Monday, May 10, 2010


Rupali Dean was treated to a traditional Syrian Christian feast when she visited an organic farm and spice estate in the backwaters of Kerala

KERALA is famous for its spicy and tangy cuisine as much as its scenic beauty; it isn't called God's own country for nothing. On a recent trip to Alleppey with my husband and daughter, I realised just how true that adage is...

We “discovered” Puthankayal Island quite by chance. Our boatman told us that it’s the last island to be reclaimed from the backwaters for agriculture and is therefore some two meters below sea level! The retaining dyke around the perimeter of the island keeps the lake water from entering the farm, apparently.

“One can take a tour and have a meal for Rs 1200 per person there,” he told us. The foodies that we all are, we simply had to go for it! What could endear us to this land more than a lip-smacking meal at Phillipkutty’s farm?

We were welcomed warmly by Anu and her mother-in-law Aniamma, with some chilled gingery lemonade in hand. Anu then took us around her family-run organic farm that produces oodles of coconuts, figs, tapioca, bananas, pineapple, guavas, cacao, vegetables and spices like nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon.

Previously Anu also had vanilla on her farm, but unfortunately fungal disease claimed all the creepers. A vanilla crop, I learnt, fetches money for its fruits (beans) as well as its stem and is in popular global demand. Seeing my enthusiasm for vanilla, however, Anu helped me get some from her uncle's farm…absolutely fresh and wonderfully aromatic.

After that wonderful tour, it was time for our lavish lunch which represented the best of traditional Syrian Christian cuisine. What makes this cuisine different from other Kerala styles is its non-vegetarian character. It can also lay claim to hoppers (idiappams), duck roast and the famed Kerala red fish curry. And, of course, that indispensible mate of the crispy-soft appams — stew.

It was a treat to share that sumptuous meal with the family in their dining room. We began our culinary sojourn with vazhapoo cutlets. These breaded patties were served along with a refreshing onion and tomato salad. Crisp on the outside, the filling of banana flower, potato and spices was moist and delicious.

Next came the famed karimeen or Pearl Spot fish. The taste of karimeen fried in flavourful coconut oil is quintessentially Kerala! With innumerable lakes, lagoons, canals and a network of rivers, Kerala's backwaters offer a treasure trove of fresh water fishe, and the Black Pearl Spot is prized for it’s irresistible taste.

But the highlight of my lunch were the Idiappams or string hoppers — amazingly light and fluffy — and Meen Moilee or fish cooked in mild spices and coconut milk. It’s an incredible dish of a million contradictions, subtly flavored to suit most palates.

Syrian Christian food is a mix of Portuguese influence, British flavour and Kerala tradition, they day. Thus, the food tends to be mild in spice terms and not too fiery for the taste buds.

Another dish I couldn’t get enough of was the Pineapple pachadi, whose balance of savory, sweet and tart flavours makes it a delicious accompaniment .On a more traditional vein on offer was a wonderful mix of other items like dal, "tindly fry, pappadams and lime pickle, perfect as accoutrements for red matta rice.

This type of rice is quite similar to brown rice because each grain retains its healthy outer bran layer. It is this rust colored bran layer which gives it its name. “Like all brown rice, red matta

has a lengthy cooking time and requires a ratio of 2:1 liquid to rice,” explained Aniamma. The robust, earthy flavor of the red rice also made it an enticing companion to the scampi masala.

Though I was full, as always I found space for dessert. I’d say the Ila ada was the perfect ending to our meal. This interesting dessert is made by spreading rice flour batter thinly on banana leaves. Then these crepes are either steamed or cooked on the griddle, and stuffed with a decadent mixture of jaggery and grated coconut. We had the griddle cooked version, which had a whiff of smoke from the banana leaves…Simply divine.

Publication: Economic Times Delhi;  Section: ET Travel;