By Naini Setalvad
Kerala, a state known the world over for its natural beauty and delightful spices, is also famed for its ubiquitous coconuts, sea-food, and tongue-tickling cuisine.
Kerala. A land known as God’s own country for its lush greenery and abundant water bodies. Paddy fields, coconuts, cashew nuts trees, tapioca, the orange Kerala plantains and amazing, easily digestible vegetables of the gourd family, yellow cucumber, and beta carotene-rich pumpkins are some of its bounty from land and water.
Known for its preference for organic farming, Kerala is rich in spices like pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, vanilla, ginger, tamarind, and curry leaves. It’s no surprise that the Romans, Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese and British were drawn inexorably to this tiny coast in the extreme South of India. Kerala is also home to an extensive fisheries industry thanks to its vast coastal region, and boasts of some unique fish preparations.
The high intelligence of its inhabitants can be attributed to the consumption of fish and coconut oil, the latter being one of the healthiest cooking fats. Coconut oil has been used as food and medicine since ancient times in Ayurveda. In Sanskrit the coconut tree is known as the kalpa vriksha, which means it supplies all that is needed to survive. Coconut and coconut oil improve memory, reduce cholesterol, prevent Alzheimer’s and improve erratic blood sugar levels. Consuming coconut oil regularly restores thyroid function, relieving hypothyroidism.
Healthy, good quality, tasty food is easy to find in a Kerala household.
Since Kerala has an almost equal distribution of Hindus, Christians and Muslims, Hindu, Syrian Christian and Mopla form the three predominant cuisines. Apart from fish, Hindu cuisine is largely vegetarian and consists of some fabulous preparations such as theyal, olan, pachadi, erisheri and so on. The Syrian Christian and Moplah cuisines are largely nonvegetarian and shot through with the influence of the Middle East, the West and other trading communities.
The staple rice grain found in every Kerala home is one of the easiest grains to digest, and is totally gluten-free. Red rice, which is local to Kerala and is far superior to white rice in nutrients, is also consumed widely in Kerala.
Rice preparations are served from breakfast to dinner. Apart from the standard idli dosas, Kerala breakfasts boast of a number of unique preparations such as appam, iddiappam, adai dosa served with coconut chutney, puttu with ghee, and rice vermicelli. Coffee, the staple beverage, is often sweetened with dark palm jaggery which is obtained by heating the sap of the palm tree (neera) and concentrating it. Palm jaggery is far more delicious than ordinary jaggery, looks like dark chocolate, and has medicinal properties. Coffee is known to increase mental alertness and performance.
The plantain, often called the Kerala banana as it is only consumed there, is long, orange, and is lower in sugar than the normal banana. It is the most commonly consumed fruit, and when ripe, is steamed as a breakfast preparation. Plantains are high in potassium which lowers blood pressure. They also contain serotonin that elevates mood and prevents constipation. Plantain apart, the sweetest of pineapples and papayas are found in Kerala and served at breakfast.
Lunch and dinner mostly consist of lentil preparation like dals, sambhar, rasam, vegetable in a coconut-based gravy and at times coconut stew with rice. Vegetables like drumsticks, ash gourds, pumpkins, onions, eggplant and roots like yams, and tapioca are plentifully consumed, especially in the hilly regions of the land. The Christian influence made stew a very popular preparation. Onions and potatoes are flavoured with black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and green chillis before being liberally laced with coconut milk. Chicken, fish or lamb can also be added to the stew. Cinnamon, which is often added to the stew as well as other preparations is known to lower triglycerides, cholesterol as well as blood sugar levels. There are two types of vegetable preparations that even the non vegetarians prepare. One is the thoran, which is made by steaming or boiling finely cut vegetables in a little water and adding liberal portions of grated coconut, before tempering them with mustard seeds and curry leaves.
The other is the mezhakaparathy, where juliennes of vegetables are lightly boiled with salt and chilli powder and sauteed crisp. Cashew nut is used on special occasions as a garnish on top of sweets or as a paste added to vegetables and stews. They lower cholesterol and are a rich source of zinc. Pineapple are often added to butermilk or yoghurt preparations and has amazing digestive enzymes plus bromelain which reduces joint pains. Curd and buttermilk consumption is a daily ritual at meal time.
The cuisine has several health notes. There is the ubiquitous use of coconut in all its avatars. There is the fact that vegetables are lightly steamed and cooked without too much masala. Furthermore, in many preparations such as avial, coconut oil is drizzled in at the end after the cooking is done.
Incidentally the humble pazhakanji (leftover rice steeped in water and consumed the next day for breakfast with some pickle or condiment), is today lauded as an outstanding breakfast because of the fermentation of the rice which creates many vitamins, including Vitamin B 12.
Most Malayalis consume warm water after food, usually boiled with coriander seeds and cumin seeds to cool the body. This is known as sarsaparilla or Ramacham.
Most ailments are treated through ayurveda, the prevailing therapy of the land, regardless of whether one is a Christian, Muslim or Hindu.
And home remedies prevail. If the stomach is under attack, a regimen of curds rice is immediately prescribed, and fever is treated with the bland and comforting rice kanji (rice gruel). Traditionally children were fed rice kanji, ghee and coconut daily.
Due to its large coastal belt, fish is a staple part of Kerala cuisine, as is duck, which is found in large quantities in its water bodies, though chicken and red meat are also popular.
Kerala does not have too much of a sweetmeat tradition, though their various payasams flavoured with coconut milk and jaggery are outstandingly delicious and healthy.
In the region of namkeen, apart from the wellknown banana chips, there are a few more chips such as jackfruit and yam, and the murukku, but not very much else.
A daily Kerala meal is food from God’s own country, nourishing and full of prana (energy).
Sprouts with yam
1 cup beans sprouts
2 tbsp fenugreek sprouts
2 cup yam of 1/2 inch cubes
A pinch of turmeric powder
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/4 cup chopped coriander leaves
Rock salt to taste
2 tsp cow’s ghee
1 small onion, chopped
1 – 2 garlic cloves
1 inch piece ginger
1 tbsp fresh coconut, grated
- Peel, wash and chop the yam into medium-size chunks. Boil along with turmeric in a pan of water. When soft, strain and set aside.
- Steam the sprouts for 5 – 7 minutes.
- For the paste, heat 1/2 tsp ghee in a wok. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and sauté for 2 – 3 minutes. Grind into a fine paste along with coconut using very little water.
- Heat the remaining ghee in the same wok. Add paste and sauté. Add the sprouts, yam, chilli powder, coriander powder, cumin powder, garam masala, coriander leaves and salt along with 1/4 cup warm water. Cover and continue to cook for 5 – 7 minutes until the water has evaporated. Switch off the flame.
About the author : Naini Setalvad is a nutritionist, specialising in lifestyle and immunity disorders. Her foundation, Health For You, throws light on healthy food habits.