On a warm afternoon in North Kerala, I sat down to submerge my sweaty fingers into the fat Kerala rice. The hot breeze around me smelled two parts ocean, one part coconut, and an unknown ingredient. The dark, middle-aged man referred to as ‘chetta’ by the rest, inspected my banana leaf and threw some prawn curry on my rice. He, then, decorated the border of my leaf with half a dozen side dishes and placed a humongous ‘chemballi fry’ (red snapper fish) at a convenient spot on my platter. Strolling around the shack, he peeked into his customer’s plates, smiled now and then and played with the loose end of his ‘mundu’. As I watched him perform the rituals, he came back to my table to pour some warm, colored drinking water into my empty glass. A little confused and a little curious, he turned to Vikas and asked “ival nammade naatil ninnum alle?” (Is she not from Kerala?). “Haha no chettan,” said Vikas. Relieved of his curiosity, he smiled at me and said “Ahhhh.. Welcome to Kerala!” Indeed, what a welcome it was.
Driving through empty lanes and panoramic bridges, we entered the village of Kadalundi, a few kilometers off Kozhikode. Our food journey into North Kerala couldn’t have started off better. ‘Balettante Meenu Kada’ operates out of Damyanthi’s tiny home, who happens to be the chef and the brain behind the fish center. After she finishes making breakfast for her children, she opens up her kitchen for the guests. Like any traditional ‘chechi’ from Kerala, Damyanthi grinds and prepares all spices at home, relies on her age to measure quantities, and prepares the best-fried fish we’ve ever had.
Unlike the famous and more touristy Southern part, North Kerala is remarkably different in its food, culture, and aura. The unique Moplah cuisine smells of the history the region has seen. It is through this food that tourists like us can experience the romantic fusion of the Arab, Portuguese, and Dutch world with the coastal land of North Kerala. As far as Kozhikode (or Calicut) goes, it is the perfect summary of the region’s amalgamated past.
To experience the Moplah snacks, we headed to the popular Zain’s Hotel that has served food to generations of Malayalis, including celebrities like Mohanlal (who claims it to be is his favourite eatery!). In an otherwise achromatic state, Zain’s crimson walls are a pleasing change to the eye. Struggling between the correct pronunciation of the dishes and the abundant food choices, I found solace in eating all that I could. ‘Muttamala’, stuffed mussels, mussel fry, meat pancake, banana infused with coconut, a Durban style bun pao stuffed with chicken and a lot more. In Kozhikode, they say, a cup of Sulaimani tea is all it takes for the world to come to your feet. For a few minutes, it did seem so.
Biryani to North Kerala is probably what ham is to Spain. Rich, poor, or ‘bourgeois’ (Malayalis use this word way more frequently than one may believe) – ALL have a sentimental relation with this dish. The much celebrated Paragon Restaurant is where you can find out why. A dune of flavored rice hides the velvety meat that is the crux of a good biryani. As I dismantled the dish, the smell of ghee, meat, and Malabari spices consumed my senses. Vikas gobbled up biryani after biryani and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed at the big number penned on their table-cloth – ‘Since 1939’.
As you head up North, crossing the peculiar French capital of Mahe and its series of shabby bars, Kerala begins to change colors. The coastline gets clearer, lanes become smaller, and city life seems to wade off. Just before Mahe, in the town of Vadakara, is a famous highway restaurant called MRA that is known for its Arabic – Kerala fusion food. Shawarmas, Mutton Raan, Mandi Rice, ‘Arikadukka’ (stuffed mussels), Al Faham chicken fill the menu here. Impressed by the name of this dish, we ate the Arabic Mutton Majboos – which is essentially rice topped with roasted mutton. It differs from a regular biryani in its texture, taste, and softness of the cooked meat.
Other than their godly ‘Payasams’, Kerala doesn’t boast of many desserts – a Falooda (take on the Persian dessert ‘faloodeh’) is pretty much the happy ending one should be satisfied with, especially when in North Kerala.
Ever since I had known of Thalassery, I had wanted to visit it. I cannot count the number of times I refused to eat the inspired Thalassery biryanis served in cities to wait for the right one at the right place. And here I was – the town where the world famous ‘Thalassery Biryani’ comes from. Founded in 1942, Paris Restaurant that once served only Biryani is now an established hotel group. I assume the title ‘Paris’ has something to do with the adjacent French establishment, Mahe. Previously a printing press, the restaurant hasn’t given up on its old structure. It has tiny rooms each filled with benches that have seated thousands of hungry foodies over the years.
The specialty of Malabari Biryani is the rice they use – instead of the usual Basmati (long) rice, Thalassery Biryani uses lighter and smaller rice called the Jeerakasala rice. That’s how the Mughal dish has been modified by the locals and we loved every bit of it. Under 300 rupees, we walked out having one of the best dishes of our lives. The experience was totally worth the wait of a few years.
Mambally’s bakery is another old gem that Thalassery cheerfully boasts of. Sitting in a mall, this 137-year-old bakery claims to have made the first Indian version of famous Kerala ‘rum-infused plum cake‘. Now, here’s a thing about Kerala – don’t expect its jewels to be seated in frilly buildings or high-end streets. One finds the most famous of its things in the oddest settings – no fancy cutlery, no gaudy furniture, and absolutely no conventional sophistication of the general world. It’s raw and simple just like the tiny Mambally Bakery and its simple ways.
A food journey to any place is more than just the ‘taste’. Food that may not appeal to your palate otherwise, starts to taste delectable when you discover its roots in the geography and history of a place. Tapioca for me is one such item. At some point in the history, Kerala was running short of rice and the poor needed a cheap alternative. The king of Travancore who had a flair for botany introduced Tapioca into their diet. When I ate my first Kappa (tapioca) meal in Kannur, I couldn’t help but think about the king and his innovation. Some leave jewels, some leave forts, Visakham Thirunal Maharaja left us some Tapioca.
The combination of Kappa and Mutton Chaap is a common breakfast delicacy in Kannur. At about 9 am, this small breakfast joint, ‘Onakkan Bharati’, was already running out of food. Curiosity made me shameless enough to stare at my neighbor’s plate who ate ‘puttu’ (steamed rice and coconut cake) with sugar and banana. Some paired up their ‘puttu’ with ‘mutton chaap’ or ‘kadla curry’ (black chickpea curry). I chose to stick with the Maharaja’s invention that tastes like bread from a tree – mushy and plain. A perfect companion for a spicy mutton curry, this meal is sure to get you through a day of hard work.
Kannur marked the farthest point of our food journey and we had to end it with the traditional Kerala ‘Porotta’ that Vikas can sell his kidneys for. At a joint called MVK, we ate this Malabar bread with prawns and chicken, each roasted in traditional Kerala pepper. They also make fish biryani which smells like river served on a plate.
Full, heavy, and happy, we headed all the way back to Palakkad and ate away our favorite dishes (again!) on the way. For Vikas, this journey was about digging deeper into his backyard, feeling surprised and shocked at the new things he learnt. For me, it was the discovery of a new cuisine and culture that I didn’t know existed in my country. Kerala, so far, had been a different drawing in my mind – green waters, coconut trees, houseboats, women draped in white sarees, and luxury resorts all over. The food was all about the appams, stews, beef fry, and the ‘sadya’.
North Kerala unveiled, to me, a completely new and unknown side of this gorgeous land. Instead of lazing on the houseboats, we drove on the beaches; instead of appams, we ate tapioca for breakfast, fish biryani replaced the ghee rice, and the shawarmas replaced the curries.
Hours into our journey, we neared home and I couldn’t help but thank the world for being so diverse. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be one worth traveling.