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Tandoori Coconut Chicken Tikka In Kumarakom, Kerala

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The backwaters of Kerala are one of the most amazing and enchanting sights in India. For hundreds and hundreds of miles an interconnected series of freshwater rivers, lakes and lagoons run parallel to the coast of the Arabian Sea, forming a maze that serves as a highway for the people living along its shores. Lush green plants line the backwaters, creating a landscape of breathtaking beauty. Brilliantly coloured birds flit in and out of the trees, diving into the water to emerge with a fish clasped in their beaks. Palm trees arch across narrow waterways, forming a shady lane through which you can float, seemingly without end.

The best way to explore the backwaters is to rent a boat and spend a few hours cruising aimlessly. You pass through many settlements and get to observe village life up close. Men commute to work in little canoes. Women walk across bridges over the canals as they go shopping. Children dive into the water. Families gossip in back yards of houses or cast fishing lines into the water to catch dinner. You see women doing their laundry by the water's edge. You have this incredible sensation of being an invisible part of the activity swirling all around, as you glide down the waterways.

Should you wish to spend even more time in the backwaters you can stay in one of the many houseboats that line the shores. Made from the barges that transported rice from the many farms in the region, they have been upgraded and are often quite luxurious accommodation, with multiple bedrooms, air-conditioning and your own private chef! These houseboats leisurely make their way along the waters and are one of the best way to relax and enjoy the scenery while savouring good food!

Coconut grows abundantly in this area and is used in almost every dish. We came across some delicious tandoori chicken laced with coconut cream in the resort we were staying in and managed to get the recipe. It was served with pickled onion rings, lemon wedges and naan fresh from the tandoor. Served outdoors while enjoying a live musical performance, It was a meal to remember!

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Coconut cream makes the chicken incredibly soft and tender and also helps mellow out the spices. You can also substitute skinned chicken drumsticks for the chicken breast or try cubes of paneer for a vegetarian option.

Tandoori Coconut Chicken Tikka

1 lb (450g) chicken breast, cut into 2 inch chunks

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 inch piece ginger, minced

2 tbsp each: full fat plain yogurt, coconut cream (skimmed off the top of a can of premium full fat coconut milk), lemon juice, oil

Salt to taste

1 tsp each, ground spices: coriander, cumin, dried fenugreek leaves, fennel or use 1 tbsp Malabar Masala Powder

1/4 tsp each: cayenne pepper, ground black pepper, saffron strands or red food colouring

2 tbsp melted butter

Place chicken in large mixing bowl.

Combine remaining ingredients, except butter in small bowl, mixing well. Pour over chicken, toss well to coat pieces with marinade. Cover and refrigerate chicken overnight for flavour to develop properly.

Thread chicken onto skewers and place on medium hot barbecue. Grill covered for 8 min per side, turning skewers once. Baste occasionally with marinade to keep chicken moist. Brush with melted butter 2 min before taking off the grill.

Serve with wedges of lime if desired.

Serves four

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Sambhar (curried lentils) In Munnar

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Munnar is justly famous for it's tea gardens and tea estates which stretch out invitingly over hills and valleys. One of our favourite pastimes was to go on long drives on narrow roads that cut through neatly manicured rows of tea bushes and wind through the undulating countryside.

Every now and then, the scenery would give way to a glimpse of a breathtaking waterfall, or a serene lake with paddle boats drifting across or a man made dam that was beautiful enough to warrant a stop for pictures.

Fresh green coconut water is a tasty way to hydrate and cool off during these long drives. Coconut vendors with pushcarts piled high with green coconuts were everywhere. We would often pull over for a refreshing pit stop while the vendor hacked at our coconuts with a huge dangerous looking machete!

Sambhar is a delicious, soupy, healthy melange of soft cooked dal (lentils), assorted vegetables, spices and shredded coconut. I love dunking idlis (steamed rice cakes) in it at breakfast time. What better way to wake up your taste buds in the morning?!

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You can also make sambhar with red lentils, if you don't have any Arhar dal on hand. In Kerala, sambhar is usually served with rice or idlis (steamed rice cakes) or dosas (pan fried lentil crepes). Serve along with First Class Railway Mutton Curry or Pepper Roast Chicken for non vegetarian options. Kerala Fish Fry makes a great appetizer for this meal!

Sambhar (curried lentils)

1/2 cup Arhar (Tur) dal

1 tsp turmeric

Salt to taste

Small walnut sized piece of seedless tamarind

2 cups finely chopped assorted vegetables such as okra, eggplant, zucchini, radish, cauliflower

40 fresh curry leaves, divided

2 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

1 tbsp Sambhar powder

1/4 cup frozen shredded coconut, thawed

2 tbsp ghee or coconut oil

1/2 tsp black mustard seeds

2 dried red chilies

A pinch of asafoetida (hing), optional

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 small cooking onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

Wash dal, cover with water and soak for 1/2 an hour. Drain, transfer to a heavy bottomed saucepan and add 3 cups of water, turmeric and salt. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and cook until dal is soft, about 1 hour. Mash lightly with stirring spoon.

