Food is one of the major highlights of any trip to Kerala. For anyone used to the heavy, over-priced curries typically dished up in "Indian" restaurants abroad, the subtlety of south Indian cuisine will come as a revelation.
Keralites bring the same ingenuity and wealth of deep-rooted traditions of food preparation that they've brought to bear on their sacred arts and festivals.
The fertile climate, soils, seas and inland waterways of the state have provided Kerala cooks with an uncommon variety of ingredients, augmented over the centuries by many others imported by traders and colonizers-not least the chilli, brought by the Portuguese. Kerala have always been quick to adapt to new culinary trends, and the recent tourism boom means a host of dishes familiar from home are also on offer in the resorts, often given a local twist.
By western standards, eating out in Kerala is extremely inexpensive. Even in a smart five-star restaurant, you'll rarely pick up a bill of over Rs1000, while in a workday local diner, a filling, delicious, freshly cooked feast comprising a dozen or more different dishes can be had for a mere Rs100 or less.
Kerala boasts one of the richest and most varied cuisines in India-so much so, in fact, that it is misleading to talk of a single style cooking.
Over the centuries, each of the region's many castes, sub-castes, religious minorities, traders and colonial overlords adapted the wealth of produce available locally-whether bitter gourds, mangos, jackfruit, tapioca or plantain- and created their own distinctive culinary traditions.
All of them, however, retain certain common traits, notably the prominence of locally grown spices (such as cumin, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves and curry leaves) in elaborate combinations with fresh coconut and chillis.
Refined in the kitchens of Kerala palaces and temples, the cooking of Namboothiri Brahmins, the highest Hindu caste, is one of the oldest styles. Strictly vegetarian, it is based on the ayurveda principle that flavours should promote a harmonious balance (rasa) of mind and body.
Whereas Namboothiris prefer non-stimulant sattvic foods (such as unpolished grains and pulses, nuts, fruit and fresh vegetables), lower castes make greater use of innumerable spices that flourish in Kerala's moist, tropical climate, using them to enhance the strong tastes of meat and fish.
Freed of the dietary taboos imposed on higher-caste Hindus and Muslims, Syrian Christians are resolutely "non-veg", relishing beef, pork and duck, as well as all manner of exotic river fish and seafood.
In the far north, Moppila Muslims fused the recipes of their Arab forefathers with the indigenous cuisine of the Malabar Coast to devise the delicious biriyanis and pathiri rice-flour breads still enjoyed in the homes and neighbourhood restaurants of Kozhikode.
By contrast, the dishes once prepared by Cochin's Jewish, Anglo-Indian and Indo-Portuguese households have all but disappeared, preserved only in a handful of tourist restaurants.
In Kerala-perhaps even more so than elsewhere-eating with your fingers is de rigueur, and cutlery may not always be available. Wherever you eat, remember to use only your right hand, and wash your hands before you start.
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