Cuisine of Kerala
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The cuisine of Kerala, a state in the south 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, coconut, mustard seeds, turmeric, tamarind, and asafoetida are all frequently used.
Historical and cultural influences
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 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. Most Muslims do not eat pork and other items forbidden by Islamic law. Alcohol is available in Kerala in many hotels and over a thousand bars and liquor stores, but state authorities plan to close the vast majority of these outlets in a ten-year plan to combat problem drinking that began in 2014.
One of the traditional Kerala dishes is vegetarian and is called the Kerala Sadya, which is an elaborate banquet prepared for festivals and ceremonies. 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. 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.
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. Kerala also has a variety of breakfast dishes like idli, dosa, appam, idiyappam, puttu, and pathiri.
Many of Kerala's Hindus, except certain communities and ovolacto vegetarians, eat fish and chicken. Some communities, on the other hand, are famed for their vegetarian cuisine consisting of milk and dairy-based dishes, especially various varieties of sambar and rasam. In most Kerala households, a typical meal consists of rice, fish, and vegetables. Beef, contrary to the outlook of the remaining Indian society, also plays a prominent role in Kerala cuisine. The meat is featured in Hindu, Christian and Islamic communities of Kerala.
Food offerings in rituals
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". 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.
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. 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. 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. 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'.
Cooking as sacred ritual
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.
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. 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 by providing support to arriving and departing women by organising transportation, and distributing free beverages.
Cuisine of the Christians
A favourite dish of Kerala Christians is a chicken stew. For this dish, chicken, potatoes and onions are simmered gently in a creamy white sauce flavoured with black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, green chillies, lime juice, shallots and coconut milk. Lamb and duck can replace chicken in the stew recipe.
Other dishes include piralen (chicken stir-fries), meat thoran (dry curry with shredded coconut), sardine and duck curries, and meen molee (spicy stewed fish). 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. "Meen Mulakittathu" or "Meen vevichathu" (fish in fiery red chilly sauce) is another favourite item.
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.
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