Meanwhile, combine tamarind and 1 cup of water in microwave safe bowl. Cook uncovered for 2 min, mash tamarind with fork and let stand 15 min to soften. Strain through a fine sieve and reserve extract, discarding solids left behind in the sieve, if any.

Add tamarind extract, vegetables, half the curry leaves, tomatoes, shredded coconut and sambhar powder to cooked dal. Cover and cook on medium low heat for 1 hour or until dal and vegetables are very tender and almost mushy.

Meanwhile, warm ghee or coconut oil in deep skillet. Add mustard seeds, remaining curry leaves, red chilies, asafoetida (if using), onions and garlic to skillet. Saute, stirring, until onions are lightly browned and softened, about 5-7 min.

Pour cooked dal with vegetables into skillet, mix well with sauteed onions and bring to a quick boil. Remove from heat, mix in the fresh coriander and serve.

Serves four

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Tea (Masala Chai) In Munnar

Tea is India's national drink. No social occasion is complete without glasses of steaming masala chai being passed around; it is considered a certain cure for any ailment that you may have; and you will be assured that it will warm you in winter while cooling you in summer!
Most Indians are surprised to discover that it has not always been this way. British planters started growing tea in India in the nineteenth century for export to Europe and by the late 1800s Darjeeling tea was prized around the world. At the same time very little was drunk in India itself. It was only in the 1920s that the Indian Tea Board realized that it was ignoring a potentially huge market and started vigorously promoting tea drinking across the country. Free samples of tea were given out in offices and factories across India and teas stalls set up at every railway station. Tea sellers were given careful instructions on how to brew a proper English cup of tea, but soon began to modify the recipe to better suit the tastes of their customers, making it much sweeter and milkier and adding ginger and spices. In spite of the horrified reaction of the English bosses of the Tea Board, masala chai was born!

One of the place where British tea plantations were established was Munnar, high up in the mountains of Kerala, in the Western Ghats. With rolling hills as far as the eye can see, neatly cropped rows of tea bushes stretching out to the horizon, a pleasantly cool climate and stunning vistas at every bend, it is easy to see why this place was a favourite with the officers of the British Raj who came here to cool off during the hot summer months.

These days Munnar is a popular destination for honeymooners, tea aficionados and adventurous tourists! Just driving around the steep and narrow mountainous roads, admiring the beautiful scenery and stopping now and then for breathtaking photos was fun enough for us!
We often passed groups of women snipping tea leaves with large shears, slipping them into large bags slung over their backs while gossiping and singing loudly. Having seen this scene played out so many times in Bollywood movies, it was surreal to actually glimpse it in real life!

Some of India's best tea is grown in this region with tea estates dating back to the days of the British Raj. We had a fascinating visit to the Tea Museum where we could see each stage of tea preparation from sorting fresh tea leaves, drying and finally tasting.

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Indian style tea is strong, aromatic, milky and sweet. Milk, water, sugar, crushed spices and ginger are boiled together, then brewed with tea leaves into a strong concoction that will put new life into anyone who takes a sip!

Masala Chai

1 1/4 cups water

3/4 cup milk

Sugar or honey to taste

2 each, lightly crushed: green cardamom, cloves

1/2 inch stick cinnamon, lightly crushed

10 black peppercorn, lightly crushed

1 star anise

1/2 inch piece ginger, thinly sliced

1 1/2 tsp black loose leaf tea

Combine all the ingredients except tea leaves in small saucepan set over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 -7 min until spices and ginger release their fragrance and flavour.

Add tea, switch off heat. Cover pan and steep for 2-3 min.

Strain into 2 mugs and serve.

Serves two

Pepper Roast Chicken In Periyar, Kerala

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We visited Thekkady in Kerala mainly for it's famous spice plantations. The region is also well known for it's Periyar Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the biggest tourist destinations here and definitely worth a visit.

Accessible mainly by water, it is a sprawling, scenic expanse of lakes, dense forests and hills. Elephants, tigers, wild boar, deer, leopards and mountain goats are said to roam free and there are many varieties of exotic birds as well.

We boarded one of the vintage looking, double decker sightseeing boats on a lovely sunny morning and sat right up in front on the top deck to get the best view! Although we were hoping to see some tigers or at least an elephant or two, all we got to see were some deer who had come to the water's edge for a drink.

I guess all the wildlife was napping in the afternoon heat! The boat ride was beautiful and very relaxing, with breathtaking scenery and an enjoyable fresh breeze coming off the water to keep us cool.

Once back on shore, we were followed around by many adorable little monkeys, hoping for a snack handout. And when none was forthcoming, they simply snatched at bags of chips held loosely in careless hands, ripped them open with practiced ease and nibbled happily on all kinds of chips!

