The zest and pungency of Kerala cuisine can be sampled in a special dish, and here’s how you can make it too
The cuisine of Kerala is inseparable from its climate. The warm, green-lashed Malabar Coast has, for centuries, been the major center of the world’s spice trade, first with the Arab spice traders and then the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British. This state is the home of abundant fields of black pepper, cardamom and a variety of fragrant spices. These lend their zest and pungency to Kerala’s cuisine.
The coastal area of Kerala, which has been subjected to foreign influences for thousands of years, is a strong fish and meat-eating region. Jewish settlers came to Kerala as long ago as AD 7, bringing with them the notion of slaughtering livestock as humanely as possible, so that the meat was acceptable or kosher. Soon after, Syrian Christians settled in Kerala. There is some doubt whether they came to be called Syrian Christians because their liturgy of worship was Aramaic (Syriac language) or whether they were in fact from Syria.
St. Thomas the Apostle, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, is said to have landed here in AD 52, which prompted their arrival. A hundred years later, a disciple of Prophet Mohammed introduced Islam to Kerala. Not influenced by Hindu prohibitions on beef, Kerala’s Christians have developed a number of beef dishes where the meat is tenderised (usually with vinegar or by boiling before transforming it into a rich coconut-milk curry or a dry roast or fry). They are also renowned for their wild duck dishes, where the duck is either cooked to make a curry or stuffed and roasted. With the arrival of the British in the 18th century, many Syrian Christians became rubber and tea plantation owners, which made them a wealthy community. They were also a powerful trading community with an almost aristocratic and elegant lifestyle, which is reflected in their homes and their great love of food.
Many of the dishes that are associated with ‘Kerala cuisine’ - fish moilee, fish polichattu (fish cooked in a banana leaf), fried pearl spot, creamy mutton stew, duck roast and the famous Beef Ularthiyathu, are all Syrian-Christian dishes. The community has no food restrictions and enjoys all manner of meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables.
I had the most marvellous Beef Ularthiyathu made by Chef Gejo Joseph at the relatively new Forte Kochi boutique hotel, which is situated right at the heart of Fort Kochi – a couple of minutes from the water’s edge in a house which belonged to a Jewish merchant in the 19th century. The menu at Forte Kochi is extensive and caters to the international traveller but their traditional Syrian Christian dishes are the stars here.
Cook the beef in a pressure cooker or vessel until tender with the coconut bits, red chilli powder, coriander powder and 1 cup water. If you’re cooking in an ordinary pan, you’ll need more water.
Heat the coconut oil in a thick-bottomed pan. Add the mustard seeds and saunf and let them crackle. Add ginger, garlic, green chilli, curry leaves, red chilli, coconut slivers and onion. Saute till onions are golden
Then add turmeric powder, chilli powder, coriander powder and the sliced tomato. Add the cooked beef along with the cooking liquid to the pan, stirring continuously. When almost all the gravy has reduced, add garam masala, saunf, pepper and salt. Serve hot with Kerala paratha or appam.
About Karen Anand: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.