IN­DIA: KER­ALA, SAVOURED

Ker­ala is a food lovers’ par­adise, with a lot to of­fer vis­i­tors.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY RAMA GAIND

Ker­ala is a food lovers’ par­adise, with a lot to of­fer vis­i­tors.

The ca­coph­ony of sights and sounds is over­whelm­ing, but awe-in­spir­ing. There is or­der in the dis­or­der of a seem­ingly fren­zied crowd of peo­ple and jammed traf­fic as you stand at the con­gested junc­tion in the beach town of Ko­valam in In­dia’s south-western state of Ker­ala.

Thoughts turn to what Evelyn Greenslade said in John Mad­den’s film, The Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel. Ac­tu­ally, it was Academy Award-win­ning ac­tress Judi Dench, play­ing the char­ac­ter, who said these pro­found words:

“In­dia is an as­sault on the senses … a riot of noise and colour.” How right she was, be­cause art had per­fectly im­i­tated re­al­is­tic wis­dom in reel life!

No mat­ter where you are in Ker­ala, ev­ery­thing is mag­ni­fied … the pace of life is con­stant and in­tense, the peo­ple are charm­ing, lush green land­scapes breath­tak­ing, traf­fic is over­pow­er­ing, sounds are some­times deafening, the pris­tine beaches are invit­ing, multi-coloured hues are vivid, cui­sine is tan­ta­lis­ing, spices are full-flavoured and you’re finely-tuned to the mag­i­cal fes­ti­vals and in­fec­tious mu­sic.

It’s pro­pi­tious then to know I’m on the Mal­abar Coast in a trop­i­cal par­adise pop­u­larly known as ‘God’s Own Coun­try’. It was formed in 1956 by com­bin­ing Malay­alam-speak­ing re­gions (it has five main re­gional di­alects) – spo­ken by 90 per cent of the lo­cals.

Land of Co­conuts

With a pop­u­la­tion of 34 mil­lion, Ker­ala is no Shangri-La. This land of co­conuts en­joys a unique to­pog­ra­phy with the Ara­bian Sea, a part of the In­dian Ocean on the west and the Western Ghats on the east, net­worked by 44 rivers. It is di­vided into three ge­o­graph­i­cal re­gions: high­lands, which slope down from the Western Ghats onto the Mid­lands of un­du­lat­ing hills and val­leys into an un­bro­ken coast­line with many pic­turesque back­wa­ters, in­ter­con­nected with canals and rivers.

The 580-kilo­me­tre shore­line is dot­ted with serene beaches, tran­quil stretches of emer­ald back­wa­ters, sprawl­ing paddy fields, lush plan­ta­tions, ver­dant hill sta­tions, ex­otic wildlife, grand water­falls, re­ju­ve­nat­ing Ayurvedic health re­treats and historic and cul­tural mon­u­ments.

With a pro­tected area of more than 2,300 square kilo­me­tres, it has two na­tional parks and 12 wildlife

sanc­tu­ar­ies. The de­vel­op­ment of sus­tain­able and eco-friendly tourism has made Ker­ala an eco-tourism des­ti­na­tion be­cause of the rich bio­di­ver­sity, un­matched nat­u­ral at­trac­tions and an equable cli­mate.

A pleas­ant dis­cov­ery is about Ker­ala be­ing one of In­dia’s most pro­gres­sive states in terms of so­cial wel­fare and qual­ity of life: the first in In­dia to reach 100 per cent lit­er­acy rate, it has the high­est life ex­pectancy at 75.1 per cent com­pared with 65.6 per cent of the na­tional av­er­age and the low­est child mor­tal­ity count.

It is the only state in In­dia where Ayurveda is still fol­lowed as a main­stream medicine. In fact, var­i­ous Ayurvedic treat­ments and food habits have be­come an in­te­gral part of the Ker­alite life­style. That’s be­cause Ayurveda is not sim­ply a mode of health­care, but also a fun­da­men­tal ap­proach to life. An es­ti­mated 25 per cent of In­dia’s 15,000 plant species are found in Ker­ala.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal fea­tures is the back­wa­ters, a chain of brack­ish la­goons and lakes ly­ing al­most par­al­lel to the western coast of the state.

The to­tal ex­panse stretches over 1,500 kilo­me­tres, north-tosouth, with an in­ter­con­nected net­work of canals, la­goons, in­lets and lakes. Of­ten these wa­ter­ways are the only link be­tween iso­lated vil­lages and bustling towns.

Eco-friendly Tourism

Ex­pe­ri­ence the tran­quil and pic­turesque beauty of these maze-like wa­ter­ways by tak­ing a boat ride through the Poovar Back­wa­ters and see the abun­dance of na­ture at its best as you glide down the Ney­yar River. Rich in flora and fauna, while cruis­ing through you can eas­ily spot wa­ter birds like brah­miny kite, snake bird, sea egret and In­dian cor­morant ea­gle. Jude, our boat pi­lot, rap­tur­ously ex­claimed: “This is heaven and you’ll want to stay here for­ever!” We agreed.