Completely unafraid of humans, these monkeys were everywhere, weaving nonchalantly through groups of tourists, lounging in the sun or posing for photographs among the trees!

We had built up quite an appetite after all this boating and were ready for some authentic Kerala food. This is the region where some of the world's best black pepper is grown and it is used quite liberally in the cuisine.

Kerala style pepper roast chicken is a tart, spicy, aromatic and delicious preparation where the flavour of locally grown black pepper really comes through. It is a dry dish where the sauce is cooked off until it is thick, flavourful and clinging to the meat.

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I like to use boneless thighs but you can use bone in pieces if you wish. I sometimes fold in finely chopped fresh tomatoes right at the end of cooking, for a change of flavour. If you want the dish to be hotter, add more black pepper!

Serve with Kerala parottas, naan or any flatbread. For a complete Kerala meal, serve along with Tomato Shrimp Masala.

Pepper Roast Chicken

1 1/2 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 8 - 10), cut into bite sized pieces

4 tbsp oil (preferably coconut), divided

1 tsp each, ground spices, divided: black pepper, turmeric, cumin, coriander

or use 1 tbsp Malabar Masala Powder

Salt to taste

2 cloves garlic, minced or chopped

1 inch piece ginger, minced or chopped

40 fresh curry leaves, divided

1 fresh red or green chili, thinly sliced

1/2 tsp black mustard seeds

1 medium onion, sliced into thin half rings

1 tsp tamarind extract or paste, dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water or use 1 tbsp lemon juice and water

1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 tbsp slivered fresh curry leaves

1 red or green chili, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 420F. Line a baking tray with parchment.

In large mixing bowl combine chicken, 2 tbsp oil, 1/2 tsp of black pepper, turmeric, cumin and coriander. Add salt to taste, half of the garlic, ginger and curry leaves. Mix well, cover and marinate in refrigerator for 1/2 hour.

To cook chicken, spread it in a single layer on baking tray, scraping up all the marinade over it. Oven roast for 20 min or until lightly browned and crisped.

Warm remaining oil in deep skillet over medium heat. Add mustard seeds, let splutter 30 sec. Add remaining garlic, ginger, curry leaves, saute for 1 min. Add onions, saute for 5-7 min until they are softened and lightly browned. Add remaining turmeric, black pepper, cumin and coriander as well as more salt if necessary. Cook 1 min.

Mix in the tamarind extract or lemon juice, water and chicken with all it's juices. Reduce heat to low and cook covered for 12 - 15 min, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be very thick and clingy at this point.

Fold in the fresh coriander, slivered curry leaves and fresh sliced chili, serve.

Serves four

Fish Curry In Thekkady, Kerala

A visit to a working spice plantation was high up on our list when we planned our recent trip to Kerala. A lot of these plantations are centered around Thekkady, a few hours drive from Kochi. We stayed in a luxury plantation house called Aanavilasam, high up in the cardamom hills of Thekkady.

 

This lovely plantation is set amidst groves of cardamom bushes, pepper vines, fruit trees and lovely flowers lining it's paths. Seeing the spices grown so close around us, while nibbling on fresh cardamom and green peppercorn plucked straight from the bushes, was an eye opening, unforgettable experience. The burst of flavour in my mouth was unlike any other.

It was interesting to see that cardamom grows in clusters on stems that trail on the ground, while pepper grows on vines that wind themselves around trees. We also dug up fresh ginger from the ground, crushed a leaf from an allspice plant to inhale it's lovely aroma and peeled off a bit of cinnamon bark to freshen our breath!

 

 

 

 

Once the spices are picked, they are dried over intense heat before being sorted by size, to be packaged and sold. Most plantations outsource this process and sell their spices to wholesale merchants. A lot of spice merchants have their shops in the area.

Thekkady is liberally dotted with vast spice estates where some of the best spices in the world are grown. Nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, star anise, allspice, mace are all grown here, along with coffee, cocoa, papaya and cashews. 

Driving around the steep, narrow mountainous roads, with hillsides covered with trees, vines and wild flowers, we marveled at the gorgeous scenery as we inhaled air perfumed with cardamom!

Indeed almost everything in Thekkady is scented with cardamom. From the local honey that we ate, to the curries, preserves, tea, and even beauty products like oil and soap had the distinct aroma of cardamom to them!

 

 

 

 

Kumily is the main little town in Thekkady, with a lot of spice shops lining it's short main street. Walking into one of these shops was like a doorway to heaven for me and I had to visit each one to make sure I had bought every spice imaginable! The spices are fresh, their flavour strong and intense, better than anything available in most grocery stores. I use mine sparingly so as not to overpower the flavour of the dish and also not to run out of them too quickly!

