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Planning a first foray to India, 11 days in Kerala. We're flying into and out of Kochi, but itinerary will be guided by, of course, food. I know little about Keralan food other than that it is varied and delicious ... so any recommendations in terms of "must-eats", reference sources/cookbooks that would help me bone up on Keralan cuisine before the trip, even specific restaurants, shops or stalls in Kerala to check out, would all be much appreciated.

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Food in Kerala (Malayali food please, not Keralan) depends both on area - South versus North Kerala, backwaters versus the hills - and community: Moplah (Muslim), Syriani (Christian) and different Hindu communities.

Many things are common like the use of coconuts, fish and rice, but other things can be quite different - obviously something like beef which is a big feature of Syriani food would not be eaten (openly at least) by Hindus - but I also find less known differences. For example, the Thiyya community from North Kerala that my mother comes from, is totally obsessive about shellfish like kalamakai (mussels). No one from South Kerala ever seems to eat them which is perhaps for geographical reasons - rocky coasts versus sandy beaches.

Achaya has a good entry in his Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, which is a bit too long for me to type out, but sneak a look if you find it in a bookshop (Idiom in Fort Cochin, next to the synagogue might have it). One of the interesting points of difference between communities that he highlights is their differing use of breads all based generally on rice flour: appams and iddiappams for Syrianis, pathiri for Moplahs, nai-patthal for Thiyyas, appams and puttu for Nairs, dosas and puttu for Namboodiris. These are well worth trying since most of them would be hard to get outside Kerala. Another Kerala staple is tapioca which can be very good cooked there (and only there).

In Cochin and the backwaters the cult fish to try is karimeen or pearl spot, a quite beautiful really estuarine fish. The best known place to eat it in Cochin is Grand Hotel (ask anyone at your hotel how to get there). Otherwise you'll get the usual seer, a big meaty fish which tends to dominate fish cooking in South India, I have never understood why. Even in Bombay, where pomfret rules, followed by rawas and surmai, you'll get more variety than you get in restaurants in South India. But I mustn't get into a rant on this.

Moplah cooking is among the best in Kerala, and relatively easy to get since many Moplahs have started restaurants. Their biriani is famous, if you like biriani (I don't). They have interesting Arab influenced dishes like harisa, which is their version of the stewed wheat and meat concept that becomes haleem in Hyderabad and khichada in North India. They have lots of lesser known things like mutta-malas, egg yolks cooked in sugar syrup and pulled into strings.

Syriani spiced beef (erachi olathiyathu) is wonderful. Its my standard pot luck or party dish, though admittedly the version I've ended up making has strayed quite a bit from the original, but everyone loves it anyway. The authentic version will be dry fried and spicy, but not explosive and usually cooked with hard chips of coconut. Totally addictive stuff. Meen vevichadu is their fried fish, which as Achaya notes varies a lot - I've had very different versions served by different Syriani friends. If you can get it, they make good pickled pork (or wild boar, though I rather wonder exactly how wild most of these boar are).

Hindus usually eat fish as well, and its always pretty good, whatever the version. Two vegetarian dishes that I totally gorge on at my sister's in-laws place in Thrissur in the North are kalan, made from green bananas cooked with yoghurt and coconut oil and olan, made from pumpkin and beans cooked in coconut oil (if you don't like coconut oil, and some people hate it with a passion, you're going to have a hard time in Kerala).

To some extent communities are located in different geographical areas, so you can look out for community specific dishes depending on where you are. Kottayam is the Syriani heartland, Kozhikode is the Moplah heartland, Kannur is Thiyya territory and so on. Also look out for the small snacks that are well worth eating like achappams, deep fried flower shaped cookies, pottiyappams, diamond shaped cookies, banana and tapioca chips of all kinds.

Vikram

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another good cookbook author to look up would be K. M. Matthew, though her stuff is only printed there, more easily available but not quite as traditional are the kaimal cookbooks.

speaking of published in India cookbooks, has anyone checked out the new "cook and see"? are the measurements still in ollacks?, have they "modernized" the recipes?

Vikram, if you'd care to share your recipe for erachi olathiyathu I would be immensely grateful.

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another good cookbook author to look up would be K. M. Matthew, though her stuff is only printed there, more easily available but not quite as traditional are the kaimal cookbooks.

Mrs.K.M.Matthew's book, 'Recipes from the Spice Coast' is the best standard collection of Malayali recipes. (There are more community specific books, like Ummi Abdullah's book on Moplah cooking). It has recently been reissued in a beautifully produced version which I think is quite widely available both in India and abroad. For anyone wanting to try Malayali cooking, this is a good starting point. (Sadly, Mrs.Matthew died about a month back).

speaking of published in India cookbooks, has anyone checked out the new "cook and see"? are the measurements still in ollacks?, have they "modernized" the recipes?

