of exotic spices—allspice, which could very well be the essence of a dish, the single flavour that stands out in a curry, cake, or marinade.
Since I had the ingredients, I wanted to know how to use them. The kitchen of my host, Diana, at Noah’s Ark, was a good place to start. Diana taught me the basics: avial, a simple, steamed vegetable dish with freshly-ground coconut and tempered with just a hint of mustard seeds and curry leaves; robust, Kerala-style roast beef; and a fiery red fish curry with layered flavours of chilli and tart kudampuli (a sour fruit related to kokum). I learnt about cooking in a wholly organic manner with local produce, fresh garden herbs, and traditional recipes passed on from mother to daughter through successive generations. Each family would have one special ingredient or a measured mix of spices which had been carefully maintained and added to over the years, making the same fish curry taste different across households on the same street.
The next day, after a hearty breakfast of egg stew and appam, and a fond farewell to the folks at Noah’s Ark, I headed for the glorious Vembanad backwaters with kilometres of canals crisscrossing their way across the land, bringing life, giving life, and sharing life among the people. I was booked for four days at Philipkutty’s farm on a man-made island in the middle of an exceptionally large canal off Lake Vembanad in the village of Pallivathukal.
Although Philipkutty passed away suddenly a few years ago, the farm continues to be run ably by his wife, the warm Anu Mathew, and his jovial mother Aniamma. Guests have to take a five-minute ride from the mainland on a vallom manned by the farm’s personal boatman. Anu Mathew and her two kids, the farm dog, and her mother-in-law stood on the jetty to welcome me.
My days on the farm revolved around meals, walks around the plantation admiring its voluptuous bananas, green cacao beans and coconuts by the tonne, taking boat rides across the lake and learning how to cook traditional Kerala dishes. There were two other guests on the farm, a mother and daughter from England. We were comfortably ensconced in individual Kerala-style villas that were bright, airy, and tastefully decorated. There were no televisions, no phones, and no air-conditioners, and I missed none of it. I had never felt such peace, and, I realised, I had never eaten food that tasted as good. It was made with farm-fresh produce, fish from the lake, and chicken from the market across the canal. Homemade banana jams, chutneys and pickles, freshly made appams and parottas crisp, flaking with every bite, accompanied by fiery curries, mellow coconutty pastes, and fish bursting with flavour was enough to send me into food-induced coma.
As I learnt about the history of the Syrian Christian community through their food and shared conversations at their beautiful, antique dinner table where all the guests converged, I was struck by the ease of female camaraderie. The two Englishwomen, Aniamma, Anu and I were women of different ages, backgrounds and cultures. Despite that, we were soon chatting away over piles of freshly made idiyappams with divine coconut gravy and the most perfect karimeen pollichathu (fried spicy pearl spot fish).
The optional cooking lessons offered as part of the experience seemed to me to be an extension of this female bonding. Aniamma and Anu Mathew welcomed us into their spotless kitchen, where everything was both modern and traditional. Although I spotted mixers and grinders, they seemed to lie unused in a corner. The two women seemed to cook in a style that was as old as the recipes themselves.
Non-stick pans are rare and Teflon is alien in kitchens around these parts. From vegetable thorans to rich fish moilees, everything was prepared in giant aluminium cauldrons called urulis. Sold by their metal weight, they are as favoured as gold around this state.
Aniamma and Anu worked as a perfect unit. Anu ground the spices with a seemingly ancient mortar and pestle, Aniamma put measured bits of the spice mixture into the hot oil sizzling with tempered mustard seeds. Anu milked the coconut, Aniamma chopped the onions. Anu stirred the curry, Aniamma dropped the fish in carefully. Bananas and jackfruits from the backyard were freshly plucked, chilli peppers from the farm were freshly-ground and the coconut, the essential ingredient of nearly every dish in Kerala, was freshly-creamed, freshly-grated and freshly-chopped.
This kitchen was the place where they chatted, laughed and had serious discussions. It was the space where Anu would have entered as a young bride. It was the space that made their family happy on many a night. It was the space where they learnt, and experimented with the recipes handed down by their grandmothers. They cooked with a passion that seemed to be almost genetically encoded. The perfect symphony of flavours and textures was replicated every time, although nothing was written down. I watched them cook, I took notes, I read, I watched the moon rise and set. I heard the sounds of the night crickets. And in bliss, I ate.
Appeared in the December 2012 issue as “God’s own Cuisine”.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.