Meals-Ready! The Food of Kerala

The cuisine of this Indian state is as colorful, unique and diverse as the peoples and cultures who live there.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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“MEALS-READY” said a comforting sign in front of a typical vegetarian restaurant in Kerala. Inside, dozens of customers hungrily devoured their lunches at marble-topped tables. There was no choice, just “the meal,” a tasty extravaganza served on a banana leaf. Rice, vegetables, lentils and curd, lightly spiced and oiled, formed the basic ingredients, which are eaten with the right hand in a ritual often considered religious. Although enjoyed by all, such vegetarian food is typically Hindu. The Muslims and Christians of this southern Indian state have their own culinary specialties, which favor meat and fish, but the Hindus tend toward the vegetarian – the more orthodox Nambudiris strictly so. All communities cook delicious food, its quality derived in part from the hot, rainy climate and rich soils of Kerala. Its waterways provide an abundance of fish. Kerala is also noted for its spices: cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, mustard, anis, caraway, fenugreek and asafoetida are exported worldwide.

My favorite Keralan restaurants are the thousands of Meals-Ready establishments scattered throughout the state. They are sometimes known as Brahmin restaurants because they are typically owned and operated by Brahmin Hindus, although the servers and cooks are not necessarily of that high caste. The food is similar to that served in Hindu homes, sometimes presented on a stainless steel thali plate with several compartments. In restaurants it is still often served in the traditional way, on a banana or plantain leaf, which provides an untainted, uncontaminated surface. The leaf is later discarded and eaten by a cow or goat. Diners eat with their fingers to avoid utensils used by anyone else. For that reason, Keralan restaurants always have a sink with plenty of soap and water to wash one’s hands thoroughly before eating. The left hand is not involved with food; it is saved for “unclean” functions.

The meal, or sadya as it is known in Malayalam, the language of Kerala, is served in a ritualistic fashion. Although the often-noisy Meals-Ready restaurants are used by thousands of people daily, there is a sacred atmosphere, and the cost is low, at about fifty cents per meal. Eating spaces are spotless and the restaurants provide some of the best vegetarian fare in the world. South Indian cuisine is less oily and spicy than North Indian, and easier to digest.

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Tags: Kerala Cuisine Diversity