Dining in Kerala

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Dining in Kerala
Kerala's varied cuisine reflects the influence of its Hindu, Muslim, and Christian populations; it ranges from multi-dish vegetarian banquets to aromatic biryanis to succulent duck roasts, and makes heavy use of coconut and fresh spices.
By Neha Puntambekar , AFAR Local Expert
Photo by M Balan/age fotostock
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    Street Food
    Along Kerala's roads, you’ll pass small stalls serving fresh and authentic thattukada—street food. Most stalls set up after sundown and stay open as long as their stock lasts. Popular meals include beef fry and chicken fry served with porotta, a layered flaky flatbread; tapioca biryani; dosas, rice crepes served with a lentil soup and coconut chutney; and banana fritters. Try one of the many types of fresh chips; options include potato, sweet potato, raw banana, bitter gourd, jackfruit, and more. These little stalls also serve tea to round off a good meal.
    Photo by M Balan/age fotostock
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    Shop for Spices
    Spices were the commodity that everyone wanted for centuries, and they prompted expeditions to the Malabar Coast by traders trying to corner the market and establish a monopoly. Centuries later, Kerala remains the land of black pepper, cardamom, cloves, vanilla, nutmeg, and cinnamon. For the freshest and best spices, buy from the source: the spice plantations. Estates in Wayanad, Thekkady, and Munnar are open to visitors. The quality available here far exceeds that sold in the tourist-trap spice shops around the state. Jew Town in Kochi and large supermarket chains like Lulu are also a good bet.
    Photo by Philippe Michel/age fotostock
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    Banquet on a Banana Leaf
    The Kerala sadya, or banquet, is the highlight of Keralite dining. It is a celebratory vegetarian feast, served during auspicious Hindu occasions like weddings and the harvest festival of Onam. The sadya, which consists of a minimum of 24 dishes (and as many as 64) is served on a banana leaf; the etiquette is to brush the leaf with some water before the food is served. The dishes include chips, pickles, multiple vegetable preparations, lentils, papads, rice, and desserts. The rice is served right in the middle of the leaf, with condiments and side dishes arranged around it. A good place to try this meal is at BTH Sarovaram Restaurant in Kochi, or at Thali Restaurant on KK Road in Kottayam.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Start the Day with Tiffin
    Breakfast in Kerala is called tiffin, and is an elaborate affair. The best-known dishes are thin crispy rice crepes, dosas, which are served with sambar (lentil curry) and coconut chutney. Crepes can be ordered plain for a light meal or with a stuffing, usually a curried potato mash, for a more substantial one. Idlis, soft rice buns, and medu vadas, deep-fried lentil dumplings, are also common and are eaten with the same accompaniments. The Indian Coffee House in Thiruvananthapuram and Sarvana Bhavan in Munnar both serve a great breakfast. Another local delicacy is puttu, a steamed coconut-and-rice cake served with a creamy lentil curry. Make time to visit Dhe Puttu in Kochi to try it.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Malabari Cuisine
    Kerala is part of India's southwestern Malabar Coast. For centuries this has been a cultural melting pot, assimilating Hindu traditions with those of Arab and Portuguese traders and settlers, a fact reflected on the plate. The highlight of this food culture is the aromatic Malabari biryani, a slow-cooked rice dish prepared with chicken or mutton, onions, and spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and bay leaf. Malabari mussels (kallumakkaya), soft rice pancakes called pathiris, beef curries, and vegetable sides are also important features of the cuisine. Stop by the modest-looking Kayees Rahmathullah Hotel or the exquisite Malabar Junction, both in Fort Kochi, for a taste of Kerala's famous biryani.
    Photo courtesy of Malabar Junction
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    Cooking Classes
    The best way to take a piece of Kerala home with you is to master its flavors and recreate them in your own kitchen. There are numerous cooking classes and other culinary getaways around the state, including homestays that offer classes. Ayisha Manzil in Thalassery is a colonial-style bungalow facing the sea where you can take Malabari cooking lessons, including learning how to make the famous biryani. Nimmy Paul gives instruction in authentic cooking from her backyard in Kochi, educating participants in local food traditions as well as in technique. And tucked away along the backwaters in Kumarakom is the lovely organic Philipkutty's Farm, the perfect place to learn how to make fish curry.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Syrian Christian Cuisine
    Along with vegetarian and Malabari foods, the Syrian Christian kitchen has influenced Kerala's cuisine. These dishes also use their fair share of coconut—whether grated or in the form of coconut milk or oil—fresh spices, and rice: Steamed rice, rice crepes, rice flour pancakes, and rice cakes are accompaniments to curries and stews. The main courses are what distinguish this style from the others. You’ll find duck roasts, stewed and spicy fish, other seafood (particularly prawns), and rich coconut milk curries (beef and lamb in particular). The Grand Pavilion in Ernakulam is the best place to go for a taste of this cuisine; their seafood dishes are highly recommended.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Kochi Café Scene
    The quirky lanes of Fort Kochi have some of the nicest cafés in Kerala—little corners of creativity which have art on display and offer light meals and quality coffees and teas. At Kashi Art Café, on Burgher Street, you can enjoy art installations in the enclosed garden while you wait for your order. Pepper House Café on Kalvatty Road also provides light refreshments with a serving of art; their mint lemonade is excellent. If it’s tea you’re after, The Tea Pot Café on Peter Celli Street is the perfect getaway, with kettles and tea pots everywhere and a selection of brews to choose from.
    Photo by Jochen Tack/age fotostock
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    Sweet Treats
    If Kerala has a state dessert, it's payasam: a rice pudding that can take on various forms depending on the ingredients used, which could include vermicelli, coconut milk, ghee, jaggery, jackfruit, dried fruit, spices like nutmeg and cardamom, and more. The dessert is prepared for special meals like birthdays and anniversaries, on auspicious days, and during the festive season, and is served as part of a sadya banquet. Kozhikode halwa—a translucent, stiff jelly–like dessert—and traditional sweets like ghee cakes are also local favorites. To sample such delights, check out Kozhikode’s legendary Cochin Bakery, on Bank Road. Additionally, come Christmas, the ubiquitous Kerala plum cake is a must-eat.
    Photo by age fotostock