Kerala's Melting Pot

Mar 13, 2010
*Special to asia!

If you haven’t been to India, Kochi in Kerala is a great place for a first visit.

Food on the Malabar Coast is a product of its fertile soils. Along its roads and waterways coconut palms, mango trees, banana trees and rice paddies announce this fertility. Pepper, cinnamon, and cloves grow in abundance. A visit to roadside markets yields all manner of gourds and vegetables and even cartloads of grapes from Gujerat! Yet this alone does not account for the complexity of the cuisine.

To get a handle on this, one has to understand its history. Since traders from the early Phoenician civilisation first arrived on the Malabar coast, Kochi has had a succession of visitors who were welcomed because the Maharajahs were very open to foreigners. The Greeks, Romans and Chinese were trading partners. Then a succession of colonising powers arrived beginning with the Portuguese in 1498. They established colonial authority to protect the coveted spice, ivory and sandalwood trade. Over the next five centuries, the French tried unsuccessfully to gain a foothold. The Dutch succeeded the Portuguese, who were replaced by the British. There are roughly similar numbers of Catholics, Muslims and Hindus and a small enclave of Jews. The fusion of cultures has produced unique blends such as Syrian Christian and Kochi Jewish cuisine.


Syrian Christian Cuisine

Fish moily is a typical Syrian Christian dish which has found its way onto the menus of many fine establishments. It is essentially a pomfret or a king fish stewed in coconut milk with tomatoes, green chillis and onions. It is eaten with rice, bread, or steamed rice cakes. You can have a really good moily at the Hilton Trident Hotel on Willingdon Island. The superb waiters at the Travancore Restaurant at the hotel attend to your every facial expression it seems, pouring more water or ladling out more moily at every lift of an eyebrow or twitch of the lips.

Anyone seeking to learn how to prepare Syrian Christian dishes would do well to take a course with Nimmy & Paul. The husband and wife team will put you on the right track to mastering this delicate cuisine. You can even stay in their spacious home to savour the languid lifestyle.


Kochi Jewish Cuisine

A visit to the Koder House at Fort Kochi will allow you to sample the unique taste of koubbah, which is made from the recipes of the original Kochi Jew inhabitants of the house. Koubbah has a Baghdadi influence. Minced chicken or fish is encased in balls made of flour and cooked in gravy, which may have lady's fingers and gourds in it. This is served with yellow rice boiled in coconut milk. As Jewish dietary laws prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products, local Jews have substituted it with coconut milk with surprising results.


Hindu Vegetarian Cuisine

The majority of Kerala's population is Hindu so vegetarian cooking is dominant. The cuisine dictates that a full meal should include five tastes: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, spiciness and sharpness. A typical feast, originally a temple feast, called sadya, is served on a banana leaf with rice surrounded by 14 different vegetable dishes including sambar (lentil-vegetable stew), pachadi (seasoned yoghurt based salads) and pickles. Crunchy pappadams (lentil wafers), or banana, jackfruit or tapioca chips add texture. The meal ends with payasam, a pudding made with lentils, coconut milk, cashews and spices.


Muslim offerings

Since Islam is one of the main religions in Kerala, the Muslim household food has a distinctive Mughal touch to it. Kozhikodan biriyani, a spicy rice and meat dish and prawn masala are typical dishes in a Malayali Muslim household.



vivienne khooOnce a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

Contact Vivienne