Historical and cultural influences
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.
Pre-independence Kerala was basically split into the princely states of Travancore & Kochi in the south, and Malabar district in the north; the erstwhile split is reflected in the recipes and cooking style of each area. Both Travancore and northern Malabar cuisine consists of a variety of vegetarian dishes using many vegetables and fruits that are not commonly used in curries elsewhere in India including plantains (vazha-ppazham or ethaykka), bitter gourd (‘pavaykka’ in Travancore and ‘kyppakka’ in northern Malabar), Yam (‘chena’), Colocasia (‘chembu’), Ash gourd (Kumbalanga), etc. However, their style of preparation and names of the prepares dishes may vary. Northern Malabar has an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes such as pathiri (a sort of rice-based pancake, at times paired with a meat curry), porotta (a layered flatbread, said to come from South-East Asia), and the Kerala variant of the popular biriyani, probably from Arab lands. Central Travancore region boasts of a parade of dishes that is largely identified with the Christians of the region.
In addition to historical diversity, the cultural influences, particularly the large percentages of Muslims and Syrian Christians have also contributed unique dishes and styles to Kerala cuisine, especially non-vegetarian dishes. The meat eating habit of the people have been historically limited by religious taboos. Brahmins eschew non vegetarian items Historically, Kerala was part of the Tamil-speaking area, and Tamilian influence is seen in the popularity of sambar, idli and dosa. European influence is reflected in the numerous bakeries selling cakes, cream horns, and Western-style yeast-leavened bread, and in Anglo-Indian cuisine. The import of potatoes, tomatoes, and chili peppers from the Americas led to their enthusiastic use in Kerala, although except for the ubiquitous peppers, the other ingredients are used more sparingly.
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 which is also known as Sou Ginger are popular. Kerala is known to have several mythical as well as historical facts about its origin. In fact, the earliest written records are dated as back as the 2nd and the 4th century BC. Its strategic location at the southern tip of India, nestled very close to the Malabar Coast, has attracted several explorers to Kerala. One such explorer whose is remembered in the cosy Fort Kochi area in Kerala is Vasco Da Gama. In fact, Fort Kochi itself dates back to the 15th century that coincides with the advent of the Portuguese. Soon Fort Kochi evolved as one of the prime ports of that time, attracting the Dutch to the final arrival of the British. Kerala is a confluence of Christian, Hindu and Muslim population that leaves it tinge in the cuisines as well. Apart from this, the Portuguese, Dutch and European influences have also left an indelible mark on Keralite cuisine.
Cooking food/ meal – Pachakam
The very act or preparing or cooking a meal is known as pachakam in Malayalam, the local language of Kerala. The food items have a distinct flavour of spices and of course, the coconut!
Spices play a pivotal role in Keralite cuisine. From small onions or shallots, to cocumstar, red chillies and red chilli powder, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, garlic, coriander and cumin makes their cuisine spicy, tangy and lip smacking.
Sea food is a staple diet, along with beef, pork, poultry and mutton in the non-vegetarian sections. Karimeen or the pearl spotted fish is a rare and expensive fish here. Its delicious and tastes fantastic as a fry or a curry form. Seer fish, nanga, cuttle fish, king fish etc are other popular favourites here.
Rice, coconut and curry leaves are omnipresent in almost every Keralite dish. The rice consumed in traditional Keralite homes is the unpolished rice. It’s considered healthier, as its original fibres are retained.