Friday, January 07, 2005

What Is Kerala Food ?

A lot of questions crop up while talking about the foods of Kerala. What all foods were the people living this country were eating down the centuries ? Surely, it would never have been what we now see. Because, food, like all aspects of human culture, changes over time. These changes are affected by many factors, including social, economical and even political. But mainly social and economical.

Unlike many other parts of India, Kerala has a social life and culture that have undergone a tremendous transition during the last forty or fifty years. This has radically altered the food pattern here. From the 1950s when rules of caste and creed had determined even the minutest aspects of everyday life, Kerala has changed completely, from top to bottom. A good percent of today’s young generation even has no idea that such days did really exist in their country.

A familiar pitfall for anyone writing about the foods of Kerala is the tendency to generalise. It is easy, and tempting to generalise about the Kerala food. And for the tourism industry, the biggest promoters Kerala cuisine these days, it is just exotic to generalise. What easier way to advertise than rave about the flavour of spices and coconut oil ? See this comment – ‘Almost every dish prepared in Kerala has coconut and spices added to it – spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric etc.’ There is nothing far from truth. Cinnamon is a very rare item, except in certain meat preparations. And cardamom is hardly used at all, except for flavouring some ‘payasam,’-s, that too the ubiquitous ‘semiya payasam,’ that fusion product using vermicelli !

Of course, turmeric powder is almost omnipresent. And cumin seeds are grinded with coconut to make a basic paste. Mustard seeds, likewise, are used for seasoning.

And there are as many dishes without coconut as there are dishes that use it !

About coconut oil – another misconception is that coconut oil is the one and only cooking medium in Kerala. Far from true. The popularity of coconut oil is a quite recent trend. Earlier, just a couple of decades away, gingelly oil, made from sesame seeds (locally called ‘nallenna’), was used for seasoning. Coconut oil was used mainly for frying - pappadams, chips, appam-s – and also for bathing.


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Reshma said...

Renu, interesting posts!I agree, generalizing kills variety, so kerala cuisine is known as 'coconut' cuisine to non-keralites .
And, you might want to turn on your 'word -verification' to keep away the spammers.

joefrie8376401212 said...
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Sarah said...

Hi there
I am trying to write all I remember abt my grandmother and her maid Chakki's recipes. I am currently on a mission to write abt typical ona sadya.. Help me out..I need help in the order, total number of dish etc.. I was told all these when I was a child, then the most important aspect of the sadya was the chips and I never really listened to all the lecture ammachi I wish I had.. so anything you remember abt onam, pls write.. so I can hand over to my kids..their heritage
my recipes are under..east west and in the middle blog

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