The food we ate at Aanavilasam plantation house was exquisite, subtly spiced and completely local. They used the spices, vegetables, honey and dairy products from the plantation, with a flavour so pure and fresh that we didn't want to stop eating! Chef Anish's creativity shone in dishes like decadent pumpkin halwa with plantation cardamom, melt in the mouth beet croquettes, fresh paneer korma and banana cardamom preserves slathered over home made breakfast toast.

Chef Anish gave us a cooking lesson in the plantation kitchens, showing us how to make Kerala's famous fish curry. It is one of my all time favourite dishes which I love to serve with coconut rice. Chef Anish uses kokum - a sour dried fruit used widely in Kerala to add tartness to curries. I have substituted tamarind here as it has a similar flavour and is easier to buy. This is his simple, delicious recipe, given step by step, just the way he showed us!

Kerala Fish Curry

Ingredients for fish curry

2 tbsp coconut or olive oil

1/2 tsp each, whole seeds: fennel, black mustard, fenugreek

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 inch piece ginger, finely chopped

2 green chilies, slit or chopped up

30 fresh curry leaves

Salt to taste

1/2 tsp each: paprika, cayenne pepper, turmeric, ground coriander

Small marble sized piece of tamarind, soaked in 1/4 cup hot water and strained OR use

1 tsp tamarind paste

1 cup light coconut milk

1 lb skinless halibut or any other firm fish, cut into bite sized pieces

1/4 cup whipping cream

1 tbsp each, chopped fresh: coriander, curry leaves, green chilies

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Warm oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add fennel, black mustard and fenugreek seeds. Let them sizzle for 30 sec, then add chopped onions.

 Saute for 5 min, then add garlic, ginger, green chilies and curry leaves. Saute for another 2 min.

Add salt and all the spices, saute 1 min. Add tamarind extract or paste and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer 10 min on medium low heat.

Add fish pieces and coconut milk. Mix gently, cook for 10 min or until fish is done. Do not overcook fish. Mix in the whipping cream, chopped herbs and green chilies. Cook 5 min.

Serves four

Chef Anish with his delicious fish curry

Chef Anish with his delicious fish curry

First Class Railway Mutton Curry In Kochi, Kerala

For millennia traders from all over the world have come to the coast of Kerala to buy spices, for this is where the world's best pepper and cardamom have always been grown. Ships from Egypt, Rome, Arabia, China, Portugal and Holland docked in the port city of Kochi, from where they returned home laden with the spices that were avidly sought by food lovers from Lisbon and Paris to Damascus and Xi'an.

Jewish traders from the middle-east were an essential part of the spice trade and there was a thriving Jewish community in Kochi, located a short distance from the King's palace where they lived under royal protection. The oldest synagogue in India, dating from the mid-sixteenth century, still stands in the centre of Kochi's Jew Town, which is even today the heart of the spice trade. The Indian Pepper Exchange, where bulk trading of pepper is carried out, is located a few minutes walk from the synagogue. The surrounding streets are lined with spice shops in which you can buy every type of spice imaginable.

The wealth generated by the spice trade has always attracted people eager to control it. The Portuguese, led by the explorer Vasco da Gama, landed on the coast of Kerala in 1498 and seized control of Kochi. They built the first Catholic church in India, now known as St Francis, and it was here that Vasco da Gama was buried when he died in Kochi in 1524. Fifteen years later his body was moved to Lisbon where it still lies in a cathedral built near the docks from which he sailed.

After a century and half of Portuguese rule Kochi was captured by the Dutch, who were in turn displaced by the British in the early nineteenth century. The old town of Kochi still shows a fascinating mixture of Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. The harbourfront is lined with cantilevered fishing nets, a memorial to the Chinese trades who were once frequent visitors, that are today an iconic symbol of Kochi's fascinating history.
Colonial Fort Kochi is the best place to experience the multi layered history of this area. Here you will see old churches, synagogues, palaces and forts including a scenic beachfront area with the Chinese fishing nets.

On our way to Fort Kochi, we got stuck in a massive traffic jam right outside this shop selling freshly fried banana chips, a specialty of Kerala. Banana chips being a weakness of mine and as traffic was at a standstill, we stepped out for a quick look.

It was fascinating to see raw green bananas sliced into thin chips, deep fried and transformed into crisp, warm wafers imbued with salty, banana flavours. I loved them so much I almost made a meal out of them!

When we finally reached Fort Kochi, we found the picturesque beachfront area bustling with tourists as well as vendors selling everything from trinkets and souvenirs to snacks like pakoras, pickles, roasted nuts, coconuts and even freshly caught fish, which they offered to clean for us right on the spot!

The Brunton Boatyard Hotel is an oasis of calm at one end of Fort Kochi and occupies the gorgeously restored historic shipyards. Breathing in the quiet elegance of this place, with colonial era decor, made us feel as though we had stepped back in time!

The cuisine here is authentic, drawing inspiration from Kochi's long trading history with Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese and British.

