A slice of Kerala

A meticulous compilation of recipes from India’s slimmest state

Egg curry.
Egg curry.

With all the temerity and superficiality of a “north Indian” writing on south Indian culture and cuisine, it seems to me that as with the food, so with the culinary books: If Tamil vegetarian food has come to define “South Indian food” in the popular imagination, its side has been bolstered by the substantial culinary literature about it. In comparison, we’ve been rather slow in waking up to the wealth of foods in neighbouring Kerala; and, in the English language, at least, there have not been too many authoritative books on the many cuisines of India’s slimmest state. Personally, I only claim an acquaintance with Vijayan Kannampilly’s The Essential Kerala Cookbook (2003), part of Penguin’s late-lamented cookery series, and Lathika George’s The Suriani Kitchen (2013), a fine repository of Syrian Christian recipes.

Happiness is a Stomach Full: Honest-to-Goodness Kerala Cooking goes a long way, but, unfortunately, stops short of filling the hole that is our knowledge of Kerala cuisine. It’s a pity, for one senses a real love for the region and its foods in author Sreeja Jayaram, a biochemistry post-graduate who moved on to work in advertising. She possesses, too, a talent for story-telling: Quite uniquely, the recipes are interspersed with tales she heard from her mother, not moralistic and not fabulous, but everyday-special, somewhat like the recipes themselves.

Happiness is a Stomach Full: Honest-to-Goodness Kerala Cooking By Sreeja Jayaram, published by Westland, 192 pages, price: <span class='WebRupee'>Rs.</span>495
Happiness is a Stomach Full: Honest-to-Goodness Kerala Cooking By Sreeja Jayaram, published by Westland, 192 pages, price: Rs.495
Divided into Breakfast, Chutneys, Vegetables (a seriously exhaustive section, comprising Thorans, Mezhukkupuratti, Pachadi and Curries, somewhat aided by many of them being tweaks of a basic recipe), Seafood, Meat, Rice, Desserts and Sweets, and Snacks, Masala Podis and Pickles, Happiness covers vast ground. The recipes themselves are meticulous, specifying exact quantities, time required and the number of servings, though some expertise or experience is called for in the more delicate dishes (for instance, how long does the fish need to cook before it’s firm yet tender?). They are neatly laid out, the handful of photographs are well shot and clearly labelled, and each section is preceded by a short write-up on the produce or the practices.

So why was I left wanting? It’s just that this book could have been so much more. All through, I got the nagging feeling that it wasn’t really addressing me—a comparative novice at cooking Kerala food, despite a well-nurtured love for appams-and-ishtew and red rice-and-meen moilee—but, rather, someone once familiar with a kitchen fitted out with pichaathis and kallchattys who now needs a refresher course. A great deal of knowledge is taken for granted when it comes to ingredients, especially the way they work and what they bring to the dish. What happens, for instance, when we substitute the amaranth leaves in the Cheera Thoran with snake gourd? How will the taste change and what about the cooking timings? What’s unique about a Nendrakayu banana and what can I use as a substitute? And, perversely, why don’t we have specific names for the many varieties of rice (presumably) used in recipes as varied as idlis and paal payasam, apart from the generic “short-grained”?

Which brings me to the second point: Apart from the fabulous ingredients—the cuisine celebrates indigenous vegetables and proteins with an exuberance that would shame many others—the book is filled with casual references to Kerala’s fascinating cooking tools, but there’s very little elucidation on the roles they play in the kitchen. For instance, the section on Thorans is accompanied by a little box that says, “The cutting board wasn’t favoured in our kitchens and vegetables as fine as a grain of rice were chopped with a pichaathi (a knife with a broad blade used in most kitchens in Kerala).” A little line drawing or further description of the way it worked would have been a super value-add.

And third—and, again, it may be just me—I wanted context, of two kinds. One, in the particular sense of whose recipes these are—the author’s? her family’s? And two, and more important, I looked in vain for context in a broader sense. Without ever having lived in Kerala, I do know it is home to many communities and religion-influenced dietary habits. In a book that simply uses the label ‘Kerala cooking’, I could justifiably look for Moplah or (if I’m feeling particularly perverse) Juda Mappila recipes. There’s nothing wrong with documenting the foods of the Hindus (or, possibly, a section of them, because there are distinctions in the eating habits of, say, the meat-eating Nairs and the vegetarian Konkani Gaudas)—and I’ve already applauded the breadth of the book—but I wish it went deeper, looked at how the community’s foods have been influenced by outsiders over time, or how it adapted to its geography, or how different groups developed their own cuisines despite following a common religion.

If you aren’t too pernickety, though, or just want to replicate Kerala dishes you’ve had at a restaurant (if you had it at a friend’s, beg or borrow the recipe of him/her: at least you’ll know where it’s coming from), this book will do just fine.

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