Kingdom of Spice
Steering clear of the wrath of over-jealous locavores, Duncan Forgan eats his way through Kerala. Photographed by Aaron Joel Santos.
The melting pot of Kerala has been a global foodie center for thousands of years. Steering clear of the wrath of over-jealous locavores, Duncan Forgan eats his way through the spice-rich hills and coastal backwaters of the lush southwest Indian state.
“We’re not actually meant to be here,” says Anoop, my guide, glancing from the distant security guard to me with a look that lies somewhere between worry and dread.
The emerald peaks that undulate around the hill town of Munnar comprise one of South India’s most beguiling tableaux. Yet while the multi-hued butterflies and equally luminescent birds that flit around the plantation could double as escapees from the Garden of Eden, the lumbering gent moving towards us at speed, scythe aloft, is more like an emissary from the gates of hell.
Turning tail from the maniac overseer we make it back to our vehicle unscathed. Anoop, chastened, offers his apologies. “The local produce is of such high quality that people in Kerala tend to get over-protective,” he adds with a sheepish grin.
It’s fine. This high-altitude showdown at what will be known from now on as the ‘O.K Kerala’ is about the closest thing to stress I’ll experience in the prosperous enclave labeled “God’s Own Country.” The state, which is nestled at India’s southwestern tip, lives up to its billing as an oasis of peace and sanity amid the dizzying maelstrom of the subcontinent. Nevertheless, the crazy in the cardamom patch is but an extreme example of the passions induced in Keralans when it comes to their native food culture. My first inkling of this locavore devotion came while living in Dubai, where a largely dissatisfactory year in the Middle East was partly eased by my apartment’s proximity to the Keralan restaurants in Karama—an earthy neighborhood populated largely by migrant workers from India. As it turned out, I was far from the only transplant experiencing pangs of melancholy for home in these utilitarian curry houses under the burning Arabian sun.
“This food is actually pretty average,” Subramanian, a Keralan colleague, said to me once as we took dinner in a regular haunt. “The produce and the spices are all imported and you can’t taste any joy in the preparation. To fully appreciate Keralan food, you need to go to Kerala.” Ten years and two trips later, I’ve found no reason to quibble.
Kerala’s history as a key staging post for trade with European and Arab powers has bequeathed it with some of the world’s finest spices. Its rivers, 600 kilometers of Arabian Sea coastline, and paradisiacal expanses of brackish backwaters are home to myriad fresh- and saltwater delights. While north Indian food, notably the much-exported meatand-bread-heavy gastronomy of Punjab, revels in its indulgent richness, Keralan food has a freshness and lightness of touch that sets it apart. Coconut oil rather than ghee (clarified butter) often forms the base for dishes here, while popular additions such as tamarind, curry leaf and mustard seeds imbue food with more of a tang than northern creations.
Throw in a tropical bounty that makes it rude not to stir ingredients such as coconut oil and milk, jackfruit and mango into the pot, and it’s easy to see why many consider this to be one of India’s most exciting cuisines.
I can also attest to the fact that quintessential Keralan dishes such as ularthiyathu (beef fry) and fish molee (white fish flesh stewed with ginger, turmeric and coconut milk) taste infinitely better when sampled under a frond of coconut trees on a beach at sunset than they do around rush hour in one of Dubai’s grittier hoods.
An angry holler interrupts my afternoon stroll through the cardamom fields of east Kerala, its fearful intensity echoing around the steep valley walls.
‘KERALAN CUISINE IS SOPHISTICATED ENOUGH IN ITS PUREST FORM’
These things are obvious. On this visit, though, I aim to dig a little deeper into the culinary culture of the state and discover exactly why—when it comes to sampling authentic Keralan food—it pays to go straight to the source.
THE ODYSSEY, which will take in the spicerich hills and the lush coastal backwaters, kicks off in Kochi, a gateway and introduction to Kerala that encompasses in its compact space a microcosm of the destination’s ancient and recent history. Ernakulum, the teeming municipality on the landward strip, is Kochi’s commercial and transport hub and its financial towers and luxury condominiums are visible signs of Kerala’s rude economic health, based on a booming service sector and remittances from overseas workers: better wages at least acting as a salve to homesick taste buds.
For visiting foodies though, the mother lode is Fort Kochi, the oldest part of the city. Here, within a patchwork of churches, artsy cafes, colonial architecture and grassy palm-shaded areas hosting impromptu games of cricket, clues to the region’s gastronomic heritage are everywhere. Giant cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, enormous spider-like contraptions, on the shoreline are a legacy from the court of Kublai Khan. The old Jewish quarter of Mattancherry, meanwhile, is still an active center of the spice trade and resonates with the pungent aromas of ginger, cardamom, turmeric and cloves.
A walk around the place is enough to make anyone peckish—not least a Scotsman with a fatal weakness for hearty Indian ballast. A pit stop is made at the Kayees Rahmathullah
Hotel for a Kerala-style chicken biryani, a specialty from the town of Thalassery in the state’s Muslim-dominated north, that carries subtle hints of cardamom, clove and mace and is topped off with fried onions and crushed curry leaves.
