Cuisine of Kerala

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The cuisine of Kerala, a state in the south west of India, is linked to its history, geography, demography and culture. Kerala cuisine offers a multitude of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes prepared using fish, poultry and red meat with rice a typical accompaniment. Chillies, curry leaves, mustard seeds, tamarind and asafoetida are all frequently used.

Kerala is known as the "Land of Spices" because it traded spices with Europe as well as with many ancient civilizations with the oldest historical records of the Sumerians from 3000 BCE.[1][2] Food is traditionally served on a banana leaf and almost every dish has coconut and spices added for flavour, giving its cuisine a sharp pungency that is heightened with the use of tamarind. Seafood is the main diet in coastal Kerala, whereas vegetables are the main diet on the plains. Meat is served as the main course in tribal and northern Kerala. Dishes range from simple 'kanji' (rice gruel) to extravagant feasts or 'sadyas'

Lunch in Kerala Style


Coconuts grow in abundance in Kerala, and consequently, coconut kernel, (sliced or grated) coconut cream and coconut milk are widely used in dishes for thickening and flavouring. Kerala's long coastline, numerous rivers and backwater networks, and strong fishing industry have contributed to many sea and river food based dishes. Rice and cassava (Tapioca) form the staple food of Kerala. All main dishes are made with them and served along with Kootan; the side dishes which may be made from vegetables, meat, fish or a mix of all of them. The main dish for lunch and dinner is boiled rice. The Kerala breakfast shows a rich variety; the main dishes for which are made from rice flour, or fresh or dried cassava.

Historical and cultural influences[edit]

In addition to historical diversity, cultural influences, particularly the large percentages of Muslims and Christians, have also contributed unique dishes and styles to Kerala cuisine, especially non-vegetarian dishes. The meat eating habits of the people were historically limited by religious taboos. Brahmins eschew non vegetarian items. However, most of modern-day Hindus do not observe any dietary taboos, except a few of those belonging to upper castes who do not consume beef or pork.[3] Most Muslims do not eat pork and other items forbidden by Islamic law.


Traditional Kerala food is vegetarian and includes Kerala Sadhya, which is an elaborate banquet prepared for festivals and ceremonies but contemporary Kerala food also includes Non-vegetarian dishes. A full-course Sadya, which consists of rice with about twenty different accompaniments and desserts is the ceremonial meal of Kerala eaten usually on celebratory occasions including marriages, Onam and Vishu. It is served on a plantain leaf. Because of its rich trading heritage, over time various cuisines have blended with indigenous Kerala dishes with foreign dishes adapted to local tastes. Coconuts grow in abundance in Kerala, so grated coconut and coconut milk are commonly used for thickening and flavouring.[4] Kerala's long coastline and numerous rivers have led to a strong fishing industry in the region, making seafood a common part of meals. Rice is grown in abundance along with tapioca. It is the main starch ingredient used in Kerala's food.[5] Having been a major production area of spices for thousands of years, the region makes frequent use of black pepper, cardamom, clove, ginger, and cinnamon. Most of Kerala's Hindus, except its Brahmin community, eat fish, chicken, eggs and mutton.[6] The Brahmin community on the other hand is famed for their vegan cuisine, especially various varieties of Sambar and Rasam.In most Kerala households, a typical meal consists of rice, fish, and vegetables. Kerala also has a variety of breakfast dishes like idli, dosa, appam, idiyappam, puttu, and pathiri.[7]


Main article: Sadya
A typical sadya, where banana leaves are used as plates
A traditional home-made Keralite meal served on a banana leaf.
Sadya items ready to be served, Clockwise from top Paayasam, Bittergourd thoran, aviyal, Kaalan, Lime Pickle, Sambar, Buttermilk with Boiled rice in center

Kerala is known for its traditional banquet or sadya, a pure vegetarian meal served with boiled rice and a host of side-dishes served especially during special occasions and festivals. The sadhya is complemented by payasam, a sweet dessert native to Kerala. The sadhya is, as per custom, served on a banana leaf, and is a formal-style meal with three or more courses of rice with a side-dish (usually sambar, rasam, buttermilk, etc.). In south Kerala the Payasam in followed by more (butter milk) and rasam whereas in North Malabar it is considered to be the last dish to be served.

