Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts
For the first twenty-five years of my life, I knew only one kind of food, the simple vegetarian cuisine of my home. In fact, a non-vegetarian meal was a taboo in our home, even though traditionally my community, Nayars, do not observe a strict vegetarian diet.
Ironically, my true appreciation of this vegetarian cuisine was awakened only after I left home, and it has continued to grow during the three decades I have lived away from there. Moving to the United States with my graduate-student husband opened the doors for me to a wonderful world of food. As the only married Indian student couple on the campus of Brown University in the early 1970s, our kitchen became the gathering place for a group of Indian graduate students longing for a home-cooked meal. Although we all came from the same country, I soon learned that the other students had not tasted most of the dishes I was preparing.
As my friends taught me how to make dishes from other parts of India, I came to realize for the first time how different the cuisine of Kerala is from the cooking of the rest of India. This really hit home when I first served banana paayasam—a form of banana pudding made with ripe plantains, brown sugar, and coconut milk—to my friends from other parts of India. They had no clue what it was! And even while they were complimenting me, I was baffled that such an old standby had suddenly become so new.
What makes this southwestern region of India—encompassing a diverse terrain of lush, dense rain forests; spectacular coastal towns and picturesque lagoons dotted with unspoiled beaches and soaring coconut palms; and, in between, peaceful, flat plains carpeted with rich, green rice fields—so different from the rest of the country? Just about everything: its culture, its language, and, most of all, its food. Regional differences are a salient feature of Indian cuisine because, until the British conquest at the end of the eighteenth century, each region was ruled by its own royal family and had its own provincial language, local customs, culture, and unique cuisine. And each region had its own history of foreign invasions and outside influences that affected its culture and cuisine. Our cuisine resonates with the influences of centuries of trade with outsiders.
About the Recipes
Most of the recipes in this book were handed down from one generation to the next in my own extended family, and some of them are special gifts from relatives. I have purposely limited myself to a selection of family recipes here, and to the geographical, cultural, and historical context of this food, so as to present the subject in its proper perspective. With most recipes, I have given Western substitutes, following the traditional recipe.
In many cases, these everyday dishes have a very long history. As recipes tell only part of the story of this cuisine, I have included notes on the historical facts and anecdotes associated with several of them. Ancient Indian literature mentions certain recipes as far back as the fifth century AD. Several of the old recipes are associated with regional festivals, and some are traditionally prepared as offerings at famous temples.
Back home, we are taught to cultivate a sense of smell and color, and we try to accomplish perfection in cooking through exploration. Almost every ingredient is measured only by hand—a handful, a little, a pinch, and so on. Cooking is an expression of the cook’s personal tastes and preferences. The joy of it is in experimenting. The delight in cooking is not necessarily derived from the end product alone, but from the endless possibilities available for flavoring a dish. I urge you to use these recipes for ideas and suggestions. Improvise, but never let a cookbook order you around.