Kerala literally translates to ‘home of the coconut’ which grow in plenty throughout the low lying plains. This green ‘bejeweled’ state boasts of a coastline that is 550 km long, a width at no point exceeding 100 kms! Kerala is also known for its herbs that are used for a variety of culinary experiences as well as for medicinal purposes and used extensively in the preventative and healing science of Ayurved.
Food of Kerala cuisine is strongly flavoured – it is hot, spicy and sour. Tamarind, yogurt, raw mango and vinegar are used extensively to draw out the subtle flavours in meat, fish and vegetable preparations. Coconut, ground or grated or its milk, is an ingredient used in almost all preparations. Rice forms the staple diet and is consumed as it is or in variations of savouries and sweets such as pootu (steamed rice flour and coconut mixture), appam (lacy rice pancakes), adaprathaman (rice and jaggery pudding) and so on. Mustard, dry red chillies and curry leaves are a regular seasoning in many curries.
The people of Kerala have adapted to the warm and humid climatic conditions by the way of their lifestyle, clothing and diets. The large variety of fruits, vegetables and spices available in Kerala lends itself to an exotic array of beverages, providing great relief to the locals in combating the weather. More recently, tourists have been fascinated by these tropical flavoured drinks and their enticing ingredients.
Some ingredients which are common in Kerala cuisine are black peppercorns, button onions, cinnamon, cloves, kokum, curry leaves, dry red chillies and fenugreek seeds. So, irrespective of religious affiliations or social strata on the whole, the cuisine is an intricate balance of flavours, aroma and nutritive values. Tapioca was introduced by a maharaja of the erstwhile State of Travancore many years back, during a period of famine. Tapioca, today is as much a part of the diet as white mundu is a part of their dress code. Different religious communities prepare dishes which have come to be typical of them. The Hindus who are usually vegetarian are associated with avial (mixed vegetable flavoured with coconut), olan (ash gourd and red gram cooked in coconut milk), erisseri (red gram and pumpkin curry) and so on. The Christians with the strong Dutch-Portuguese influence excel in the preparations of fish and meat. Arabic influences are strong in the local Muslim cuisine in which biryani is a prime example. There are meat and vegetable preparations which can be classified in three categories like dry, moist and wet. The dry would be fried known as varuthathu, the moist is known as ulathiyathu and the wet is the kari. The kari would have thick or thin gravies as the cooking calls for.
Also, an essential part of the cuisine is the rich and irresistible dessert commonly known as payasam. These are thick fluid dishes that are served midway through the meals and made of brown molasses, coconut milk and spices, garnished with cashewnuts and raisins. Various versions of these payasams may include the lentil payasam, jackfruit payasam and Bengal gram payasam. Pal payasam, made with sugar, ghee and spices, brewed in creamy white milk and served with a golden yellow sweet pancake known as poli, is regarded as the last word in sweet dishes.
Kerala has a tradition of food preservation and pickling and jam, wine and squash making. Some preserves such as the jams are unique. For example, the banana jam common to Syrian-Christian households, in which a plump yellow variety of banana called palayankodan are pulped and then cooked with sugar, cinnamon and cloves. Pineapples are processed similarly. There is an astonishing variety of pickles, mainly made of lemon, mango and gooseberry. Each fruit is processed differently according to the degree of growth. For instance, mango is plucked while still young and small and along with its stalk is seasoned with mustard, red chilli powder and sesame oil. Sesame oil is preferred to other oils for most pickles. Fish, lamb and beef pickles are also popular. Apart from pickles, there are a variety of chutneys, both sweet and hot, which may be either dry or wet.