At their History Restaurant, each dish speaks a different language and reflects a unique heritage. You will find Anglo Indian beef cutlets on the menu, as well as Syrian fish curry, Portuguese pork vindaloo, and a sublime cinnamon laced, coconut milk creme caramel called Vattalappam that pays homage to it's Dutch roots.

Executive chef Ajeeth Janardhanan met with us to share some of the stories of Brunton Boatyard as well as some of his treasured recipes. He sometimes takes groups of visitors on a tour of the area, stopping by at vegetable and fish markets and other interesting sites to give people an idea of the multi layered history of this place.

Our lunch was at the Armoury cafe of the hotel. Sitting back in this lovely, cool space with a beautiful bar at one end, overlooking the busy harbour and lovely scenery at the other, was a rejuvenating experience. The seafood thali with grilled marinated fish, spicy mussels, masala calamari and the delicate prawn biryani with spicy mango pickles had us hooked! The food was incredible, well prepared with fresh ingredients and local spices and just so flavourful!

One of the most popular dishes on their menu is First Class Railway Mutton Curry. I was drawn to this dish by its intriguing name. The story dates back to the British Raj, when first class compartments of steam trains used to be reserved for the English and their families. Indian curries were deemed too spicy for them and therefore not served there. One day a hungry officer smelled good things cooking, followed his nose to the train kitchens and insisted on a taste of the mutton curry simmering on the stove. He liked it so much that he insisted this curry always be served on the train's first class compartments as well!

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Chef Ajeeth and his team still follow the traditional recipe of preparing this mutton curry, including cooking it in a brass pot for over 4 hours. Here is his wonderful recipe which is great with Coconut rice, appams or naan.

First Class Railway Mutton Curry

11/4 lb boneless, cubed leg of lamb or goat, trimmed of fat

1/4 cup plain Balkan style yogurt

4 cloves garlic, minced or grated

1 inch piece ginger, minced or grated

Salt to taste

2 tbsp oil

4 each, whole spices: green cardamom, cloves, star anise

2 inch stick cinnamon

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 large plum tomatoes (fresh or canned), pureed in food processor

20 raw cashews, powdered OR use 2 tbsp ground almonds

1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, ground black pepper, turmeric, paprika

1 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala

1/2 cup thick coconut cream, skimmed off the top of a can of premium coconut milk

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander leaves, fresh lemon juice

Combine lamb or goat, yogurt, minced garlic, ginger and salt in large mixing bowl. Toss well to coat, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or preferably overnight.

Warm oil in deep heavy saucepan or skillet set over medium heat.

Add cardamom, cloves, star anise and cinnamon stick. When the spices sizzle, add onions. Saute until lightly browned, about 8-10 min.

Add lamb with all of its marinade, stirring to mix into the sauce and browning for 5 min.

Add tomatoes, powdered cashews or ground almonds and all the spices. Cook until tomatoes blend into the sauce and thicken it slightly, about 8 min.

Add 1/2 cup water, cover pot and reduce heat to very low. Cook until lamb is very tender and sauce thick, about 2 hours or longer, stirring occasionally. If curry starts to burn at the bottom of the pan, add another 1/4 cup of water.

Mix in the coconut cream and cook for another 15 min. Fold in the fresh coriander and lemon juice.

Serves four

Tomato Shrimp Masala In KanyaKumari, Kerala

I first visited Kanyakumari with my parents when I was a little girl. The spectacular sunset we saw from the shores of the southernmost tip of India still stands out in my memory. Situated at the junction of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, Kanyakumari or Cape Comorin as it is sometimes called, is the only place in India where you can see the sun rise as well as set!

A gigantic statue of Thiruvalluvar watches benevolently from a distance as you near Kanyakumari. An eminent poet and philosopher, he is worshiped as a saint and people take the short ferry ride to go out to the rock on which his statue is situated.

People also come to Kanyakumari to visit famous temples that were built here many centuries ago. Suchindram, just outside of Kanyakumari was built around the 8th century and is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus. A beautiful architectural marvel, it has fabulous stone carvings, huge statues of Hindu gods and towering musical carved pillars built from single blocks of granite.

We were captivated by the many colourful houses and buildings that dot the landscape of Kerala. On the drive out to Kanyakumari, we came across bright green, purple and blue houses, and my favorite - hot pink walls! They livened up the countryside and our photographs!

The countryside is also very scenic with mountains in the distance, burbling streams, coconut groves, paddy fields and lush greenery.

Stopping by the side of the road to drink fresh coconut water out of a tender green coconut, then scooping out the sweet coconut flesh and savouring it while admiring the view makes the trip even more enjoyable!

Restaurants in Kanyakumari range from offering regional South Indian vegetarian cuisine, to locally sourced fresh seafood, cooked into curries. Some of these restaurants are situated right by the water front, offering great views along with tasty food.

We never tired of eating many varieties of fresh, delicious seafood in Kerala but our favourite was this spicy shrimp curry with a thick, rich sauce clinging to the shrimp. Wrapped up in a morsel of warm naan or Kerala parotta (pan fried flaky flatbread), it made a fantastic lunch.

