On my first day of cooking class in the South Indian state of Kerala, I was already hopelessly confused. It was half a dozen years ago, my first visit to the subcontinent, and I had signed up for classes with Nimmy Paul, a prominent home cook who had been urged on me by my culinary pal Johnny Apple. Lithe and handsome in a pristine white sari, her enormous dark eyes outlined with kohl, Nimmy is an expert cook and a gentle authority on Kerala’s food traditions. Her classes take place in her pretty garden home in Cochin, where, with her husband Paul, she also entertains private guests at lunch and dinner. (You can find out more at nimmypaul.com.)
Studying with a gifted home cook is a great way to get inside the culinary culture of any region, but it was an especially brilliant stroke in Kerala, where restaurant food, for the most part, comes in one of two guises: transformed into something deemed acceptable to foreigners, or as the carbohydrate-laden fare of tea stalls and working-class restaurants, always filling, sometimes quite tasty but rarely exciting, and with a palate-numbing monotony. There are exceptions, of course — the open-air seafood shacks along the waterfront in Fort Cochin have excellent freshly fried fish and fish curries. Breakfast offerings, like the ubiquitous dosas (pancakes made of lentils and rice), fried vadas — an Indian version of falafel — and rice-flour iddli (another type of pancake), also can be delicious.
Ceremonial vegetarian banquet
But Nimmy’s home cooking spoke to another realm of the region’s cooking altogether. First, she introduced me to avial, a lively mixture of vegetables seasoned with grated coconut, turmeric, green chilis, cumin and garlic. Then came erussery, a mixture of vegetables seasoned with coconut paste, turmeric, green chilis, shallots and fresh curry leaves. After that it was thoren, a single vegetable mixed with grated coconut, turmeric, green chilis and onions. And then there was pachadi, yogurt with coconut, green chilis, and ginger, and ulli theeya, an onion side dish whose sauce involves coconut toasted till coffee brown before being mixed with green chilis, tamarind, etc.
At that point all this was jumbled in my mind — coconut, turmeric, green chilis, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, cumin, first one, then the other, in a parade of ingredients. But the dishes are all part of what is almost a ritual meal, called sadhya (pronounced sad-DEE-yah), a festive vegetarian banquet served at the late summer harvest festival of Onam, a feast dear to the heart of every Keralite — Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jew, country folk and city dwellers alike. “This is typical Kerala cuisine,” Nimmy said as she scooped out a little of each dish, placing the samples in ceremonial order on a green banana leaf, “not influenced by anyone.” I already knew enough about Kerala to understand that this was unusual.
Kerala’s rich culinary history
Sadhya apart, Kerala’s cuisine bears the traces of dozens of far-off cultures, from Portugal in the west to Canton in the east. Lying like a narrow curved scimitar along the Malabar Coast, Kerala is rimmed by the dazzling Arabian Sea and backed by a range of steep mountains called the Western Ghats. From early times (possibly since the Phoenicians, though archeological evidence is slight), this was a major stopping place on the great southern trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Far East. Down through the ages, Kerala’s market towns and ports — Cochin, Trivandrum, Kottayam, Kollam — fed European appetites for exotic spices; black pepper and cardamom, ginger and turmeric from the misty green mountains that soar above the coastline, and cinnamon, cloves, and aromatics from farther East. Following long-established sea lanes, the Apostle Thomas (“doubting Thomas”) is said to have brought Christianity to Kerala in the year 54, when Jewish merchants were already established there as middlemen, trading between East and West. Later came Muslim Arabs, Portuguese led by Vasco da Gama, the Dutch, who left a mark on local architecture, and then of course the British who ruled India for a hundred years. Through it all, Kerala thrived.
Today, the small state has one of the highest literacy rates in the world and a life expectancy comparable to that of the U.S. Moreover, abject poverty, with the dirt and degradation that accompany it, is lacking. Yes, there are poor people, but the desperation of some parts of the subcontinent is largely absent. Kerala is lush, almost equatorial. In January, the temperature along the coast seldom drops below 90 degrees F., and the air is soft and moisture-laden. The land too is moist: at times it seems comprised more of water than dry earth, so widespread is the system of canals, streams, marshes and flooded rice paddies that radiate from the vast, central expanse of Lake Vembanad. This intricate network makes up what Keralites call the Backwaters. Helped by the warm climate, the moist environment nourishes an extraordinary agriculture that produces everything from commodity crops (rice, coconut, sugarcane) to market-garden staples to a plethora of exotics — black pepper, vanilla, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, mustard, fenugreek, curry (kari) leaves, just to mention a few. And all of it goes into Kerala’s cooking pots.
A tradition of balance
It may well seem, as I thought after my first class, that every dish in Kerala has coconut in some form (coconut oil; coconut milk; grated, roasted, powdered or chipped coconut), but it isn’t always true. Nor does every dish have chilies, black pepper, turmeric, shallots, cumin and curry leaves. These ingredients do show up over and over again, however, now one flavor stressed, now another, in the region’s complex cooking traditions. Sour flavors balance the spices — yogurt and tamarind are favored, but lemons and limes also come into play. So does an odd little fruit called cocum (Garcinia indica), whose purple-black pulp and dried rind are used in everything from ice cream to curries. And almost every dish receives a final garnish, called “seasoning” or “tempering,” consisting of black mustard and fenugreek seeds, sometimes curry leaves or dried chili peppers, and/or other aromatics, roasted in coconut oil till the seeds pop. The result is dribbled over the top of a dish just like an Italian cook would dribble olive oil.
Nimmy is well-traveled and sophisticated — she has given classes at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley — but her food is firmly grounded in Kerala traditions and history. She introduced my friends and me to a tasty series of engaging and interesting dishes, ones that aren’t too difficult or, with a little forethought, too time-consuming for busy American cooks. The only complicated dish was her lamb biryani but it is so splendid that it’s well worth the effort and makes an elegant centerpiece for a dinner party. Much simpler was a delicious marinade for plump Kerala shrimp to be grilled over the embers of a wood fire. A simple garam masala of ground black pepper, coriander, turmeric, red chilis, and cumin was turned into a paste by adding minced garlic and fresh ginger. Simple and effective, it’s an exquisite mouth-watering dish.
Nimmy’s spice-marinated Kerala shrimp
Serves 2 to 4
You’ll need big shrimp (20 to 24 count) to make this dish. They are almost impossible to find fresh, but if you can, they will be magnificent. Otherwise, use frozen. (You could also use chunks of fish — swordfish or halibut are good choices because of their firm texture. For fish, add a couple of teaspoons of oil to the marinade.)
- Rinse the shrimp briefly under running water and set aside to drain thoroughly.
- In a dry saute pan, toast the coriander and cumin seeds with the peppercorns until they give off a strong aroma and start to smoke just lightly. Immediately remove from the heat and transfer to a spice grinder (a mini food processor or a coffee mill that you keep specially for spices; in Kerala cooks grind their spice mixes for masalas or marinades on a convex stone that looks just like a Mexican metate). Grind the spices to a powder and stir in the turmeric and chili.
- Pound the garlic and ginger with the salt in a mortar to make a paste, then add the powdered spices. Mix well to make a rather dry rub.
- Turn this over the well-drained shrimps and toss, rubbing with your hands to let the flavoring penetrate the seafood. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for at least an hour, although overnight is better.
- Heat the grill and grill the shrimps, painting them with a little olive oil if they look dry. Alternatively, add a small spoonful of oil to a skillet and fry the shrimps over a very hot burner for about 1½ minutes on each side, or until they are done to your liking.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Nimmy’s spice-marinated Kerala shrimp
Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins