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A guide to Kerala’s cuisine

A typical Kerala thali includes a range of dishes.
Image courtesy: Pallavi Pasricha

Kerala cuisine is so diverse and distinct from the rest of India that the tantalising flavours are going to keep you craving, long after you’ve returned from your trip. You could say that it was the intoxicating aroma of spices that lured traders long ago to Kerala. The same heady concoctions make the cuisine a delicious enough reason to travel to this part of India today. So, expect a generous use of coconut, chilli and spices, in mouth-tingling local recipes that differ with region and community.

Ranging from brilliant Mappila (Muslim) biryanis, sadyas (feasts) served in Hindu households, lip-smacking non-vegetarian dishes of Syrian Christian families, to a steady supply of seafood delights, you will always find something new to try. The food tastes even better when eaten on banana leaves.

Also read: Best places to eat in Kerala

Also read: Best places to visit in Northern Kerala

Also read: The best of Kerala: from the hills to the sea

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Culinary Influences
With Greek, Roman, Chinese, Portuguese, Arab and Dutch traders making their way to the port towns of Kerala, it is no wonder that the food has been cast with a spectacular range of culinary influences. Though there are differences in the taste and style of preparations between north and south Kerala dishes, both use similar vegetables and ingredients. Plantains, coconut, gourds and yam are commonly used. Additionally, north Kerala has a large array of non-vegetarian dishes, given its Arab lineage.


Layered parottas go well with chicken curries.
Image courtesy: Pallavi Pasricha

Mappila cuisine
Mappila food as it’s called, is especially famous for biryanis. The Arab-influenced cuisine of the Mappila community offers some of the most flavourful dishes in Kerala. The use of fragrant spices, especially pepper, cardamom and cloves, is the highlight. The Mappila biriyani is a must-have, and so are the layered parottas that go wonderfully with chicken curries. Outstanding dishes are muttamaala (egg garland), kadukkanira chathu (stuffed mussels) and kozhinira chathu (stuffed chicken).

Kerala is a seafood-lover’s paradise. A wide variety of catch, fresh from the Arabian Sea, can be found stacked in restaurants, especially the seaside joints of Kovalam and Varkala. You can choose from an array of snapper, rockfish, spotted pearl, prawn, lobster and squid amongst others. In the southern districts, Syrian Christians sway the menu towards appams, chicken stew, duck roast and other non-veg delights.

Vegetarian Sadya

The food tastes even better when eaten on banana leaves.

The Hindu population of Kerala is known for serving a delightful veg banquet, called the sadya. In this, 24–28 kinds of dishes are served in a specific order on a banana leaf. Traditionally, sadya refers to a large feast in Malayalam. A typical sadya is served on a banana leaf and can have 24–28 dishes in a single meal. These are served in a particular order. Onam sadyas are a rage during the festival.

Popular dishes

Avial: A must on the sadya menu, avial is a thick curry of coconut, curd and an assortment of vegetables. Given that the seasoning is cooked in coconut oil, avial is mild in taste and is best eaten with rice.

Kozhikodan halwa: The famous Kozhikodan halwa has been going through a metamorphosis with changing times. Earlier, the popular flour sugar-coconut oil-based sweet used to be prepared in four variations: black, white, red and green. The colour infusion was introduced naturally, with almonds for red and pistachio for green. Today, with the growing demand for more choice, the halwa makers have started using jackfruit, mango, grapes, strawberries and even chocolate. Little souvenir packs with mixed flavours are available widely in the range of Rs. 160–250.

Appam and stew is a staple at many homes in Kerala.
Image courtesy: Pallavi Pasricha

Appam and Stew: A staple in Nasrani (Christian) households, the appam-stew combo is a favourite with travellers. It’s light on the tummy and the stew can be made with chicken, mutton or vegetables.
This is usually a breakfast option.

Biryani: A Mappila biryani is something you must try in the Malabar region. The lamb biryani is an aromatic rice dish with plenty of ghee, dry fruits and a generous helping of meat.

Kappa: Tapioca is boiled, cut into slices and then mixed with grated coconut, chilli, salt and turmeric and works wonderfully as a salty snack, especially with the local toddy. This is usually an acquired taste.

Indian breakfast Puttu with green peas curry.
Puttu is a popular breakfast dish.
Image courtesy: ©AJP/Shutterstock

Puttu and Meen Curry: This is usually served for breakfast. Puttu is rice powder and coconut, steamed in a metal or bamboo holder. This dry white bread is then served with meen (fish) curry or black gram for vegetarians. The meen curry is made with regular Indian spices like garlic, mustard, turmeric, chilli powder, ginger and curry leaves.

Paal Payasam: The most popular sweet of Kerala is paal payasam or milk kheer. Rice is cooked slowly in milk with coconut extract, sugar, cashews and dry fruits. Sometimes jaggery is used instead of sugar.