Malabar Cuisine[edit]

Main article: Thalassery biryani
Thalassery biryani, Kerala's own biriyani variant

One of the main special cuisines is the Malabar biryani. Usually chicken is preferred as an ingredient but variants of mutton and egg are also experimented with. Cuisines of Kallummakaya (Green mussel) is another specialty. Numerous dishes like Arikkadukka are made of it. Prawns, crab, and other shellfish are used, as well.

Food offerings in rituals[edit]

Food is extremely important when it comes to rituals or festivals. Food offerings in ritual are important in Kerala and throughout South India. Food offerings are often related to the gods of religions. In India, there are numerous offerings for Hindu gods and there are many differences between food offerings in North and South India. Most offerings contain more than one type of food. There are many reasons why people use the practice of food offerings. Some are to express love, or negotiate or thank gods. It can also be used to "stress certain structural features of Hinduism".[8] Of course, not every ritual’s gods require food offerings. Most have a liking for certain foods. For example, butter is one of the preferred foods by the god Krishna. Also, wild orange and a sugarcane stalk are related to Ganapati.[8]

There is a division of the Hindu pantheon into pure and impure deities which is stressed, but shaped by food offerings. Pure deities are offered vegetarian foods while impure deities are offered meat due to their craving for blood.[9] A specific dish is offered to both pure and impure deities. That is a flour lamp which is made of sweetened rice-flour paste which is scooped out and packed with ghee. The flour lamp is only partially baked and then eaten.[9] Another aspect of food offerings is the hierarchy that foods have. It may seem strange that there is a hierarchy for foods, but it is because there is a dual opposition between the pure and impure deities which is hierarchal.[9] There are two gods which have this dual opposition. They are Vishnu and Siva. Ferro-Luzzi explains that Vishnu is viewed as kind while the offerings that are given to Siva are more frugal'. An offering to Siva might be likely to be plain rice with no salt or other toppings, while an offering to Vishnu may resemble a South Indian dish which can consist of rice with other side dishes. Specifically in South Indian offerings, they are offered in numbers. For example, the number three is important in Kerala offerings. There are the trimadhura which translates into 'the three sweets'.[10] All of these practices of food offerings in ritual are important in Kerala culture as well as South Indian culture.

Cooking as sacred ritual[edit]

The last decade has seen the rise of cooking as sacred ritual in South Kerala, almost exclusively by women. This practice, called 'Pongala' (derived from Tamil dish Pongal), seems to have been historically associated with the Attukal Temple in Trivandrum city which was begotten from Tamil tradition. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Attukal Pongala is the largest gathering of women in the world.[11] Women participants of the pongala come equipped with cooking pots, dry fuel (mostly dry leaves and spathes of the coconut palm) and ingredients such as rice flour, palm sugar and condiments, often the previous evening, and set up their hearths around the temple on the morning of the day of the festival.

Often, the women take over most of the roads and lanes of Trivandrum city during the pongala day. In 2009, the estimated number of women who participated was 2.5 million.[12] The women wait until the Attukal temple ceremoniously distributes the fire, and set about their cooking when the fire reaches them, passed from hearth to hearth. They go home with the cooked offerings by late afternoon. While males are not allowed in the area, they help out my providing support to arriving and departing women by organising transportation, and distributing free beverages. Trivandrum city, police and civil authorities have been successfully able to manage the festival, but it is quintessentially a women's festival.

Cuisine of the Christians[edit]

A favourite dish of Christians is stew. Chicken, potatoes and onions simmered gently in a creamy white sauce flavoured with black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, green chillies, lime juice, shallots and coconut milk.[13] and their food consists of coconut and sea food. They also prepare stews with chicken, lamb and duck.[13]

Other dishes include piralen (chicken stir-fries), meat thoran (dry curry with shredded coconut), sardine and duck curries, and meen molee (spicy stewed fish).[13] This is eaten with another dish known as appam. Appams, kallappams, or vellayappams are rice flour pancakes which have soft, thick white spongy centres and crisp, lace-like edges.[13] "Meen Mulakittathu" or "Meen vevichathu" (fish in fiery red chilly sauce) is another favourite item.[13] Njandu roast (crab roast) and tharavu roast (duck roast) are also popular with the Nazrani Christians.

