In Search of Spices – a Keralan Journey

Featured in Business Day’s Wanted Magazine November 2013

Download the PDF here.

It is said that seafarers could smell the scent of spice on the warm trade winds as they neared the coast of Cochin. Kerala’s history is infused with the legacy of its spices, the lure of which attracted traders to the southeastern tip of India where its ports bustled with Chinese, Greek, Arab, Syrian and Jewish merchants; where pepper grows wild on tangled vines, nutmeg and tamarind abound on street corners, cardamom flourishes in cool, fertile valleys and cinnamon and coconut are staples found in back gardens and almost every dish.

Keralan cuisine embodies its rich, textured history and its people, drawing upon the region’s diverse cultural influences. Through the ages, mothers have taught their daughters how to use herbs and spices with these varied influences, yet the food remains distinctly Indian. Today, Ayurvedic massage resorts, backwater cruises on traditional kettuvallams, its traditional way of life and, of course, its legendary cuisine ensure this scenic land remains an attractive tourist destination, drawing both traveller and foodie alike into the tapestry of its rich culinary heritage.

The Konkan Coast is a rugged section of the southwestern coastline of India, comprising the districts of Maharastra, Goa and Karnataka — a long, verdant coastline of palms swaying in the warm winds, rice fields and prawn paddies rich in seafood, crustaceans, coconuts and kokum, a green, prune-sized fruit that turns yellow, is smoked and used liberally in fish and seafood dishes, imbuing a wonderful robust, sour smoked flavour.

Meals are a celebration of the spices, herbs, seafood, meats, pulses, grains, nuts and edible leaves that grow here. The most common ingredient is coconut: the oil and milk used in a variety of dishes.

Fittingly commencing our gastronomic journey as husband and wife in Mumbai at the Vivanta By Taj President hotel’s Konkan Café, under the expert guidance of executive chef Ananda Solomon, we enjoyed an initiation feast celebrating the uniqueness of the regional cuisine. Together with our southern Thali we had Kerala-style parathas and our first light-as-air crêpe-like appams, which are made from rice flour, water and a live culture, and which matched the tasty dal and curry. Our perfectly grilled, lightly spiced masala pomfret was served with an unusual smallgrained seasonal rice that had the fragrance of mangoes.

The next day we flew south to the historic town of Cochin in time for lunch at one of our favourite al fresco restaurants, 1788 at the Old Harbour Hotel, just off the main esplanade. We sat under the shade of a gigantic Brazilian rain tree and snacked on fresh banana chips and ice cold beer, followed by flash fried cuttlefish dusted with flour and a generous squeeze of lime and served with fresh coriander sauce. Not able to move from our comfortable position, our meal followed: grilled masala prawns with beetroot and pineapple chutney, followed by a loll in the pool and a postprandial stroll along the waterfront for a shot of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice.

I had been looking forward to visiting the Taj Malabar on Willingdon Island and its famous restaurant The Rice Boat for some time. As expected of Taj, the décor, service and quality of food is exceptional, with a great wine list and knowledgeable staff to boot. Trained by Solomon, Chef S Karthikeyan introduced us to his selection of fresh catch of seer fish, pomfret, red snapper, black pomfret, prawns and cuttlefish. We started off with Malabar coastal fish broth, full of fresh veg and spiced with local black pepper and masala baby calamari and coriander — spicy, crunchy, wet and delicious —washed down with a crisp Chilean 2011 Viña Tarapacá Chardonnay. We plunged into the prawns masala and crab curry, and the sweetness of the crab, accompanied by the fluffiest parathas, appams and string hoppers kept us eating on, regardless of the urgent messages being relayed from our bellies.

Down the Malabar Coast we travelled to A Beach Symphony at Mararikulam. Here, on the edge of the Arabian Sea, in hammocks under swaying palms on the porch of our beachfront villa, Chef Binu Maliakal serves perfectly grilled swordfish with masala spices and veggies.

