May 11, 2021
IF YOU’RE AFTER GLORIOUS FOOD and a proper escape from it all, Kerala should be at the top of your list. India’s southwest province has a rich history and cuisine, shaped by its central role in the spice trade as early as 3000 BC. A skinny strip of land, with an almost 600-kilometer-long shoreline on the Arabian Sea, a majestic network of scenic lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the coast, and the Ghat mountains to the east, Kerala is not short of impressive vistas, either.
A boat trip through Kerala’s famed “backwaters” is the perfect way to start off, unwind and watch the world go by, especially if you’ve just arrived from Mumbai or Delhi. You can opt for a houseboat or choose a resort as a base and take day trips to quietly explore, sans motor, the complex mesh of canals with a gondolier at the helm. Coconut groves line the peaceful waterways in every direction. You’ll witness toddy tappers climbing up the coconut trees to collect their namesake toddy, an alcoholic beverage made from the sap of various species of palm trees, such as the palmyra and coconut palms.
This abundance of coconuts is central to the local cuisine, which uses primarily coconut oil for cooking and often copious amounts of coconut milk. And with such a vast coast and network of canals, fish and seafood are a big part of the diet as well.
At local markets all over the province, a wide variety of fish is on sale every day including the local favorite delicacy, the pearl spot fish, known as karimeen, which is caught in the backwaters. The famed karimeen fry— a flavorful dish prepared by smearing a freshly caught fish with ginger-garlic paste, turmeric, red chili, pepper, salt and lime juice, then deep-fried in coconut oil— is often served on houseboats for lunch.
In Kochi, the long-time center of the Keralan spice trade, and a large fishing community, you’ll see fishermen offloading their catch every afternoon. You can buy from this catch at the local market stalls, right on the water’s edge. And just across the road, plenty of “you buy we cook” establishments will prepare the fresh fish for you to your specs on the spot. To start, most of these local dishes, curry leaves, shallots and spices are fried in coconut oil, which fills the air with wonderful scents and gives Keralan food its distinctive flavor.
The tradition of using vast amounts of coconut milk is linked to early Christian Syrian settlers who came to Kerala in the first century AD after St. Thomas had made his way to the southern coast. The Malabar curry is arguably the most famous of those dishes. Named after the Malabar coast, which covers Kerala and Tulu Nadu, it all starts with a dry masala fry, this time with added desiccated ground coconut tossed into the coconut oil. Then it’s time for the “poaching masala,” which gives the fish or meat flesh all the flavor while cooking in copious amounts of coconut milk and all the spices — these include mustard seeds, garlic, ginger, chilies, curry leaves, turmeric, coriander powder, and gram masala.
With its mixed cultural heritage and different waves of settlers, from Muslim and Christian Arabs to Jewish, Portuguese and later Dutch and British transplants, Kerala — and in particular Kochi’s old town, known as Fort Kochi — has an impressive diversity of culinary delights, including beef curry and others that are off the menu in most parts of the country.
For a full dive into the myriad of local flavors all on one platter, the Kerala thali is a must-try. This feast is so good it’s almost too much. Most restaurants will offer seafood, vegetarian or mixed. The mixed version is an amazing option if you want to try everything in one sitting: Chicken, seafood, local Keralan matta rice and a dizzying array of thali dishes including beetroot kichadi (mildly sweet yogurt relish), parippu curry (Kerala-style dal with coconut and shallots), a host of other curries, mango pickles… plus, oftentimes, banana chips and whole bananas to boot.
While feasting on these delights is a must when visiting Kerala, it’s also the ideal place for a healthy break. The province is known for Ayurveda; in fact it is so widespread that it is considered mainstream medicine, which explains the many Ayurvedic medical colleges and hospitals across the state. All good beach resorts have therapies available, especially along Marari beach. The stunning and seemingly interminable seashore is the perfect spot to wrap up your Keralan adventure.
Where to stay
- Fort Kochi: Malabar House (91-484/221-6666; malabarhouse.com)
- In/near the backwaters: Coconut Lagoon (91-484/301-1711; cghearth.com) and Marari Beach Resort (91-478/286-3801; cghearth.com)
- Kovalam: The Leela (91-471/305-1234; theleela.com)
- For a homestay with great food: Philipkutty’s Farm (91-482/927-5130; philipkuttysfarm.com)