Houseboats that glide along backwaters, spa treatments based on Indian herbal medicine ayurveda, and bed and breakfast places that offer varied cuisines of the region all have made my home state Kerala one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in India over the past several years.
Wedged between the Western Ghats mountain range on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west, this narrow strip of land is blessed with sun-kissed beaches, emerald backwaters, idyllic hill stations and exotic wildlife.
The highlight of my recent trip to Kerala was a visit to one of the exclusive bed and breakfast establishments, Olappamanna Mana in Vellinezhi, a small village tucked along the valley of Western Ghats in central Kerala. More than anything else, as a food writer, what intrigued me was that the hosts, Olappamanna Damodaran and his wife Sreedevi, are keeping their vegetarian culinary tradition alive. Guests enjoy all their meals with the Damodarans at their nearby home. They are served simple, wholesome and delicious vegetarian food that only a traditional Namboothiri (Kerala Brahmin) household can offer.
Many of the vegetables used in cooking are sourced from the backyard and the rest of the ingredients are sourced locally. Coconut oil used in cooking is pressed from the coconuts grown in the backyard. Alcoholic drinks and non-vegetarian food are not allowed on the premises.
What differentiates this establishment from others is that there are no ayurvedic spa treatments or yoga classes or boat rides. It is just an ideal place for tourists to unwind and explore the countryside and discover the cultural and culinary heritage of Kerala. Olappamanna is a centuries-old aristocratic Kerala Brahmin family with an impressive cultural heritage.
They were generous patrons of performing arts, literature and Sanskrit education, a tradition that the family continues to uphold to this day. Olappamanna Mana offers heritage home-stay at a home with essential modern conveniences just across from the ancestral home. Tourists from around the world arrive every year to explore the landscape, enjoy the cultural performances in their authentic setting, and above all savor the inimitable Namboothiri cuisine.
Lush and unpretentious
The ancestral home is a spacious ettukettu, a complex of two adjacent quadrangular buildings with open-to-sky central courtyards and open verandas. It is constructed of bricks, teak and rosewood in traditional Kerala architectural style. No one lives at this sprawling building, but visitors are welcomed to explore the premises. Although the old kitchen is no longer used, wood-burning stoves, antique bronze and copper cookware, and huge granite grinders are all on display here.
Large bronze oil lamps and elephant head-dresses used at cultural performances and temple festivals are also displayed. Hosts are always there to explain and answer any questions. They also arrange for recitals of performing arts here if requested early. The beauty of the building lies in its lack of ostentation, emanating an air of peacefulness and tranquility — an atmosphere that takes you back hundreds of years in time.
The surrounding sprawling eco-friendly back yard is lush with vegetation. Giant green leaves of taro and yam plants practically cover the yard. Pepper plants twine around coconut palms and mango and jackfruit trees. Seasonal vegetables thrive in the vegetable garden. Curry leaves and spice plants swaying in the breeze perfume the air.
A vegetarian feast
Sreedevi’s vegetarian cuisine is truly delicious and she offers an abundant variety. I was amazed at the simplicity and authenticity of her cuisine. When we reached the table it was already set for lunch with fresh banana leaves and glasses of warm chukkuvellam (water boiled with herbs). Before I arrived I had requested Sreedevi to demonstrate a recipe for me. I left it to her to choose a favorite recipe, and she chose kunjipidi a snack dish made of ground rice.
She had already prepared the rice balls, slightly bigger than a large marble, by first soaking and grinding raw rice to a very smooth batter. More water was added to the batter and cooked along with some coconut oil to a dough-like consistency. It was then shaped into small balls and steam cooked. As I watched, she heated a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil in an iron wok. When the oil was hot, she threw in a pappadum torn into small pieces and a few yogurt preserved green chilies into the oil.
As they fried, she added black mustard seeds, fresh curry leaves and ural dal to the wok. When the dal turned golden and mustard seeds started spluttering, she slowly stirred in the steamed rice balls. In a couple of minutes, savory kunjipidi, a gluten-free dish made with very little oil, was ready to taste. Use of pappadum and preserved green chilies in seasoning was something very new to me. They added a definite crunch and heat to the typical seasoning with mustard seeds and curry leaves.
Afterward we sat down for a sumptuous lunch. Red rice was served along with ghee and cooked mung dal, which is the traditional first course. It was followed by karimulakushyam, a curry of yam and ash gourd (winter melon) cooked with a heaping spoonful of crushed black pepper and plenty of curry leaves and garnished with coconut oil. Another curry that followed was chatha pulisseri, a dish traditionally made at annual remembrances of ancestors. It was made with generous amount of crushed black pepper, buttermilk, freshly grated coconut, cumin seeds and a garnish of fresh coconut fried in ghee. Next was fire-roasted eggplant mixed with shallots, tamarind, ginger, curry leaves, green chilies, jaggery and coconut oil. Servings of cooked tender long beans and plantains sautéed over low heat with a drizzling of coconut oil, fried pappadum, plantain chips and green chilies stuffed with mustard powder and preserved in sesame oil were the accompaniments. And dessert was kalakki pradhaman, made with rice flour, jaggery and milk. It had the consistency of a creamy pudding.
Although I am a vegetarian who grew up in Kerala, I had not tasted any of the dishes she had prepared except for the pappadum and plantain chips. As I began to relish the meal, so many different flavors blended on my palate and each bite tasted different and better than the one before.
Sreedevi’s cuisine is firmly grounded in tradition and history. It is all about creating the tastiest and most satisfying dishes from a few fresh, seasonally available ingredients. The inimitable taste of Sreedevi’s pidi (a steamed ice and coconut dish) with muthira kootan (a curry made with horse gram) another dish that we enjoyed still lingers on my palate. She has introduced me and countless visitors alike, to tasty and simple dishes that are not difficult or time-consuming to re-create. I can’t wait to go back there and learn more nuances of Namboothiri cuisine from Sreedevi.
Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state Kerala, India. She is the author of “Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy” (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.
Photos, from top:
Olappamana Mana. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Olappamanna and Sreedevi Damodaran. Credit: Jim Hood
Kunjipidi. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran.