I obsess about food and I dream about food. And what can be more fun than writing about food! So, here I am, starting with the South Indian Kerala cuisine, which I love to eat and dish up. Except the meat and fish dishes, none of the vegetable dishes I have mentioned below use onions or garlic, which is uniquely Palakkad, my hometown in Kerala. And yes, we use tons of curry leaves and coconut in our cooking!
By no means exhaustive, here are the 13 dishes from Kerala, I believe you have to try!
Mutton stew with aapam: This soupy, white, coconut-based mutton stew is just what the doctor ordered – on any day. It’s small chunks of mutton cooked with onions and potatoes, ginger and green chillies, with coconut milk being added to it later, along with curry leaves and some pepper powder. A dot of ghee (clarified butter) takes it to another level. Teamed with lacy aapam (made out of a fermented batter of rice, coconut and a few other ingredients), or even our local pav bread, it is simply delicious. Many like to eat it like a soup, even. And one can make it as delicious with just potatoes and onions!
Avial: This is literally a hotchpotch, rather bland dish of vegetables, which somehow scores high with everyone. A medley of vegetables – carrots, beans, drumsticks, red and white pumpkin, ivy gourd (tendril), elephant yam – are cooked with salt and turmeric powder. Later, beaten curd, curry leaves and ground coconut-green chillies mixture are added, along with a dash of coconut oil. Easy peasy!
Chicken fry: This has many variations, of course. The one I make has tons of onions, garlic, ginger, curry leaves, fried, into which I add the marinated and cooked chicken. And then fry it on slow fire, till the rooster crows. Ok, am kidding. Just an hour of slow frying will do. And what a lovely dish this is, with a slightly crispy texture.
Sambhar: I am from Palakkad which borders Tamil Nadu and sambhar is as much my dish too as any Tamilian! This is the ultimate in terms of balancing pulses or dal (toovar dal), vegetables (bhindi to radish to brinjals), tamarind and spices. I like my sambhar a bit crowded and tend to add many vegetables. Have it with rice, the beans or cabbage podthul (featured below) and some papadam, perhaps? Truly sublime!
Beans/cabbage podthul: Minutely cut up the beans or cabbage, season with rai or mustard seeds, slit green chilli, and urad dal, cook with a dash of turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt, add some grated coconut once it’s cooked. Though it sounds bland, it’s a must-have at any Kerala sadya or festive meal.
Mango Curry: This is the dish to make in the summer season, when mangoes are aplenty across India. It has chunks of mangoes ground with coconut, red chillies and curd, which is then cooked with cucumber in turmeric, salt and curry leaves. Yum!
Pineapple pachhadi: You cook pineapple with turmeric and salt, add ground coconut and green chillies and beaten curd, and voila! You have a lovely, soothing, sweetish dish, which goes well with rice and rotis!
Puttu and kadala curry: This is Kerala’s favourite breakfast. It’s rice flour and scraped coconut steamed in a special apparatus called ‘puttu kutti’ (which has by the way featured in Ellen Degeneres’s show!) It’s eaten with black chana curry or vegetable stew.
Fish curry: One can make this with different kinds of fish. I love to make this with black pomfret or halwa as it is called locally. The fish is cooked in tamarind water with onions, ginger and green chillies. Ground coconut-red chilli mixture is added to the fish, along with plenty curry leaves. Serve this hot with rice, what a combo!
Fish fry: My mom has this long and winding road to a fish marinade, which I am only now beginning to really appreciate. Marinate the fish with turmeric powder, red chilli powder, ginger-garlic-onion paste, and salt, and refrigerate for a few hours. Then fry it in the tava or pan.
Sardine or mathi fry: Most people I know are wary of sardines, and with reason. It’s full of small bones, and difficult to eat. Till someone teaches you to chew through most of the bones, except the central one. In my case, my dad did. I marinate it as any other fish for frying, and then on a tava do a vagaar of rai (sesame seeds), curry leaves, green chillies and grated coconut, and fry the fish in it. Oh it’s so tasty, and this fish is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Ney choru or ghee rice: This dish I learnt very recently. Yes, as the name suggests, it does need dollops of clarified butter or ghee, in which the basmati rice is fried, before it’s cooked in water. Garnishing it with fried onions and fried cashew nuts is a must. This rice goes with absolutely any of the dishes mentioned above. The aroma will get you first, before the taste slays you!
Chicken or mutton biriyani: The Kerala biriyani I haven’t yet mastered. But I hope to, soon. This is one of my favourites, especially the one you get at Fountain Plaza restaurant in Fort, Mumbai. The succulent meat, surrounded by its spice mix in the bed of rice, with fried onions on top, has to figure on the list of top dishes to be tasted.