In addition to chicken and fish, Christians along with some section of Hindus and all Muslims in Kerala also eat red meat. For example, beef ularthiathu is a beef dish cooked with spices.[13]

Glossary of vegetables, fruits, spices and other food stuff[edit]

English name Malayalam name Malayalam (മലയാളം)
Asafoetida Kaayam കായം
Ash gourd Kumbalanga കുമ്പളങ്ങ
Banana Vazhapazham, Pazham(Generic usage), Vazhakka(unripe) വാഴപ്പഴം, പഴം, വാഴക്ക
Bilimbi cucumber fruit Irumban Puli or Chemmeen Puli ഇരുമ്പൻപുളി/ ചെമ്മീൻപുളി
Bird's eye chili Kanthari Mulaku കാന്താരി മുളക്‌
Bengal gram Mani Kadala മണിക്കടല
Bitter gourd Kaipakka (Pavakka) കൈപ്പക്ക(പാവക്ക)
Black pepper Kurumulaku കുരുമുളക്
Butter Venna വെണ്ണ
Cabbage Muttakose മൂട്ടക്കൂസ്
Cardamom Elakkaya ഏലക്കായ
Cashew nut Kasuvandi, Andipparippu, Parrangiyandi or Parrangaandi കശുവണ്ടി, അണ്ടിപരിപ്പ്, പറങ്കിയണ്ടി
Cheese Paalkkatti പാല്ക്കട്ടി
Chicken Kozhi erachi കോഴി ഇറച്ചി
Cinnamon Karuvapatta കറുവാപ്പട്ട
Clove Karayampoo കരയാമ്പു (ഗ്രാമ്പൂ)
Coconut oil Velichenna വെളിച്ചെണ്ണ
Coconut Nalikeram, Thenga നാളികേരം/തേങ്ങ
Coffee Kaappi കാപ്പി
Colocasia Chembu ചേമ്പു
Coriander Malli or Kothamalli മല്ലി / കൊത്തമല്ലി
Cowpea / Yardlong Bean Van Payar വൻപയർ
Cucumber Kakkiri or Kakkirikka കക്കിരി/ കക്കിരിക്ക
Indian Yellow Cucumber Vellarikka വെളളരിക്ക
Cumin Jeerakam ജീരകം
Curd/ Yoghurt Thairu തൈര്‌
Egg Mutta മുട്ട
Egg plant / Brinjal Vazhuthananga, kathirikka വഴുതനങ്ങ, കത്തിരിക്ക
Fennel Perumjeerakam പെരുംജീരകം
Fenugreek Uluva or Venthayam ഉലുവ, വെന്തയം
Fish Meen മീന്
Garcinia cambogia Kodampuli കൊടമ്പുളി
Garlic Veluthulli വെളളുത്തുളളി
Ginger Inji ഇഞ്ജി
Honey Then തേൻ
Indian Gooseberry (Amla / Emblica) Nellikka നെല്ലിക്ക
Ivy Gourd Kovakka കോവക്ക
Green chili Pacha mulaku പച്ചമുളക്
Green gram Cherupayar ചെറുപയർ
Guava Perakkaya, Poyyakka, Koyyakka പേരയ്ക്ക
Jack fruit Chakka ചക്ക
Jaggery Sarkara (bellam or vellam) ശർക്കര(വെല്ലം,ബെല്ലം)
Lemon Narrenga നാരങ്ങ
Lime Cherunarrenga ചെറുനാരങ്ങ
Mango Maanga മാങ്ങ
Meat Irachi ഇറച്ചി
Meat - Lamb/Mutton Aattu Irachi ആട്ടിറച്ചി
Meat - Pork Panni Irachi പന്നി ഇറച്ചി
Milk Paal പാല്
Mint leaves Puthina ela പുതിനയില
Moringa Fruit (Drumstick) Muringakkaya മുരിങ്ങക്കായ
Mustard seeds Kaduku കടുകു
Nutmeg Jathikka ജാതിക്ക
Okra / Lady's finger Vendakka വെണ്ടയ്ക്ക
Onion Ulli, Savala, Sabola ഉളളി, സവോള, സബോള
Orange Madhuranarrenga മധുരനാരങ്ങ
Papaya Karmosa, Omakaya, Kappakaya, Papakaya, Pappaya,Pappali, Kappalanga പപ്പായ, ഓമക്കായ, കപ്പ്ളങ്ങ
Pea Attani, Attani Kadala കടല
Peanut / Groundnut Kappalandi or Nilakkadala കപ്പലണ്ടി
Pigeon pea / Red gram Thoovara തുവര
Pineapple Kaithachakka കൈതച്ചക്ക
Plantain(Raw) Nendrakkaya, Ethekkya നേന്ത്രക്കായ, ഏത്തക്കായ
Plantain(Ripe) Nenthrapazham, Ethapazham നേന്ത്രപ്പഴം, ഏത്തപ്പഴം
Potato Urulakkizhangu ഉരുളക്കിഴങ്ങ്
Pumpkin Matthanga, Mathangumblam മത്തങ്ങ
Raisin Unakka munthiri, kismis ഉണക്കമുന്തിരി
Saba Banana Robust റൊബസ്റ്റ
Saffron Kunkumam കുങ്കുമം
Salt Uppu ഉപ്പു
Shallot Chuvannulli or Cheriyulli ചുവന്നുളളി, ചെറിയ ഉള്ളി
Shrimp / Prawn Chemmeen, Konchu ചെമ്മീൻ, കൊഞ്ച്
Snake gourd Padavalanga പടവലങ്ങ
Sugar Panjasara പഞ്ജസാര
Tamarind Pulli പുളി
Tapioca / Cassava Kolli, Kappa, Marichini, Poolakizhaghu കൊളളി, കപ്പ, മരച്ചീനി, പൂളക്കിഴങ്ങ്
Taro Cheambu ചേമ്പു
Tea leaves Theyila തേയില
Tomato Thakkali തക്കാളി
Vigna mungo ( Black Gram / Urad ) Uzhunnu ഉഴുന്ന്
Water Vellam വെള്ളം
'Waxy rose' water apple Champa or Champakka ചാമ്പ / ചാമ്പക്ക
Yam / Elephant Foot Yam Chena ചേന


