For a lot of people, the mention of Kerala triggers a scrapbook response. Stock images of backwaters, houseboats, Ayurvedic massages and Kathakali rasas, dutifully flip by in the mind’s eye. I’ll concede, experiencing all that in person could very well prove it’s everything it’s cut out to be. But too often a certain something falls by the wayside in the rush to tick off your share of advertised Kerala experiences. Yet all is not lost. For if you’re in a large Indian city, there’s a chance it’s at hand. Recruit it as soon as you can. You will find yourself asking for seconds. Yes, it’s the food.
The very thought of piping warm puttu (a ground rice cake found in similar forms in Sri Lanka and some Southeast Asian countries too) and the full range of local rice pancakes known as appams, can warm any wintry morning. Rice being the staple in this state, the side dishes are composed to be a perfect complement. Outstanding examples include avial (a dry potpourri of vegetables stewed in coconut milk), sambar, rasam (pepper water) and thoran (a thick vegetable curry), as well as spiced biryanis and meat curries. This is one place that serves the finest of Indian vegetarian foods and meat dishes such as mutton kappa curry and meen vevicchadu (a fish preparation).
Kerala has been known for its spices since Ancient times and they play not small part in defining the flavours of each dish. Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, black pepper, cloves, coriander and turmeric are summoned according to the requirement of each dish. Even your encounter with Kerala’s snacks would leave you hooked, if you’re not already. Banana chips, yam crisps, tapioca chips – I have friends who will never allow these supplies to run below the danger mark, even if other supposedly more essential supplies should run out.
Now I always caution friends to starve rather than settle for establishments that dish out cuisine that risks being anything less than authentic. One place you can walk into with your eyes closed for the best of South Indian cuisine is of course the inimitable Dakshin at your nearest ITC Hotel. To this I must add that if you’re lucky enough to be in Chennai or pass by any time soon, you mustn’t miss the chance to sample the best of Kerala’s cuisine in the stylish three meal buffet restaurant Madras Pavilion at the newly opened ITC Grand Chola.
You’ll return for more.