Yes, I've got them with me, all the three volumes, everything from making sambhar to how to conduct a marriage (in Volume 3, the most entertaining one).

They are still solid, no-nonsense books, with lots of practical advice on Tamil vegetarian cooking, though rather sadly that old drawing on the cover of the doe eyed Tamil bride looking dreamily into space while cooking (her sari was clearly going to catch fire any moment) has been replaced by a generic food photograph. (But the picture of S.Meenakshi Ammal, bucktoothed and benevolent, remains on the back cover).

And yes, the measurements have been updated - no more ollocks, seers, maunds and visses, its all frammes, teaspoons and cups now. In addition to these three volumes, there's a much more fancy single volume "Best of Samaithu Par" book which would be good enough I guess, but I still think the original three are best.

Vikram, if you'd care to share your recipe for erachi olathiyathu I would be immensely grateful.

OK, though as I warned you, this is not the authentic recipe. This is partly because I've made changes as I've gone along (mainly due to lack of patience - Malayali food can be insanely labour intensive) and partly because the friend who sent it to me, made some mistakes typing it. Like she wrote 1 tablespoon turmeric, which faithfully followed, only telling me later she meant one teaspoon. Anyway, it all turned out very well the way I made it.

The only other thing I should point out is that this is made with tough old Indian beef, which is anyway probably buffalo as I pointed out on the other thread. I don't know what compensations should be made for better beef.

Erachi Sort Of Olathiyathu

Take one kilo beef and cube it.

Make a spice mixture by taking the following (in all cases I use generous interpretations, so 1/2 tsp is just short of one tsp).

1) coriander seeds (dhania): 1 tbsp

2) peppercorns: 1/2 tsp

3) saunf (fennel, I think): 1/2 tsp

4) mustard seeds (rai): 1/2 tsp

5) khus khus (poppy seeds): 1/2 tsp

6) cumin seeds (jeera): 1/2 tsp

7) cinnamon: 1/2 inch piece

8) cloves: 2, cracked open

9) green cardamom: 2

10) turmeric powder (haldi): 1 tbsp

11) dried red chillies: 4-6 (Use fairly spicy chillies, though not totally explosive ones. I use a few Guntur chillies, small and slender and a few Madras chillies, large and flat and shaped like a parrot's beak. Both are pretty hot by normal Indian standards though not, I think, as hot as some Thai or Mexican ones get)

12) ginger-garlic paste: 2-3 heaped tbsp. (Ideally I know one should fresh grind ginger and garlic, but I never have the patience. As far as I'm concerned, garlic and ginger-garlic pastes rock!)

Dry roast ingredients 1-10 in turn in a small tadka (heavy) pan. This sounds laborious, but once you've got all the spices together it goes quite fast. Just put them one after the other in the pan, emptying it into a grinder as they start smelling strongly and going on to the next. Fry the chillies in a little oil and add them. Add the turmeric, the ginger-garlic paste and a dash of vinegar (2-3 tbsp).

Grind it all to a thick paste. Rub the paste thoroughly all over the beef chunks and leave for an hour or two. (I usually make the spice at night and leave it to marinate in the fridge till morning).

Once the meat has marinated, put it in a pressure cooker with no added water (yes, the manufacturers say you shouldn't do this, and I was scared the first time I did. But the meat exudes enough moisture for it not to be a problem). Seal the cooker and put on high heat. Once the steam is coming from the vent put the weight on and leave it for one whistle. Lower the heat a little and leave it for 3-4 whistles more. Let the cooker cool a bit and the steam escape before opening it. The meat should be well cooked with a fair amount of juices left in the pan. (Actually pressure cook it any which way you like, I'm just putting directions for those not used to doing it).

Chop 4-5 large onions (or more if you like). Take some oil, not too much, in a large pan or wok and heat it. Throw in a handful of curry leaves, then add the onions and, if you like, a tbsp or two more of ginger garlic paste. Fry the onions well, then add the meat (not the juices) and some salt. Fry the meat till its nice and browning.

In the classic recipe you're supposed to add the juices next bit by bit, so it always remains mostly dry. I have no patience, just dump all the juices together, and it sort of stews away in a savoury mass as the liquid evaporates. Stir the meat around every now and then, drizzling over - the Kerala touch here - coconut oil as the meat gets drier. The coconut oil is really a flavouring, so how much you add depends on how much you like coconut oil. And for the real Syrian Christian touch add slivers of thinly sliced hard coconut halfway through the frying process. (This tends to freak people out, so I've stopped doing this).

This usually tastes better after its kept in the fridge for a day.

Vikram

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  • 2 weeks later...

The Onam festival should be sometime around now, and if you're lucky enough to be there at the time, try to get yourself invited to an Onam feast. It's well worth it... I don't remember the names of any of the dishes that they served, but I do remember being bitterly disappointed if by some chance we didn't celebrate it.

Dinner Diaries - It's what's for dinner!

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