Then it’s a short ride into the backwaters around Kumarakom and onto the shores of Lake Vembanad, home of the karimeen or black pearl spot fish. Again, Vivanta By Taj Kumarakom consistently offers excellent local fare such as the delicate and flavourful karimeen pollichathu (whole pearl spot fish covered in a thick tomato masala mix, wrapped in a fresh banana leaf and then grilled) and a fresh and fiery calamari ularthiyathu or grilled spicy squid.

Away from the bustle of the Kumarakom side of the lake we discover Vismaya, an exclusive, two-roomed restored teak villa, impeccably appointed on the shores of Lake Vembanad. Chef Babu Mon and dapper maître d’ Vinod Joseph treated us like royalty, serving up delicious local fare such as meen thoran (coconut fish curry) and masala seer fish — much like yellowtail in texture and flavour — firm, juicy, spiced to perfection with turmeric and chili powder, ginger and garlic paste, accompanied by a salad of julienned tomato, carrot, cabbage, cucumber, sautéed potato and carrot, fresh lime juice and served with a single paratha. Served with cold Kingfisher beer in the sweltering premonsoon heat, this was a memorable meal.

We travel further down to Kovalam and our final home, Vivanta by Taj Kovalam, perched high up on the hillside overlooking the ocean. Dinner at Bait, its modern beach restaurant, is supervised by chef Saju Antony, who has South African and Portuguese influences and understands the power of peri-peri. Antony is a master with seafood and presented us with seafood three ways: a small, very sweet lobster, marinated in chermoula (a North African paste); a delicious king prawn with fisherman marinade (simply tamarind and scallions); and my favourite pepper squid, showered with white Keralan pepper. Next, we inhaled the red snapper grilled with peri-peri on mango wood, exuding an almost smoked taste with a distinct wood flavour and served with vegetables and fluffy parathas. Dessert was mango kulfi (traditional Indian ice cream), melting so quickly in the humidity we had to eat fast.

Our last meal was a traditional Keralan one: sadhya, created by talented executive chef Elangovan Shanmugam at Vivanta by Taj Kovalam’s Curries Indian speciality restaurant. This memorable experience is usually a vegetarian meal served on a fresh banana leaf and eaten sitting cross-legged on the floor with your right hand cupped, which means there is no need for plates at these big feasts. Sadhya means banquet in Malayalam and is exactly that — a typical feast of the people of Kerala comprising between 24 and 28 dishes served as a single course.

The primary and ubiquitous element is the staple of plain, boiled rice, served with other dishes collectively called Kootan. These include curries such as parippu (dal), sambar (a lentil-based dish), rasam or saaru ( a south Indian soup traditionally prepared using tamarind juice as a base, with the addition of tomato, chili pepper, pepper, cumin and other spices) and kaalan (made from yogurt, coconut and one vegetable such as yam), avial (a thick mixture of vegetables, curd and coconut, seasoned with coconut oil and curry leaves), thoran (a dry dish traditionally made from finely chopped vegetables), olan (prepared from white gourd, coconut milk and ginger seasoned with coconut oil) and pachadi (a side dish curry similar to the north Indian raita). Add to that mango pickle, papadum, banana, plain yogurt or buttermilk and plantain chips. The Kootan have many flavours, all entirely delicious.

The traditional dessert called payasam is served at the end of the meal, with three or more flavours. We had ari payasam — rice with melted jaggery, cardamom, cashew nuts, pistachios and cinnamon with a mushed banana, scooped up in your cupped hand. Delicious.

The dishes are served on specific places on the banana leaf in a specific order. For example, the pickles are served on the top left corner and the banana on the bottom left corner, which helps the waiters to easily identify and decide on offering additional servings.

The reason for including so many dishes in the sadhya is to ensure that the diners will enjoy at least two or three dishes. We relished them all and ended up drenched in sweat and splattered with colourful curry stains, testament to our delight. The fact that it was all fresh, organic, vegetarian food made this meal even more enjoyable. It is the antithesis of molecular gastronomy – unprocessed, honest and humble.

Back home in SA, we were at Cape Point, swimming in the tidal pool, looking out towards False Bay. We passed the memorial to Vasco da Gama, whose portrait we had seen a week earlier in Cochin. Da Gama rounded the Cape 516 years ago and continued on to India, essentially opening the Spice Route and changing at least our culinary world forever.

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