Start your meal with Spicy Tomato Rasam - a wonderful soup to whet your appetite, then follow up with this delicious shrimp curry!

For more Kerala favourites, try this easy, crispy fish recipe or this fantastic Mutton Biryani.

Tomato Shrimp Masala

2 cloves garlic

1/2 inch piece ginger

1 green chili

2 tbsp oil

1/2 tsp black mustard seeds

20 fresh curry leaves

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large, ripe juicy tomatoes, chopped

Salt to taste

1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala OR 2 tsp Malabar masala powder

1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander leaves, lemon juice

Mince garlic, ginger and green chili together in food processor.

Warm oil in deep non stick skillet over medium heat. Add mustard seeds and curry leaves. Fry them for about 30 sec, then add minced garlic mixture.

Saute for 1 min, then add onions. Saute until lightly browned and softened, about 8 min.

Add tomatoes, salt and all the spices or Malabar masala powder. Cook for 5 min until tomatoes break down and are well blended into the sauce.

Add shrimp, cook for about 5-7 min until shrimp turn pink and are no longer raw.

Fold in fresh coriander and lemon juice.

Serve right away.

Serves four



Pineapple Orange Marmalade In Poovar, Kerala

We had never heard of Poovar before going to Kerala, but were so lucky to find out about it once we got there! A little known destination, just outside of Trivandrum, Poovar is a small coastal village. It is also an enchanting backwaters paradise of mangrove forests, narrow canals, rare birds and pristine beaches.

We rented a shikkara (a small covered boat) for a few hours and drifted lazily along the backwaters, through canals so narrow that our boat could just about pass through. The breathtaking scenery, peace and serenity and lush greenery made us want to go on drifting forever!

Every now and then we would spot a rare bird, flitting through the trees or sitting on a low branch, obligingly posing for photographs. Once we even passed a vendor selling fresh green coconuts off his boat. We stopped alongside and drank refreshing coconut water, scooping out the delicious tender flesh with makeshift spoons of coconut husk. It was one of the most relaxing, idyllic days of our trip!

The narrow canals of the backwaters open out onto the Neyyar river. We came across a gorgeous, sandy beach, right where the backwaters meet the river. This lovely beach was surprisingly empty, save for a few vendors offering trinkets and strangely enough, horse rides! 

 

Many of the island's resorts front this beautiful vista, some with individual cottages that float on the water and are connected with wooden bridges or ramps.

Right on the beach is also an 'Elephant rock' with a Cross on it and a floating church with a huge statue. There is even a floating restaurant, should you become hungry while on your boat travels!

Pineapples grow abundantly in this region and we were there at the height of the season. Pineapple made an appearance at every meal, served either as fresh fruit, or made into desserts or preserves. In my recipe here, I have combined pineapple with Seville oranges, saffron and cardamom to create a delicious, unusual marmalade.

Not only does this marmalade tastes great on toast for breakfast, it can also be used as a glaze for ham or thinned out with vinegar for salad dressings or marinades.  You can even serve it with crackers and cheese or as a delicious topping for vanilla ice cream!

Pineapple Orange Marmalade With Cardamom And Saffron

Seville oranges usually show up in grocery stores in North America around late January. They have a sour, slightly bitter flavour and are great for making all kinds of marmalade. You can also buy a ready to eat, peeled, cored pineapple from the grocery store.

Here's another delicious, easy and unusual jam recipe to try out - Spicy Tomato Jam.

1 each: Seville orange, lemon, peeled and cored pineapple

3 cups each: water, sugar

1/2 inch piece vanilla bean

10 whole green cardamom

1/4 tsp saffron strands

1/4 tsp ground cardamom

Trim ends off orange and lemon. Cut fruit into half crosswise and then cut each piece into very thin half rings, discarding seeds as you find them. Finely chop up the pineapple.

Combine all the fruit along with their juices in a large heavy sauce pan. Add water and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn off the heat, mix in all remaining ingredients, except ground cardamom. Cover sauce pan and let it sit overnight for flavours and pectin to develop.

Uncover pan, bring back to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low and cook for about 2 hours or until fruit is tender and mixture thickens, stirring occasionally.

Increase heat to medium and cook for another 30-45 min or until mixture is very thick and jammy. If you like a runnier marmalade, take it off the heat when the desired consistency has been achieved. Cool for 1/2 hour, then mix in the ground cardamom. Leave whole spices in marmalade, they will continue to add flavour over time. If marmalade is too chunky, blitz it lightly with a hand blender, after removing whole spices and vanilla bean (you can add them back later).

Transfer warm marmalade to sterilized jars, seal and store in a cool, dry place.

Makes about 4 cups

A beautiful Kingfisher, Kerala's signature bird!

A beautiful Kingfisher, Kerala's signature bird!

