For thousands of years, the spice trade has dominated the south Indian state of Kerala. With a humid, tropical climate and fertile soil, Kerala’s countryside is perfect for producing spices such as pepper, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.
It’s not surprising that Kerala’s rich lands & highly valuable exports made it an attractive proposition for early traders from Greece, Rome & China. Later day visitors to Kerala’s shores include the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French.
The influence of these countries can still be felt in Kerala as each nationality has left a mark on the state’s rich cultural history. Yet Kerala retains its own distinct Indian character and charm. This is most apparent in its cuisine, which is richly spiced and highly fragrant.
A backdrop of rice paddies & coconut groves
No meal in Kerala is complete without rice and coconut. Both are integral to the staple diet of the region.
Rice is served with every meal either boiled or steamed. Or it’s used to make the famous Kerala or Malabar biryani, a recipe renowned for its spicy scent. Chicken is usually the preferred ingredient, but there are many variations. In some versions of this classic Keralan dish, fish or lamb is placed between the layers of flavoured rice.
It’s no exaggeration to say every part of the coconut tree is used by locals. Sliced or grated coconut kernel flavours curries while coconut milk and cream are added to thicken sauces. The people of Kerala cook the majority of their food in coconut oil. And a popular local drink is fermented palm wine made from the extract of coconut palm.
Coconut is not just utilised in food. The trunk of the tree is used for beams and house thatch is made from palm leaves. Coir from coconuts is woven to form ropes and mats while the shell is employed as a ladle.
A fisherman’s paradise
Kerala is one of the leading producers of fish in India. The waters off this stunning stretch of Malabar coast are home to sardines, mackerel, mussels, tuna, shark and black pomfret.
As well as a stunning coastline boasting miles of golden beaches, Kerala’s landscape also contains numerous rivers and backwater networks. A healthy fishing industry contributes to the many local fish and seafood recipes.
Spicy fish curries made with ginger, cumin, and of course coconut milk, are a speciality of the region. Another popular local broth is fish molee, which possibly stems from the Portuguese influence on Kerala. A simple fish molee combines chunks of firm white fish with a variety of spices to create a peppery fish stew.
Seafood is popular in Kerala, and the area is rich in oysters, crabs, shrimps, clams and catfish. A typical local dish is a delicious prawn and coconut curry. However, the fish that is most beloved by the people of Kerala is the karimeen.
Karimeen, or pearl spot fish, is found throughout the freshwaters and salty brackish waters of Kerala. It’s one of the most important fish species of the region. In 2010, the state fisheries minister made it the state fish of Kerala.
Any fish lovers visiting Kerala should try the celebrated Kaeimeen fry. This famous local delicacy is made by marinating the karimeen fish in a mixture of lemon juice, red chillies, pepper, turmeric and other spices. The fish is then deep fried until crisp and golden brown.
The art of Keralan cuisine
In Kerala, the serving of a meal is almost an art form. Every visitor should take the time to enjoy a traditionally prepared dinner in a local restaurant.
At a Keralan feast, or sadya, a banana leaf is used as a plate, and multiple courses are served at once. These can include rice, lentil, meat and vegetable dishes along with a sugary pudding.
Payasam is a sweet dessert native to Kerala made from lentils, rice and sugar and garnished with cashews or raisons. It’s a dessert much loved by locals and is served at the end of sadya.
All of these mouth-watering dishes make Kerala a memorable place to visit. It’s the intoxicating combination of fragrances and flavours that entice holidaymakers to return to the shores of this beautiful land of spices again and again.