Poovar is a fish­ing vil­lage lo­cated 35 kilo­me­tres from the cap­i­tal Thiruvananthapuram (for­merly Tri­van­drum), and 20 kilo­me­tres from Ko­valam. If you crave calm and beauty, then opt to stay in Ko­valam, one of the old­est tourist en­claves in the coun­try, fa­mous for its beaches, shal­low wa­ters and low ti­dal waves.

This ‘Par­adise of the South’ ex­udes an aura of laid-back in­dul­gence, with three idyl­lic cres­cent-shaped, clean and safe beaches – Light­house, Hawa and Sa­mu­dra. The 17-kilo­me­tre coast­line beck­ons with such en­er­getic wa­ter sport ac­tiv­i­ties

as surf­board­ing, kayak­ing, swim­ming in the ocean, surf­ing, wa­ter-ski­ing or just bask­ing on the beach and sun­bathing.

Check out the nearby sights in Thiruvananthapuram and Ko­valam. Spend time at the Napier Mu­seum, the Sree Chi­tra Art Gallery, the Pad­man­ab­haswamy Tem­ple (an in­tri­cate fu­sion of the indige­nous Ker­ala style and the Dra­vid­ian style (kovil) of ar­chi­tec­ture, the prom­i­nent candy-striped Vizhin­jam Light­house, Vizhin­jam Marine Re­search Aquar­ium, and the Pad­man­ab­ha­pu­ram Palace & Mu­seum of An­tiq­ui­ties.

An­other must-visit des­ti­na­tion at In­dia’s south­ern tip is Kanyaku­mari, a coastal town in Tamil Nadu, a scenic 85-kilo­me­tre drive from Ko­valam. Im­pres­sive, too, about

500 me­tres out are me­mo­ri­als on two rocks: Vivekananda

Rock Memo­rial and the colossal Thiru­val­lu­var statue in hon­our of the Tamil poet and philoso­pher.

De­scribed as a ‘true haven for trav­ellers’, na­ture here is truly re­s­plen­dent!

Spice it up

Ker­ala is di­verse when it comes to cul­ture, ge­og­ra­phy and from a culi­nary point of view. Styles for cook­ing vary from caste-to-caste, place-to-place and re­li­gion-to-re­li­gion. It is a food lovers’ par­adise, where the cui­sine has his­tor­i­cally had many in­flu­ences in­clud­ing from Bud­dhist monks and Vedic Brah­mins.

Ker­ala cui­sine of­fers a mul­ti­tude of dishes. The sta­ple is made up of rice, co­conut, fish and lentil. A high­light is the tra­di­tional Sad­hya (ban­quet, usu­ally meant for spe­cial oc­ca­sions like wed­dings) when you’re served 25 items on a ba­nana leaf. The small por­tions in­clude Rasam (spicy broth of toma­toes, lentil and black pep­per), Masala fried fish,

Pep­per chicken, Chamba Rice (boiled), Samb­har (spicy veg­etable and lentil stew in tamarind and asafoetida) and

Ada Prad­haman (steamed rice flakes cooked with ghee, jag­gery and co­conut milk).

Then there’s an end­less choice of meat and veg­e­tar­ian va­ri­eties to seafood del­i­ca­cies in­clud­ing ser­fish, cut­tle­fish, king­fish, mack­erel, red lob­sters and the rare and ex­pen­sive karimeen or the pearl-spot­ted fish. A visit to the Ko­valam Fish Mar­ket is an eye-opener, watch­ing the hive of sales ac­tiv­ity.

No south In­dian meal is com­plete with­out rice – ei­ther boiled rice or Idlis (steamed cakes made from rice bat­ter), Dosas (thin crispy pan­cake) and Ut­ta­pams (pan­cakes made from a bat­ter of rice and lentil flour). Most en­joy­able is the Masala dosa, filled with spicy potato and onion mix­ture.

Lay­ered flat bread called Parotta is made of maida (plain flour), egg (in some recipes), oil or ghee and wa­ter.

Abun­dant fruit and veg­etable choices are be­yond be­lief: mangoes, guava, cus­tard ap­ples, okra, bit­ter gourd, aubergine … the list goes on.

You’ll be spoiled for choice with many eat­ing es­tab­lish­ments in Thiruvananthapuram and Ko­valam. Here’s a small sam­ple of venues where you can savour food for the body and soul:

LEELA IN­DUL­GENCE

Let ex­ec­u­tive sous chef Di­nesh Lal make your din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence a mem­o­rable one at The Leela Ko­valam, In­dia’s only cliff-top re­sort, with panoramic views of the coast­line across the vast ex­panse of the Ara­bian Sea. Savour a unique Sad­hya ban­quet by eat­ing up to 25 food items off a ba­nana leaf. Now that’s a treat!