Kerala Fish Fry In Kovalam, India

Our first glimpse of the tropical paradise that is Kovalam, was of the famous lighthouse with its distinct candy stripes. We were headed to the most popular of its three beaches - Lighthouse beach, named after the landmark lighthouse. We fell in love with Kovalam's relaxed atmosphere, sandy beaches, breathtaking views, gently swaying palm trees, warm waters and fantastic food. It is easy to see why Kovalam is such a popular tourist destination!

Kovalam at one time, used to be a sleepy little fishing village. Although it has now been taken over by hordes of tourists and resorts, fishing is still an important part of everyday life here. Fishing boats pull up right on to the beach with their haul of fresh seafood early every morning and supply local restaurants and shops for miles around. The boats are covered with thatched mats when they are done for the day, adding local colour to the beach!

Wandering around on the soft, sandy beach, admiring the beautiful views while dipping our feet in the warm water made us hungry and we decided to try one of the numerous beach shacks lining the fringes of the beach. We were sure the seafood would be really, really fresh!
We were not disappointed. The Kerala fish fry at the Kingfisher Cafe was spicy, fresh and piping hot and the calamari was like nothing we've ever had before. Done Kerala style with spices and a crisp batter, it was melt in the mouth tender. We wrapped our delicious seafood in a flaky Kerala Parotta (flatbread) and gobbled it all up.

Fish Fry

In Kerala, rice flour is used to coat the fish and crisp it up. I find that all purpose flour works just as well. I also like to add an egg to the marinade to bind it all together. The final roll around in the breadcrumbs is important to add colour, flavour and crispness to the fish fry.
Serve with a fresh green herb chutney, lemon and red onion rings.

For a different kind of Fish Pakora, try this recipe!

1 1/4 lb cod or haddock fillet

4 cloves garlic

1 inch piece ginger

1 green chili

20 fresh curry leaves

Salt to taste

2 tbsp each: lemon juice, all purpose flour

1/2 tsp each: ground black pepper, turmeric, cayenne pepper, paprika, ground coriander, whole cumin seeds

1 egg, beaten

1 cup each: breadcrumbs, oil for frying

Cut fish into large pieces. Place in deep mixing bowl.

Mince garlic, ginger, green chili and curry leaves together in food processor. Transfer to bowl with fish.

Add salt, lemon juice, flour, spices and egg. Toss gently to mix well. Cover and marinate fish in the refrigerator for 15 min to an hour.

Place breadcrumbs in shallow bowl. Warm oil in deep skillet over medium heat.

Dredge each piece of fish in breadcrumbs to coat all over. Drop gently into oil and fry for about 3 min per side or until fish is crisp, golden and cooked through. Do not crowd the pan, do this in two-three batches.

Transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Serve right away.

Serves four-six

Malabar Mutton Biryani In Trivandrum, Kerala

Our first glimpse of Trivandrum was of gracious colonial buildings and lush greenery. Trivandrum still has an old world charm to it as we discovered once we set about exploring it. Our first sightseeing stop was the famous Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. This temple, with its magnificent carved entrance, dates back several millennia and is one of the oldest and richest temples in India.
Close to the temple is the royal palace as well as an art gallery. The beautiful teak carvings, sculptures, paintings and gardens make for an interesting visit.

Kerala is also home to an ancient community of Syrian Christians, said to date back to the arrival of the first apostle Saint Thomas, in AD 52.

There are many lovely, historic, old churches in and around Trivandrum with beautiful interiors and a pervading sense of peace. One of the churches, just outside of Trivandrum is said to have been built in AD 79, in the exact spot where Saint Thomas preached to his congregation. Part of the original stone structure still stands, as can be seen in the pictures below. When we visited at Christmas time, the colourful decorations added a nice festive feel.

Kerala cuisine too, is an interesting mosaic of its diverse history and you will come across many dishes reflecting its Muslim, Christian and Hindu heritage. 

 

A fun way of diving into Kerala cuisine is by ordering a thali. It comes with an array of many different curries nestled on a banana leaf - aromatic lentil and vegetable sambhar, creamy coconut chutney, crunchy cabbage thoran, spicy tomato rasam and so many more. It is a great introduction to the incredible variety this cuisine has to offer.
However, it was the fantastic seafood curries that had us hooked! We loved the spicy, sour fish curry as well as delicate stir fried calamari with caramelized onions, spicy tomato shrimp, fish fry with curry leaves and our favourite dish - Karimeen. A local variety of fish known as pearl spot is marinated in a sauteed onion tomato paste, wrapped in a banana leaf and seared on a hot tava or griddle. The spicy, smoky flavours of Karimeen are unforgettable!
We often ate these curries with another favourite, appams. These are lacy, crisp rice and coconut pancakes with an addictive spongy center. We could (and did) have them with every meal!

