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.
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.