BAIT LO­CA­TION

An amaz­ing lo­ca­tion by the Ara­bian Sea, Bait Seafront Restau­rant in Thiruvananthapuram serves the best but­ter gar­lic shrimps, and the fresh­est catch of Red Snap­per and Reef Cod.

SAD­HYA TRA­DI­TION

Moth­ers Veg Plaza, Thiruvananthapuram serves a tra­di­tional Sad­hya meal on a ba­nana leaf and in­cluded are three va­ri­eties of Payasam (dessert with rice or ver­mi­celli) and 100 va­ri­eties of Dosa.

FA­BLED KITCHEN

Villa Maya is a tra­di­tional pure veg­e­tar­ian restau­rant in Thiruvananthapuram. The re­stored 18th cen­tury Dutch manor once en­joyed the at­ten­tion of the royal house of Tra­van­core.

FLOAT­ING RESTAU­RANTS

For a mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence on the wa­ter, turn your at­ten­tion to din­ing in a float­ing restau­rant in Poovar. There are three ves­sel op­tions on the Ney­yar River in­clud­ing Sa­mu­dra, Chile and Stephen’s.

CAP­I­TAL DE­LIGHTS

Jothi Vi­las Restau­rant serves pure veg­e­tar­ian cui­sine in a serene set­ting over­look­ing Sa­mu­dra Beach, Ko­valam. Spe­cial­ties in­clude Idli, Samb­har, Poori Bhaji, Vada Pav and Ut­tar Ki Khasiyat.

LIGHT­HOUSE SECLU­SION

Suprab­hatham is a lit­tle veg­e­tar­ian re­treat hid­den back from Light­house Beach, Ko­valam Beach, serv­ing a de­li­cious choice of dishes, in­clud­ing Ker­ala Parota.

VEG­E­TAR­IAN AP­PRE­CI­A­TION

Var­sha Pure Veg­e­tar­ian Restau­rant near Light­house Beach, Ko­valam, serves tasty Samb­har, Idli, Vada, Dal, Paratha and so much more.

DE­LI­CIOUS OP­TIONS

Pun­jabi Dhaba, Ko­valam Junc­tion, has north In­dian veg­e­tar­ian fare, ideal for the bud­get con­scious; Mal­abar Café, Light­house Beach, Ko­valam, has great but­ter and gar­lic fish (white snap­per), fried prawns and Red Snap­per curry; and but­ter­fish is a favourite, along with Pom­fret cooked in the tan­door at Searock Café, Hawah Beach, Ko­valam.

STREET FOOD

Street food is now a fad and its pop­u­lar­ity was ev­i­dent by the long queues at An­janeya Restau­rant and SK Vada Kada Tea Stall in Ko­valam Junc­tion. Ea­ger pa­trons were buy­ing samosa, pakora, ke­bab, chicken curry and other mouth­wa­ter­ing treats just as quickly as they were cooked. SK’s masala chai was a thirst quencher!

On re­flec­tion, Amer­i­can chef and au­thor Ju­lia Child was spot on when she elo­quently said: “Peo­ple who love to eat are al­ways the best peo­ple”! •

Open­ing im­age: Ker­ala back­wa­ters, © Sk­oua­troulio/iStock.

Above: The Leela Ko­valam is In­dia’s only clifftop re­sort with fabulous, wide-sweep­ing views across the Ara­bian Sea and lux­u­ri­ous sur­rounds. Right: A happy co­conut ven­dor cruises the Poovar back­wa­ters. Ker­ala’s back­wa­ters are recog­nised as a na­ture tourism hotspot.

Clock­wise from right: A green-coloured mosque found in a vil­lage along the Poovar back­wa­ters; En­thu­si­asm can­not be con­tained: it’s the fresh catch of the day with plenty of bar­gains at the Ko­valam Fish Mar­ket; Irvind is adept at mak­ing Pa­nipuri (or Gol­gappa), fried puff-pas­try balls filled with spiced mashed potato, spiced wa­ter, and tamarind juice. To­gether with Chaat, savoury snacks, typ­i­cally served at road­side tracks from stalls or food carts in In­dia, is also avail­able at spe­cial buf­fet at The Leela Ko­valam.

From be­low to right: Ker­ala is a des­ti­na­tion that fo­cuses on sus­tain­able and eco-friendly de­vel­op­ment of tourism. Tak­ing a cruise on the Ney­yar River in the Poovar back­wa­ters is a breath­tak­ing way to ex­plore a self-sup­port­ing eco-sys­tem teem­ing with aquatic life and na­tive flora; A Sad­hya feast, fea­tur­ing up to 25 food items, is served on a ba­nana leaf at the Leela Ko­valam.

Page at right, top: Just 100 me­tres from the shores of Kanyaku­mari

(aka Cape Co­morin), at In­dia’s south­ern tip are two iconic mon­u­ments: Vivekananda Rock Memo­rial, left, and the mas­sive statue is of Tamil poet and philoso­pher Thiru­val­lu­var.

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