The cuisine of Kerala (Malayalam: കേരളീയ പാചകശൈലി) is linked in all its richness to the history, geography, demography and culture of the land. Kerala cuisine has a multitude of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes prepared using fish, poultry and meat.
For over 2000 years, Kerala has been visited by ocean-goers, including traders from Greece, Rome, the eastern Mediterranean,Arab countries, and Europe (see History of Kerala). Thus, Kerala cuisine is a blend of indigenous dishes and foreign dishes adapted to Kerala tastes. Coconuts grow in abundance in Kerala, and consequently, grated coconut and coconut milk are widely used in dishes and curries as a thickener and flavouring ingredient. Kerala’s long coastline, numerous rivers and backwater networks, and strong fishing industry have contributed to many sea- and river-food based dishes. Rice is grown in abundance, and could be said, along with tapioca (manioc/cassava), to be the main starch ingredient used in Kerala food. Having been a major production area of spices for thousands of years, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon play a large part in its food.
Spices in Kerala Cuisine
As with almost all Indian food, spices play an important part in Kerala cuisine. The main spices used are cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, green and red peppers, cloves, garlic, cumin seeds, coriander, turmeric, and so on. Few fresh herbs are used, unlike in European cuisine, and mainly consist of the commonly used curry leaf, and the occasional use of fresh coriander and mint. While Tamarind and lime are used to make sauces sour in North Malabar areas; the Travancore region uses only kodampuli (Garcinia Cambogia), as sour sauces are very popular in Kerala. Sweet and sour dishes are however, rare, but exceptions like the ripe mango version of the pulissery and tamarind-jaggery-ginger chutney known as puliinji or injipuli are popular
Kerala cuisine offers many delicious vegetarian breakfast dishes that are often relatively unknown outside the state. These include Puttu (made of rice powder and grated coconut, steamed in a metal or bamboo holder) and kadala (a curry made of black garbanzo beans chana), idli (fluffy rice pancakes), sambar, dosa and chutney, pidiyan, Idiyappam (string hoppers – also known as Noolputtu and Nool-Appam in Malabar), Paal-Appam, a circular, fluffy, crisp-edged pancake made of rice flour fermented with a small amount of toddy or wine, etc. Idiyapam and Paalappam are accompanied by mutton, chicken or vegetable stew or a curry of beef or fish moli (the most common dish is black pomfret in a coconut based sauce). In North Malabar area Breakfast is known is ‘Kathaladakkal’ and ‘Praathal’ in rest of Kerala.
Lunch and dinner
The staple food of Kerala, like most South-Indian states, is rice. Unlike other states, however, many people in Kerala prefer parboiled rice (Choru) (rice made nutritious by boiling it with rice husk). Kanji (rice congee), a kind of rice porridge, is also popular. Tapioca, called kappa in Kerala, is popular in central Kerala and in the highlands, and is frequently eaten with fish curry.
Baked Tapioca dish
Rice is usually consumed with one or more curries. Accompaniments with rice may include upperis (dry braised or sauteed vegetables), rasam, chips, and/or buttermilk (called moru). Vegetarian dinners usually consist of multiple courses, each involving rice, one main dish (usually sambar, rasam, puli-sherry), and one or more side-dishes. Kerala cooking uses coconut oil almost exclusively, although health concerns and cost have led to coconut oil being replaced to some extent by palm oil and vegetable oil.
Popular vegetarian dishes include sambar, aviyal, Kaalan, thoran, (Poduthol (dry curry), pulisherry (morozhichathu in Cochin and the Malabar region), olan, erisherry, puliinji, payaru (mung bean), kappa (tapioca), etc.
Vegetarian dishes often consist of fresh spices that are liquefied and crushed to make a paste-like texture to dampen rice.
Common non-vegetarian dishes include stew (using chicken, beef, lamb, or fish), traditional or chicken curry (Nadan Kozhi Curry), chicken fry (Kozhi Porichathu/Varuthathu), fish/chicken/mutton molly(fish or meat in light gravy), fish curry (Meen Curry), fish fry (Karimeen Porichathu/Varuthathu), lobster fry (Konchu Varuthathu), Spicy Beef Fry (Beef Ularthiyathu), Spicy Steamed Fish (Meen Pollichathu) etc. Biriyani, a Mughal dish consists of rice cooked along with meat, onions, chillies and other spices.
Although rice and tapioca may be considered the original Kerala starch staples, wheat, in the form of chappatis or parathas (known as porottas in Kerala), is now very commonly eaten, especially at dinner time. Numerous little streetside vendors offer an oily parathas (akin to the croissant in its flakiness and oiliness) with meat, egg, or vegetable curry for dinner. Grains such as ragi and millet, although common in the arid parts of South India, have not gained a foothold in Kerala.
A typical sadya, where banana leaves are used as plates Sadya items ready to be served, Clockwise from top Paayasam, Bittergourd thoran, aviyal, Kaalan, Lime Pickle, Sambar, Buttermilk with Boiled rice in center.
Kerala is known for its traditional banquet or sadhya, a vegetarian meal served with boiled rice and a host of side-dishes served especially during special occasions and festivals. The sadhya is complemented by payasam, a sweet dessert native to Kerala. The sadhya is, as per custom, served on a banana leaf, and is a formal-style meal with three or more courses of rice with a side-dish (usually sambar, rasam, buttermilk, etc.). In south Kerala the Payasam in followed by more (butter milk). Whereas in North Malabar it is considered to be the last dish to be served. A typical sadhya would have
- Boiled Rice
- Kaya upperi
- Sharkara upperi
- Sweets and Desserts
- Spicy fish from Kerala.
