Kerala diaries: Food

As most Indians would probably know, Kerala is the land of Idlis, dosas, appams and sambhar. But sadly, despite the availabilty of these dishes at most places….I discovered that even the best of restaurants do not serve the authentic form of South Indian food.

In the name of dosas, we get fancy ‘Paper dosas’, ‘Set dosas’, etc. What I had in Kerala was a somewhat different version of the dosa that we get in Delhi. It is a little thicker than a chapatti and is not always served crisp and golden. Nevertheless, the taste is just right!

Idlis (rice cakes) are small and soft cakes of fermented rice dough and the sambhar has a variety of vegetables usually readily available in the south like cucumber, and tapioca stems, and seasoned with tamarind, not tomato.

But of course the spices! (Ouch!) It took me a day to get used the spices. My mom surprisingly took a longer time. But then, they just enhanced the flavour of the dishes. Even while roaming around in the street markets, one could take in the fragrances of cardamom, pepper, star anise, and a host of other strong, but pleasant spices.

At many places we had a kheer like dish, but instead of using rice, they used something like noodles in the milk, which sorta spoiled our mood. But apart from that, the local halwas and the sweet dishes made with rice were a treat for the tongue! Although you could make out the extensive use of coconut oil in the halwas, but that didnt bother us much after a few spoonfuls.

Karimeen fish wrapped in banana leaf and fried

The specialty of the backwaters

We also gorged on the special fish of the backwaters, known as the karimeen fish. The karimeen fish is a fresh water fish, which is soft and when fried well, gives a nice flavour to the tongue. The most popular version is the Karimeen Pollichathu, which is karimeen fish wrapped in a banana leaf and fried (Pollichathu means wrapped in banana leaf).

Uncooked Karimeen fish

Buying banana chips of course, was a given. The best part is, that most shops would make the chips right in front of you and serve them to you right then. However, we discovered that they tasted better when cool.

Sharja-some innovations aren't all that good!

We also tried something called ‘Sharja’. Seeing it on every restaurant’s menu, we were pretty eager to find out what it was. Turned out to be an ice-cold (chilled in fact) milkshake with coffee, banana, and chocolate powder, and ice. Though it sounds very interesting, to be honest, it is not very impressive.

Kerala, and most of the rest of south India, also has numerous varieties of the banana and coconut. The most popular was the orange coconut and the red banana. Although the red bananas were similar in taste as the yellow ones, the orange coconuts we found to be a tad sweeter than the green ones. What more, these coconuts were the perfect thirst buster!! 

Regardless, we did realize that the Keralites make full use of their bananas and coconuts and try to create a variety of things with these resources! In the end, the best thing that I liked about Kerala food was still the dosas and banana chips. 🙂

Oh!! Did I just forget the best part of having food in South India!! On Banana Leaves!!! Yes! we had food on banana leaves instead of plates…just in the traditional way. Now why dont we do the same everywhere?? Economical, eco-friendly and the coolest way to have food! Woohoo!! 😀


Kerala Diaries: Travelling and People

Lungi land!!

As I mentioned in my last post, travelling in Kerala’s ‘green streets’ was a fascinating experience on its own. My mother is one of those people, who, when they go to a different place, like to engage with the locals and learn more about them, not by travelling in taxis and watching them from a distance, but travelling with them, eating with them and sitting with them and talking to them.

Naturally, the only thing she preferred was travelling by the local and inter-city buses. Although initially, I was not so keen on doing the same, but when I did, I was glad and thankful that I got to know the people at closer quarters than most tourists.

For most of the year, Kerala experiences heavy rains as a result of which, most roads get damaged. It is difficult to maintain and keep repairing these roads round the year, so most of them are just let be. Obviously, as a result the road trip to most places was a little rickety, if not entirely unpleasant. The auto-rickshaw ride from Kumarakom to Kottayam was especially rickety, so much so, that it seemed we were riding on a motor-driven bullock cart.