The day’s main event though comes a short ferry ride away in the rarefied environs of the Rice Boat, the showpiece restaurant at the swish Taj Malabar Hotel. Arguably the fanciest restaurant in the state, Rice Boat is where politicians, big-ticket draws from the thriving local movie industry and sporting celebrities come to dine. The experience more than lives up to its billing: fist-sized tiger prawns are elevated to superhero status courtesy of their tender flesh and a smoky infusion of curry leaves, garlic and ginger. A fish molee features delicate red snapper and a turmeric-tinged coconut milk gravy that could easily be bottled as a beverage. The food goes down especially well with a few of the restaurant’s signature Malabar Mules—a blend of vodka, Kingfisher beer, fresh ginger, lime juice and ginger ale.
Yet, despite elevated presentation and a ritzy clientele, the restaurant stays true to the cuisine’s homespun tenets. Chef Thomas George trained with Gaggan Anand, the Michelin-starred Kolkata-born magus whose eponymous Bangkok venture is often cited as an example of how Indian cooks can conquer daring culinary frontiers. George, however, is not about to emulate his contemporary by conjuring molecular spheres and jellies or disguising his vegetables as meat.
“Keralan cuisine is sophisticated enough in its purest form,” he laughs. “Therefore, I don’t feel inclined to change it. There are so many distinct influences and flavors. We are tremendously fortunate here to have such a varied culinary heritage. The Europeans, Chinese and Arabs brought plenty to the table. The Christians, Hindus and Muslims all have their own specialties, which are enjoyed by everybody. And the quality of the spices, the seafood and the produce means it’s easy to make delicious food.”
THE ELEMENTS listed by George as integral to Keralan cuisine come into focus throughout my trip. On the winding route from Kochi to Windermere Estate—my plush plantation digs in the hills just outside Munnar—we whiz by mosques and churches and defy death as Jose, our devout Christian driver, overtakes trucks and buses bedecked in garish Hindu imagery while clutching tightly at his rosary beads.
Just as obvious as its harmonious religious diversity is Kerala’s sheer abundance of natural culinary riches. We break up the journey between the hills and the backwaters with a stop at the River House. The beautiful new boutique property on the banks of the lazy Periyar River is truly magical: plush dark wood–heavy rooms in the main colonial-style villa opening out to a grove of banana trees and a gorgeous riverside sala and pool.
It’s tempting to linger, but, as is so often the case here, there are gastronomic rewards awaiting in the most local of contexts. Anoop takes me to a toddy shop, the South Indian equivalent of a speakeasy.
We reach the drinking den after following a steady stream of men in lungi proceeding across a rice field. While the dark, unadorned interior won’t be winning any prizes for décor, a fiery chemmeen curry made with river prawns, coconut, fenugreek and black mustard seeds earns my nomination for Indian pub
grub of the year. Also memorable is the shop’s toddy itself.
Fermented, funky, milk-colored and a little warm, coconut palm liquor is not the world’s most refined beverage. But sourced as it is straight from the palms and delivered direct to the bar by its supplier—a heroic tree-climbing booze-entrepreneur known as a “toddytapper”—it’s certainly the freshest.
More manna awaits in Alleppey, the main portal to Kerala’s famous backwaters: a luminous waterworld teeming with wildlife and dotted with agrarian communities where inhabitants till the earth and harvest the depths for a living. Most tourists experience this fabled area by chartering a kettuvallam (converted rice barge) for an overnight stay.
The often-luxurious vessels keep guests fed and watered with standard (but still excellent) Keralan meals and coolers full of Kingfisher. With tight schedules to keep though, vessels don’t deviate much from a tried-and-tested route. In fact, pulling back into Alleppey port in the company of hundreds of other identical boats is the closest thing I’ve experienced to a big-city rush hour in Kerala.
There’s still time though for a final locavore thrill before leaving. Heading back out on the backwaters, on a smaller boat secured for the afternoon in Alleppey, I ask the skipper to steer me to Ammus, renowned in these parts for its way with seafood—and lack of official contact information. It would be a culinary travesty to journey to this region without dining in its most famous restaurant without an address.
It’s an idyllic afternoon with a soundtrack of distant birds. On my command, four gargantuan prawns still active in a plastic bag are handed over by the owner to his wife. I watch transfixed while she chops tomato, garlic and ginger at lightning speed, adds the ingredients and a pre-made masala to a flaming pan and throws in the crustaceans to broil for a few seconds in the searing inferno.
As the proprietor puts the food on the table, along with a fresh bottle of toddy, an urgent whine strikes up just outside the dining area. A giant guard dog is eyeing me and my lunch furiously. Luckily, this security guard is safely chained-up and he wouldn’t be able to wield a weapon if there were one in reach.
But, while I’m slurping the shrimp juice and the accompanying flavor-bomb sauce off my ever-messier hands, it occurs to me that if anyone tried to swipe this backwater banquet away, I would fight them off myself with a scythe. I now have Kerala in my soul. That’s something my old colleague Subramanian would definitely approve.
Sunset at Fort Kochi in Kerala. OPPOSITE: “Special” promises at an old spice market outside of Mattancherry in Fort Kochi.