Due to limited influence of Central Asian food on Kerala, the use of sweets is not as widespread as in North India. Kerala does not have any indigenous cold desserts, but hot/warm desserts are popular. The most popular example is undoubtedly the payasam: a preparation of milk, coconut extract, sugar, cashews, dry grapes, etc. Payasam can be made with many base constituents, including Paal payasam (made from rice), Ada payasam (with Ada, broken strips of baked starch from various sources), Paripu payasam (made from dal), Pazham pradhamam (made from banana), Gothambu payasam (made from wheat) etc. Ada payasam is especially popular during the festival of Vishu and Onam. Most payasams can also be consumed chilled. Jaggery or molasses is a common sweetening ingredient, although white sugar is gaining ground. Fruit, especially the small yellow bananas, are often eaten after a meal or at any time of the day. Plantains, uncooked or steamed, are popularly eaten for breakfast or tea.
Other popular sweets include Unniappam (a fried banana bread), pazham-pori (plantain slices covered with a fried crust made of sweetened flour), and kozhakkatta (rice dumplings stuffed with a sweet mixture of molasses, coconut etc.). Cakes, ice-creams, cookies and puddings are equally common. Generally, except for payasam, most sweets are not eaten as dessert but as a tea-time snack.
Pickles and other side-dishes
Kerala cuisine also has a variety of pickles and chutneys, and crunchy pappadums, banana chips, jackfruit chips, Kalathappam, Kinnathappam kozhalappam, achappam, cheeda, and churuttu.
Being mostly a hot and humid area, Keralites have developed a variety of drinks to cope with thirst. A variety of what might be called herbal teas are served during mealtimes. Cumin seeds, ginger or coriander seeds are boiled in water and served warm or at room temperature. In addition to the improved taste, the spices also have digestive and other medicinal properties. Sambharam, a diluted buttermilk often flavoured with ginger, lime leaves, green chili peppers etc. was very commonly drunk, although it has been replaced to some extent by soda pop. Coffee and tea (both hot) drunk black, or with milk and white sugar or unrefined palm sugar (karippatti), are commonly drunk. Numerous small shops dotted around the land sell fresh lime juice (called naranga vellam, or bonji sarbat in Malayalam), and many now offer milk shakes and other fruit juices.
There are utensils that are used in Kerala which are significant to cuisine in Kerala. An aduppu is a square hearth, Mun Chatti is cooking pot made from clay, Cheena Chatti (literally Chinese pot) is a deep frying pan.
Food offerings in rituals
Food is extremely important when it comes to rituals or festivals. Food offerings in ritual are important in Kerala and throughout South India. Food offerings are often related to the gods of religions. In India, there are numerous offerings for Hindu gods and there are many differences between food offerings in North and South India. Most offerings contain more than one type of food. There are many reasons why people use the practice of food offerings. Some are to express love, or negotiate or thank gods. It can also be used to “stress certain structural features of Hinduism”. Of course, not every ritual’s gods require food offerings. Most have a liking for certain foods. For example, butter is one of the preferred foods by the god Krishna. Also, wild orange and a sugarcane stalk are related to Ganapati.
There is a division of the Hindu pantheon into pure and impure deities which is stressed, but shaped by food offerings. Pure deities are offered vegetarian foods while impure deities are offered meat due to their craving for blood. A specific dish is offered to both pure and impure deities. That is a flour lamp which is made of sweetened rice-flour paste which is scooped out and packed with ghee. The flour lamp is only partially baked and then eaten. Another aspect of food offerings is the hierarchy that foods have. It may seem strange that there is a hierarchy for foods, but it is because there is a dual opposition between the pure and impure deities which is hierarchal. There are two gods which have this dual opposition. They are Vishnu and Siva. Ferro-Luzzi explains that Vishnu is viewed as kind while the offerings that are given to Siva are more frugal’. An offering to Siva might be likely to be plain rice with no salt or other toppings, while an offering to Vishnu may resemble a South Indian dish which can consist of rice with other side dishes. Specifically in South Indian offerings, they are offered in numbers. For example, the number three is important in Kerala offerings. There are the trimadhura which translates into ‘the three sweets’. All of these practices of food offerings in ritual are important in Kerala culture as well as South Indian culture.
Cooking as sacred ritual
The last decade has seen the rise of cooking as sacred ritual in South Kerala, almost exclusively by women. This practice, called ‘Pongala’ (derived from Tamil dish Pongal), seems to have been historically associated with the Attukal Temple in Trivandrum city which was begotten from Tamil tradition. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Attukal Pongala is the largest gathering of women in the world. Women participants of the pongala come equipped with cooking pots, dry fuel (mostly dry leaves and spathes of the coconut palm) and ingredients such as rice flour, palm sugar and condiments, often the previous evening, and set up their hearths around the temple on the morning of the day of the festival.
Often, the women take over most of the roads and lanes of Trivandrum city during the pongala day. In 2009, the estimated number of women who participated was 2.5 million. The women wait until the Attukal temple ceremoniously distributes the fire, and set about their cooking when the fire reaches them, passed from hearth to hearth. They go home with the cooked offerings by late afternoon. While males are not allowed in the area, they help out my providing support to arriving and departing women by organizing transportation, and distributing free beverages. Trivandrum city, police and civil authorities have been successfully able to manage the festival, but it is quintessentially a women’s festival.
Despite the lack of amenities, the considerable hardship involved in transportation of cooking equipment and ingredients (many women come from 30–40 km away), and the blazing February sun, the numbers of participants seem to be rising year after year, and include some of the well-known faces from cinema, social circles as well as commoners.
It is also observed that the practice of pongala is rapidly spreading to many other temples in Trivandrum city and district.