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Kerala: the land of tolerance and spices

Kerala: the land of tolerance and spices

Emmanuelle Jary - 2011-03-14

In the south-west India, bordering Tamil Nadu, Kerala is a region known for its freedom of expression, its wealth (life expectancy and literacy rates are well above the national average) and its cuisine of a thousand spices.

At the Hotel Vivanta by Taj in Kochi – formerly Cochin – the chef Rasheed takes as much pleasure in enumerating all of Kerala’s religions as he does in cooking its spices. It has to be said that here both go hand in hand. For a different kind of cuisine is consumed depending upon whether you believe in God, Vishnu or Allah. 60% of Keralans are Hindus, 20% Muslims, 20% Christians (Catholics, Evangelists and Protestants) and finally, counting on his fingers, the chef reckons there are 18 Jews in the old town! He seems to be keeping a tally, not wanting to leave anyone out when showing us his town. In the early hours of the morning we set off with him to visit the markets of... Cochin. Since the name conjures up such reveries for us we’re settling for the anachronism of Cochin!
 
On the route to the East Indies, the city served as a port of call and a storage place for spices. These spices were the very same ones that grew in Thekkady and which 3000 years before were being exported to Egypt. The cloves and especially pepper and cinnamon were used at that time for embalming mummies. From the 16th century onwards the town began to grow. It was an indispensable passing point where boats took advantage of “the reversal of monsoon winds twice a year enabling one to sail in the summer from Southern Arabia via the island of Socotra up to the Malabar coast, and return in the winter” according to  Francis Zimmermann in his work devoted to Ayurvedic medicine – Discourses on Remedies from the Land of Spices.
 
Medicine, cooking and spices have always been intimately related to Kerala. The 5000 year-old traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine is governed by two principles: “treating sickness and maintaining the organism in good health” the doctor Reji Raj explains to us. This is why food is paramount here. Whilst the cuisine is highly meat-based (cows are not sacred here), you also find plenty of fish and seafood, thanks to the presence of the “Backwaters” which are one of the region’s most important tourist attractions. This is a large network of rivers that run into little canals and inlets in inland areas where you can discover and sample the local lifestyle. Our boat glides as silently as it can over the surface of brackish waters, at times brushing against banks where the fishermen linger until the last glimmers of daylight. Monkeys howl and large birds are heard beating their wings. We would love to see tigers. Our guide simply smiles. Oh well, never mind, at dusk the light is conducive to the imagination anyway! The silhouette of the Chinese nets, unmoving squares at this hour, resemble huge spiders that have come to drink when the evening falls on these extraordinary gardens, and of which you can make out nothing more than dark contours against the starry night sky.
 
The Different cuisines of Kerala and the Ayurvedic precepts
 
The monsoon, necessary for the lush vegetation, comes to water Kerala’s gardens twice a year. The defences of the immune system are lowered and the body needs food that’s easy to digest. Spices become rarer, however the rest of the year the cooks use them to their hearts’ content. It has to be clear though that “spicy” does not necessarily mean “fiery.” A wide spectrum exists and turmeric, for example, will not overpower your palate.
 
At least that’s what we thought after spending a few days in Kochi. Then we went to visit the home of a woman who is one of the region’s prized chefs. There’s nothing like home made cooking with a family when trying authentic local cuisine. Upon arriving a table with a spread like a feast was waiting for us. “I was told to cook like I usually do so I hope you don’t mind spicy food...” “Not at all Madam we’re quite used to it.” After the first spoonful of pickled vegetables that look delicious... quick, fetch me a glass of water! “No don’t drink water! That will bring out the heat. Eat some rice!” The dish was chock-full of green peppers. The dozen or so other dishes that followed were of a similar ilk. They were all extremely powerful and yet so delicious. This was a traditional meal of Syrian Christian Cuisine, that can be found throughout central and southern areas of Kerala. It’s a European influenced cuisine, which was partly imported by the Portuguese and is highly meat-based, using in particular, large quantities of beef . Exit the sacred cow...
 
This is how things are in Kerala. To the extreme north of the state the cuisine is influenced by Arabian nations, particularly Middle Eastern ones – it’s called Moplah cooking and its most famous dish is the biryani – fried rice with meat, vegetables and lots of spices. Lastly in the region of Thrissur towards the east, on the border with Tamil Nadu, the cuisine is Brahmin and therefore vegetarian.
 
In general Kerala’s cuisine, especially on the Malabar coast, is characterised by its heavy reliance on coconut (in the form of milk, oil and paste) to bind curries that can be either dry or more liquid, and by the presence of numerous fish and seafood from the sea and the local backwaters.
 
Spice Gardens
 
These are the wonderful gardens where they say the queen and king of spices grow – cardamom and pepper.  The former “needs to be looked after like a baby” our guide tells us at the garden’s entrance where we admire this unusual tree which has seeds growing on a branch protruding from the base of the trunk. The phenomenon is rare enough for it to be highlighted. Further down is the pepper but also an entanglement of stems, vines and leaves. The vegetation is mixed, entangled and knotted up. The cardamom plants grow in the shade of each other whilst the pepper trees, being creepers, grow on top of each other.
 
There are also seasonal harvests of cloves, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, turmeric, tamarind, coffee and allspice, which as its name implies is a garden in itself!
 
Between the trunks, there are large webs with huge spiders in the middle. "It's a good sign: the presence of spiders shows that we’re in an organic plantation," says the owner to comfort us. In recent years, organic farming which was abandoned almost thirty years ago, is making a strong comeback in Thekkady, in the interior of Kerala, on the foothills of the Ghats, which is the mountain barrier separating this state from Tamil Nadu. There, in the extreme east of Kerala, the entire region appears as a cauldron of chlorophyll, a monochrome of greens. Tea plantations flourish here at altitudes of 1000 metres. Women pick the young shoots and put them into large sacks on their backs. They often carry them using a handle strapped to their forehead. From time to time you can see them put their harvest down and chat amongst themselves, shaking their heads in the distinctive Indian way of saying yes. Every time we get it wrong believing this to be a refusal. But we should know better because in Kerala, refusals are rare. So many differences living side by side in this melting pot of religions is perhaps an explanation for this kindness.
 

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