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Eating Well in Kerala
The Kerala table is eclectic, savory, and adventuresome. Rice is the staple, coconut the essence, seafood the star, and spices the local zing.
Kerala means "land of coconuts" in Malayalam, and its cuisine certainly bears that out. Keralites use every part of the coconut, and its milk and oil are prominent in all Keralan food, both sweet and savory.
Expect distinctive meat and fish dishes—rich beef or mutton stewed in coconut milk, bread stuffed with fried mussels, biriyanis cooked in an assortment of spices, and savory fish curries. Vegetarian dishes are plentiful—gourds, yam, mango, and bananas may be cooked or raw, in appetizers, entrées and desserts. Grated coconut and jaggery—semi-refined palm sugar—are commonly used in sweets.
Kerala is known for iddiappa, or "string hoppers"—thin strands of dough formed into little nests that are steamed and served with coconut milk and sugar for breakfast or as an accompaniment to soups, stews, or curries. Appam, a slight variation on the theme, is a rice-flour pancake, thin and crispy on the edges with a spongy, raised center.
Kerala's Syrian Christian cuisine bears the stamp of all those who traversed its coasts. A typical day begins with Pallappam, a rice pancake with Portuguese origins. Red meat, not often found in Indian cuisine, is a major ingredient, with lamb ishtew (a stew with coconut milk) and thoran (dry beef with spices) being favorites.
A central Kerala delicacy, meen pollichathu is a fragrant preparation of stuffed fish wrapped in a banana leaf. Any fish in season can be used, but the karimeen pearl spot fish is a Kerala local. The fish is marinated with various spices and a paste of diced tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, and coconut milk, then wrapped in a banana leaf sealed with a clove and cooked. This dish is available in almost every restaurant in Kerala.
Malabar's stuffed fish pancakes, or meen pathiri, are found at almost every highway eatery in the northern part of the state. A pathriri—or parota, as it's often called—is a flatbread based on rice flour and coconut milk. This is filled with fish (usually king fish, sardines, or pearl spot) that is shredded and cooked with spices, including chilli powder and turmeric. While some meen pathiri are so generously stuffed they look like a pie, in some parts of Malabar the pancake is flattened with a rolling pin after being stuffed. Chicken and mutton stuffings are also used.
String hoppers, or idiyappam, are made with rice flour and can be eaten with a curry, a stew, or at breakfast with mutta (egg) roast or simply with coconut milk. This Kerala staple can be sweet or savory and is a standard accompaniment to all meals, often garnished with grated coconut. Most often you will find it served with potato stew.
An evening snack available from street vendors, cafeterias, and train stations across the state, pazham pori are plantain fritters—deep-fried delights that are best when served hot. A ripe Kerala-grown banana, which is very similar to a plantain, is chopped and coated in a flour-based batter before it's fried. A similar fritter is made using yams.
Using the fresh catch of the day, meen mulakittathu, or fish curry, is a staple at the dinner table. Traditionally cooked in a brass pot, the gravy is a combination of coconut milk and spices that are all grown in Kerala—and freshly crushed when the dish is cooked in traditional homes. Different kinds of fish can be used, although the most popular are pearl spot and king fish. The emphasis is on freshness. This dish is served with steamed red rice or with idiyappam.
Another specialty of the region, puttu is a puddinglike dish made from fresh-grated coconut and rice flour, molded into a cylindrical shape and then steamed.
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