Soak in Kerala’s jade landscapes and get a masterclass in Malayali cuisine.
Kerala’s green is something else, and all of it—the rubber plantations, throbbing jungles, and dancing palms—only gets better with a side of freshly fried fish. Or beef fry, or a pile of chilli-smacked mussels fried in coconut oil. Malayalis are passionate eaters, and thanks to colonial and trade influences, the state’s cuisine is as lush and varied as its landscapes.
Begin your culinary escapade in Calicut (Kozhikode), erstwhile capital of the Portuguese and a melting terracotta pot of Kerala’s three main cuisines: Hindu, Syrian Christian, and Muslim Mappila. Fortified by a breakfast of lacy appams and coconutty mutton ishtew, explore the charming city’s beaches, churches, and bustling spice markets, which once drew merchants from the Far East. Acquaint yourself with the many avatars of rice—appams, dosas, and idlis are the least imaginative of the offerings—over meals at Salkara, Paragon, and Sagar, and when you’ve wrapped your head around eating fiery fish curry first thing in the morning, leave for Ayisha Manzil, a traditional homestay in Thalassery, a couple of hours’ drive north. Spend two nights at the cliff-perched home of the Moosa family, built by an East India Company tradesman, soaking in views of the shimmering Arabian Sea, taking cooking classes, and gorging on the crowning jewel of the Moosa kitchen: mutton biryani flecked with raisins, topped with fried onions, and served with piles of pappadams, and all manner of chutneys.
Make the roughly six-hour journey south to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in the Palakkad district bordering Tamil Nadu. Notice how the food changes: The Tamil influence increases, filter coffee pops up more frequently on restaurant signboards, and the focus shifts from meat to vegetarian fare. Stop at a mess (a no-frills eatery) en route for a sadhya meal, served on a banana leaf. Parambikulam is nestled in the southern Western Ghats and showcases the Annamalai Hills in all its trumpeting, hissing, clicking, and occasionally, roaring glory. Accommodation varies from cheaper tented and dormitory stays to cosy homestays and eco-resorts, but they all have trained naturalists, and local cooks in the kitchen.
Next on the itinerary is Philipkutty’s, a family-run B&B near famed Kumarakom, which is about a 5.5-hour drive. The farm and traditional, tiled-roofed cottages are on an island in the backwaters of Vembanad Lake. The produce, fish, and meat, are transformed into Syrian Christian delights. Guests can also take cooking classes where they learn to make duck roast, string hoppers, and fish curry. Round off your trip in sunny, sandy Varkala, 150 kilometres south. Take dips in the ocean, gorge on platters of fried sardines, mackerel, and pomfret, or better still, sign up at Soul&Surf, a retreat that offers surf, yoga, and massage programmes so you return home feeling better than ever.
Day 1-2 Begin your gastronomic expedition in Calicut.
Day 3-4 Stock up on spices in Thalassery.
Day 5-8 Drive to Parambikulam; spend time exploring the tiger reserve.
Day 8-10 Drive to Philipkutty’s Farm near Kumarakom.
Day 10-14 Surf camp at Varkala.
★ Spot otter families, playful elephants, and crocodiles patrolling the banks of the Parabikulam dam on boat safaris in and around the sanctuary.
★ Varkala’s marine residents often make their way to the plate, in the form of fried sardines, mackerel, pomfret, and mussels.
★ Calicut is famed for its inexpensive cotton textiles and terracotta cookware.
★ Thalassery was a significant port for the British and served as an export hub for spices. Cooking enthusiasts still head to its spice markets to stock up on cardamom and the famed Tellicherry black pepper.
Appeared as “A Plate Full Of Green” in the March 2015 issue.
Next page: Tamil Nadu