The bus rides were a little better. Although the drivers loved rash driving in the narrowest of lanes, the driver and conductor were courteous and helpful, considering we did not understand the local language. Moreover, the blaring of loud Malyali film music (which is not too bad by the way!) made the journey even more enjoyable.

Speaking of courtesy, the Malyali people of Kerala do not immediately come across as very helpful. They hardly ever take the initiative to help out two women who are carrying heavy luggage. But they will help if asked. The Keralites dont even seem to be very keen on smiling, but otherwise, they are pleasant people.

The buses have no reserved seats for ladies either. But then, I noticed the fact that the men do not sit with the women.

Whether these facts have something to do with insensitivity towards the woman or belief in women’s empowerment and equality, I am not too sure. But probably, with a literacy rate of 100%, the women must feel a sense of pride, thus leading to these practices.

The blend of tradition and modernity is evident in the Keralite way of dressing and ethics too. While the women continue to oil their hair liberally with coconut oil hair every morning (imagine my state when I had to travel with them in the buses…my nose filled with the  fragrance of coconut), they have started to get out of heavy saris and into salwar suits which suit the hot and humid climate more. Although, the process of getting acquainted with and acceptance of modern ideas is slow (Kerala being known for its traditional outlook), it is definitely visible. The men wear long shirts with their lungis, which hilariously enough, they repeatedly pick up and re-tie them even when standing in the middle of the street (no, no show of inappropriate parts of the body/underclothes). With a high per capita income, however, everyone from the police man, to the bus driver wears clean, ironed and crisp cotton clothes.

Overall, Keralites come across to be very simple people. They are happy and satisfied with their lives and do not interfere with others’ lives unless absolutely needed. The women, sometimes, still a little traditional in their outlook, asked my mother where her husband was and pressed till she answered. But I guess, this is a typical Indian thing. People have still not accepted the idea of two women travelling alone.

Of course, talking about the people I encountered, how can I not mention the scores of Sabarimala pilgrims we saw on the way…wherever we went! This happened to be the season (December-January) of the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala in which thousands of worshipers of the deity- Ayappa travel to the Sabarimala temple whilst practicing a strict regimen of austerity, etc. One would expect them to be polite and calm pilgrims who do not bother about the worldy things that matter us. But how wrong I was in thinking so! These pilgrims are as shrieky and loud and their groups as chaotic as those of the Kumbh Mela. But even seeing them make a ruckus was pretty amusing as they would sort of represent another culture altogether. They would more often than not, move around in huge groups, circling around a picture of their deity and chanting prayers wherever they found space. They would make and eat their meals together on make shift stoves and seeing them together, would make me think of them as a different country in Kerala.

A Woman cutting up a coconut for us

On the whole, like I have repeatedly said, I have enjoyed my stay in Kerala, and my interaction, however limited, with the people. I would be rather confused if asked to decide between the people of Delhi, with their broad outlook and relatively independent lifestyle; and the people of Kerala, with their curt manners and respect for their surroundings.

Kerala Diaries: A Treat for the eyes

Residential colony in Kumarakom

The first thing which strikes you when you wander in the streets  of Kerala is the beautiful blend of tradition and modernity.

Walking on the streets of Kochi and Vaikom, we saw single and double-storeyed houses among dense clusters of coconut trees. The beauty of this simple idea was refreshing and reminiscent of my school books which had pictures of rural areas. Except for the main city square, Kochi and Viakom had managed to maintain the presence of a green cover along with the comfort of a concrete roof, something which most cities, including Delhi has miserably failed at.

How easy it seemed, to have a house constructed in the lap of a coconut grove. How comforting it seemed, to think of stepping out of one’s house into a garden with huge leaves of the banana and coconut trees to give some shade from the burning Kerala sun. But then, I reminded myself that Kochi was not, a metro like Delhi, and constructing buildings like these would not only be a luxury, but perhaps nearly impossible to make. Nevertheless, the urge to stay back in these streets and sit under the canopy of the tall coconut trees did not leave me for a long time.