  1. ^ "Of Kerala Egypt and the Spice link". The Hindu (Thiruvananthapuram, India). 28 January 2014. 
  2. ^ Striving for sustainability, environmental stress and democratic initiatives in Kerala, p. 79; ISBN 81-8069-294-9, Srikumar Chattopadhyay, Richard W. Franke; Year: 2006.
  3. ^ Social mobility in Kerala Kanjirathara Chandy Alexander
  4. ^ Zero Oil South Indian Cook Book. Dr. Bimal Chhajer. ISBN 9788128805127. 
  5. ^ India, [report prepared by] Planning Commission, Government of (2008). Kerala development report. New Delhi: Academic Foundation. ISBN 8171885942. 
  6. ^ Chatterjee, editors: Ashok K. Dutt, H.N. Misra, Meera (2008). Explorations in applied geography (Eastern economy ed.). New Delhi: Asoke K. Ghosh, Prentice-Hall of India, Private Limited. ISBN 9788120333840. 
  7. ^ Bhandari Laveesh (2009). Indian States at a Glance 2008–09: Performance, Facts and Figures – Kerala. Pearson Education India. pp. 36–. ISBN 978-81-317-2340-1. Retrieved 26 June 2012. 
  8. ^ a b (Ferro-Luzzi 1977, 508)
  9. ^ a b c (Ferro-Luzzi 1977, 509)
  10. ^ (Ferro-Luzzi 1977, 512)
  11. ^
  12. ^ Holy Cooking India Today - MARCH 19, 2007
  13. ^ a b c d e f Marks, Gil (2010), Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, John Wiley and sons

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