Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Kerala Sadhya - the Kerala meal

Onam just got over last week and it brought back a lot of memories - mainly of food and the Onam Sadhya meal served on that day.

It is very very unlikely that most folk have ever had the authentic kerala Sadhya, but its gaining in popularity nationwide and internationally of course.

I had travelled across quite a bit of India and the two states where my family and I had the maximum difficulty in eating outside was in West Bengal and in Kerala.  Yes, in both states the meals available outside are almost always non-vegetarian and it is rare to get vegetarian food. Even the Udupi joints are few and far in between in either state.

In Kerala the authentic restaurants would serve boiled rice which is what everyone eats, which is brownnish red and fluffy and slightly bland compared to the polished white rice.  Almost every restaurant we went to would have non-vegetarian food and it was hard to not be overcome by the smells.  This was nearly three decades ago, and I haven't been there since.

Overall it wasn't a memorable experience for me - it was hot, muggy and even cold water was not available. (mineral water was only gaining currency then and the national brands were not well distributed then and only dodgy local brands which were more unsafe than tap water). What was funny was that all restaurants served the water that was boiled with fennel seeds/ cumin/ herbs in the morning and had a yellow tinge - which resembled both beer and a body fluid.  I didn't like it, and it was hard to enjoy any of the meals.

Like I have mentioned in quite countless posts, the best food from a state are available outside it. In the case of Kerala, at least for the vegetarian version you need to move to Dubai (or closer Bangalore, where a more udupi-ised version is available).

In Dubai when I finally had the veg kerala meals I was blown away.  There were many many outstanding Kerala restaurants in Dubai which gave this hell of a meal, and no surprise here since the biggest segment of the population in UAE is of those from Kerala.

It needs to be said here that the rice plate popularized in Mumbai over a 100 years was the savior for factory workers and migrant workers - as it gave a nice proper meal for them at an affordable cost. This would usually be a plate heaped with rice with some dal and a curry and a pickle thrown in, sometimes with a curd. It is a staple feature and across most of India this became the happy meal combination that was a best seller and you more or less get the same mass-produced thing which while it provides quick sustenance is tasteless and flavorless - once you’ve eaten one its the same everywhere.

Thats why finding the authentic Kerala cuisine is real hard.  A good way to know if you have the Kerala food is when they ask you if you want boiled rice or polished white rice.  

Rice is the main staple and feature of the Kerala meal, usually served on a banana leaf.  Some others throw in Appams and the disgusting paratha - but those are distractions. Similarly a few of them throw in the curries from the north or the Udipi versions of Sambhars and Rasams.

Which is why the food I ate in Dubai was so lovely - in fact so much so that I haven't eaten the real thing since I left there.  I ate at a Kerala restaurant in Bangalore which was closer to an Udupi meal, it was disappointing.  (But I discovered the closest when I visited South Mumbai and in fort/ near fountain there are two kerala joints which respecting the Gujarati clientele from the Stock exchange, usually keep a separate section for vegetarian and families. That food was as close to the real thing but not as great tasting and an indulgent spread like in Dubai - but do try them, and don't be put off by the lack of ambience. The service staff in these restaurants are also as un-friendly as they come -  another hallmark of Kerala restaurants).

The best way to identify Kerala food is that it has possibly the most under-whelming curries in India. (and to compensate and cater to the mix of clientele, most restaurants include the udupi-ised versions or the north indian curries - a big big mistake!!!)

No this is not an insult.  I am not a foodie expert, but IMHO the most subtle flavors in a curry are to be found in Kerala.  Its God’s own country as their tourism ad campaign calls it, and nearly every spice from cardamoms and peppercorns are grown in Kerala.  So when they cook food, they use the right amount of spices - neither too many to overpower the food nor too light to be missed.  I don't think they use any masala powders.  They do make some pastes from coconut, but its not the strong spicy robust ones made in Karnataka.

So when you eat the vegetable stews (which, even when made right out of a can of coconut milk, instead of using the fresh thing) tastes right.  

One thing about Kerala foods is the names are unpronounce-able even for most south Indians. So I can't remember the many ones.  

Another distinguishing fact is that the quantities are spare and also the number of vegetables and the amount that is served, literally a coupla teaspoons (just like the amount of spices they use).  Further, the vegetables they use are not the common ones. There are quite a few tubers they use, and there is the banana flower which is also popular in west bengal.

Given all of this, it is very unlikely you will be having many helpings of rice unlike say in the Andhra meals.

Overall it is one of the healthiest meals you can eat in India - especially if you are eating the brown rice.  Even on Onam when they make the festive feast - they only throw in a couple of banana sweet and salty chips and not any further deep fried fritters.   There might - and I say MIGHT be the authentic sweet payasam - but this is usually rare. In Dubai this was one they always got wrong as some of them would serve a disgusting version of the milk or jaggery laced payasam that is normally served in Mumbai’s rice plates. (usually they just serve a single tiny banana that is usually available from Kerala - did I just say the meal is spare...?)

Its one of the healthiest and near perfect flavoured meals, and since the authentic one is rare - when you do get a chance enjoy it and eat as much as you can, because you don't know when the next genuine authentic kerala meal will be available.