Talking to a few people (which seemed a little difficult as only a few spoke English or Hindi), we found out that traditionally, before cement started to be used for constructing walls, houses were constructed using sea shells. The amazing part is that these traditional houses still stand erect, after years and years of the burning sun and pouring rain, something which Kerala goes through for most of the year. Our hotel, in Kumarakom, being an example in case, was a house 140 years old, with a wooden roof (which, of course, had to be repaired regularly) and a top like a hut, which had holes for air and smoke ventilation. Like most houses of Kerala, it had a sloping, tiled roof to keep away the rain water.

Our hotel in Kumarakom

Yet again, thus, I saw the blend of tradition and modernity, when we entered the hotel room to find a television set and an air conditioner waiting for us to switch them on after a long, bumpy bus ride.

This was right next to the road!

Another interesting aspect of Kerala is the frequent use of boats for travelling. Being a backwater region, water often seeps in wherever it finds place and takes the form of small canals and rivulets. Hence, in some cases, the only possible way to reach one place from another is to use small boats…even if just to cover a distance of a kilometre! We even saw people travelling by boat right next to the road!

Sunshine, coonut and wood: these are things the Keralites know very well how to use. Most houses, like already mentioned, are made of wood. Boats are made of wood. The poorer sections could be easily identified by their houses. Typically, the material used for their houses was coconut fibre. These are not the same kind of almonds that we eat usually, it seems. They look like Colocasia and are rough and

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hairy. (no, I’m not describing a man) See for yourself.

About to enter the Vembanad boat of course!!

The wealthier households had banana orchards and coconut groves in the vicinity of their single storeyed houses. Apartments are rare and are only seen in the main city.

All in all, Kerala is the place to go when you want to soothe your eyes and relax your body and mind. Go for an ayurvedic massage, stroll in the semi-rural Kumarakom, shop in Vytilla, and bask  in the sunshine (that-you can do anywhere!!) and learn more about nature and animals in the bird sanctuaries. No wonder, it is called ‘God’s Own Country’!

Kerala Diaries: First Glimpse

Travelling from North India to the southern-most part of India gives you butterflies. Having grown up learning about India’s diversity, the knowledge that I know nothing of the language of the place I am going to, and of course, planning to roam around in an unknown city with the locals was pretty nerve-racking.

But after a 3 hour flight from Delhi to Kochi, the moment the plane began to land, all that feeling of nervousness began to disappear and a sense of awe began to set in. For 15 minutes, before we reached Kochi airport, we could see huge, lush green fields surrounded by tall, coconut trees with their leaves glistening in the sun. Here and there, we could spot a few white church buildings, and lagoons for which Kerala is so famous for. The rivers looked like silvery ribbons and the hills looked tiny. Seeing this view even before we landed, I could not wait to start exploring the place. After roaming around buildings for nearly my whole life, I could not wait to run amongst trees and barefoot on grass and go rowing on boats in the lovely backwaters.

Of course, I had to wait and prepare myself for a few shocks before that. The second we stepped off the plane, we felt the gust of hot,humid wind and started sweating almost instantaneously. After leaving Delhi at 20 degrees celsius, having suddenly reached 34 degrees can be quite a shock. However, we just reminded ourselves of Indian summers and moved on to take our baggage.

From Dreamworld

2 weeks of travelling can be very hectic. But when it is a treat for the eyes, the tongue, and the soul….the word ‘tired’ can virtually disappear from your dictionary.

Christmas in Kerala and the Lakshadweep Islands will be among the most cherished vacations of my life. Why? Well, simply because when you see the sun, the sand, the sea, and green canopies all around you, it pretty much seems like a dream world if you come from a busy metropolitan city like Delhi.

Over the next few posts, I will describe my visit to ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala and the Queen of islands- Lakshadweep. My main objective will be to tell you about the wonderful things about South India, but it will be great if my criticisms open a few eyes too.

Peace and the scenic beauty in God's Own Country