One of the best ways to start your day in kerala is with a traditional breakfast. This is when delicious dishes such as idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes), dosas (crisp fermented rice and lentils pancakes), uthapams (thick rice pancakes topped with onions, tomatoes, green chilies and curry leaves), appams, curries and chutneys make their much awaited appearance.

At the Taj hotel, where we were staying, I discovered a new favourite - Ramassery idlis. Never having come across these before, I was captivated by their soft, melt in the mouth texture. Named after the small village of Ramaserry, where they were first created over a hundred years ago, these thin, flattened idlis are steamed in a fine muslin cloth inside an earthenware pot. Their soft texture and earthy aroma are unique. Although this is a disappearing tradition, the Taj hotel Trivandrum is keeping it alive by training their chefs in the authentic, age old way of preparing these idlis, much to the gratitude of all those who get to eat it!

The Malabar mutton biryani at the Taj hotel, was by far the best biryani I have ever eaten. When I mentioned this, Executive chef Jose Thomas very obligingly gave me his special recipe! While fresh Kerala spices definitely give this dish its unique aroma, sprinkling the cooked rice with powdered masala, before layering it with the lamb curry is key. Sous chef Hari Krishnan uses biryani masala for this purpose. While you can buy that in most Indian stores, I recommend making your own Malabar Masala, for even better flavour.

Making a biryani can be a bit labour intensive. It helps to make the lamb curry a day ahead. Not only does that save time, it also improves the flavour! Serve biryani with a simple yogurt raita or Wilted Spinach Raita, salad and pickles, as is traditional in Kerala.

If you would like to make a vegetarian biryani, try this delicious Dal Biryani.

Malabar Mutton Biryani

For the Curry:

4 cloves garlic

1 inch piece ginger

2 green chilies

6 large canned whole plum tomatoes with puree (premium San Marzano variety)

2 tbsp oil+2tbsp butter

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

20 raw (unsalted, unroasted) cashews or almonds

1 tbsp golden raisins

1 lb boneless leg of lamb or goat (mutton), cut into bite sized pieces

Salt to taste

1 tsp garam masala, divided

1/2 tsp each: turmeric, cayenne pepper

2 tbsp Labneh or thick full fat Balkan style/Greek plain yogurt

2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander, fresh squeezed lime juice

Make the curry:

Mince garlic, ginger and green chilies together in food processor. Transfer to a small bowl. Puree tomatoes in same food processor bowl, transfer to another bowl. Reserve.

Warm oil and butter together in deep skillet set over medium high heat. Add half the sliced onions and saute until golden brown, about 8 min. Add cashews or almonds and raisins to onions in skillet and saute for 1 min until raisins plump up and nuts are lightly fried. Drain from oil, transfer to a plate and reserve for later use in the recipe.

Add remaining sliced onions to same skillet over medium high heat; saute for 5 min. Add lamb or goat and brown for 5 min. Add minced ginger mixture; saute 1 min. Add pureed tomatoes, salt, half the garam masala, turmeric and cayenne. Saute 5 min until slightly thickened.

Add labneh or yogurt and stir for 2 min until smooth. Cover skillet and let mixture start bubbling. Reduce heat to low and cook for 11/2 hours or until lamb is very tender, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be very thick and clinging to the meat by this time.

Mix in remaining 1/2 tsp garam masala, chopped fresh coriander and lime juice.

For the Rice:

11/2 cups basmati rice

2 tbsp oil

4 each, whole spices: green cardamom, star anise, cloves

2 inch stick cinnamon

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

Salt to taste

1 tsp biryani masala or Malabar Masala

1/2 tsp garam masala

2 tbsp butter

Make the rice:

Wash rice well, then soak in enough water to cover for 15 min. Drain well in sieve. Reserve.

Warm oil in deep heavy bottomed saucepan over medium high heat. Add whole spices and cinnamon stick. Let sizzle for 1 min, then add sliced onions. Saute for 8 min until lightly browned.

Add drained rice to pan and saute 1 min to toast it lightly. Add salt to taste and 1 1/2 cups of water. Cover, bring to a boil and reduce heat to very low. Cook rice undisturbed for 10 min. Sprinkle biryani masala or Malabar masala and garam masala over top, fluffing rice gently and mixing it in.

Assemble biryani:

Preheat oven to 300F. Lightly grease a 9X13 inch oven safe baking dish.

Spread a thin layer of rice in bottom of dish. Top with all of the lamb curry, distributing it evenly over the rice. Top with remaining rice, spreading it gently and evenly over top.

Sprinkle reserved fried onions and nuts over rice. Dot with butter.

Cover pan tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove from oven and transfer biryani to a serving platter, fluffing rice and mixing in the layers gently as you do so. Serve right away.

Serves six

Executive Chef Jose Thomas and his talented team at The Fifth Element restaurant, Vivanta by Taj Hotel, Trivandrum

Executive Chef Jose Thomas and his talented team at The Fifth Element restaurant, Vivanta by Taj Hotel, Trivandrum