Taste the diverse heritage of Kerala
Editor’s note: These mouth-watering recipes are taken from Sabita Radhakrishna’s wonderful book ‘Paachakam: Heritage Cuisine of Kerala’—which is usefully divided into seasonal sections–and more importantly, reflects the diverse culinary heritage of the state–including Syrian Christians, Cochin Jews, North Malabar Thiyas and Moplahs. Each recipe comes with handy notes and extra tips. Excerpted with permission from ‘Paachakam: Heritage Cuisine of Kerala’ by Sabita Radhakrishna, published by Roli Books.
Erachi beef cutlets (Syrian Christians)
Also called the Nasranis, Syrian Christians are a community of mercantile traders and agriculturists. Many of them own large estates where rubber, spices, and cash crops are cultivated.
They are landed gentry, professional money lenders, financiers, and have made their mark in many fields such as politics, media, literature, business, arts, etc. The Nasrani society is strongly patriarchal. Essentially non-vegetarian, the Syrian Christians eat meat anytime, starting with their breakfast. Short red rice and tapioca are a must almost every day. The use of kodam puli, with its tangy flavour, makes the curries stand out. Beef is relished, so is mutton.
In conventional homes, meals are still cooked on wood fires to impart a smoky flavour, and spices are ground on stone. Modern homes are equipped with gadgets, though old-timers with refined taste buds would not agree. The bell metal, uruli, ideal for making payasams and once discarded as impractical, has returned to kitchens, presumably to stay for a long time.
These cutlets are usually served with onion salad or onion and tomato salad as the first course in a formal dinner. This recipe is for 18-20 cutlets.
1 lb, 2 oz (500 g) beef, cut into 1½" cubes
1 heap tsp salt, or to taste
¾ tsp ground black pepper (kali mirch), plus more as needed
1 tsp ginger-garlic (adrak-lahsun) paste
9 oz (250 g) potatoes, unpeeled
1 Tbsp (15 ml) coconut oil, or any oil of your choice
3 green chillies, finely chopped
4 oz (125 g) onion, minced
One ½-in (1 m) piece fresh ginger (adrak), peeled and finely chopped
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup (110 g) bread crumb
2 cups coconut oil, or any oil of your choice for deep frying
- In a pressure cooker, combine the beef, salt, pepper, and ginger-garlic paste. Pressure cook for 25 minutes.
- When the beef is cooked, remove the cooker’s lid and cook on high heat until the liquid evaporates. Transfer to a work surface and mince the beef. Set aside.
- Add the potatoes to the pressure cooker and pressure cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Peel the skins and mash the potatoes to a smooth consistency.
- In a kadhai or wok over medium heat, heat 1 Tbsp (15 ml) of oil. Add the green chillies and ginger. Sauté until they begin to soften. Add the onion and ginger. Sauté for a minute more.
- Once the mixture is well-fried, add the minced beef to the kadhai. Sauté for 5 minutes until the mixture is dry. Take the kadhai off the heat and add the mashed potatoes. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper as needed, and the juice of ½ lime. Mix all the ingredients well. Divide the mixture into lemon-sized balls and press into shapes as desired.
- Place the beaten egg into a bowl. Place the bread crumbs into a shallow bowl. Dip the meatballs into the beaten egg and coat with the bread crumbs.
- In a large skillet, heat the oil for deep-frying. Carefully add the coated meatballs to the hot oil and fry until they are golden brown. Serve hot.
Note: These cutlets can be packed and frozen for a long time in small airtight containers lined with kitchen paper. When needed, take them out, thaw them in a microwave and deep-fry.
Kallumakkaya Fry (North Malabar Thiyas)
The history of the Thiyya community of Malabar is shrouded in conjecture. Some say that a section of this community who had settled in the foothills of the Tian Mountains in Central Asia came to India. Another story says that during the reign of King Vikramaditya in 7000 BCE, the people of north Kerala, Thiayyar (sea warriors), traded with the people of the island of Crete. After a great tectonic shift in 5000 BCE, trade was abandoned and some settled down in India.
Some Thiyas converted to Islam around the ninth century due to the influence of Arab traders. Along with other Muslim converts in the region, they are known as Mapillas or Moplahs. A large number of people belonging to the Ezhava community, mostly from central Travancore, embraced Christianity during the British rule due to caste-based discrimination. In Kannur, protestant missionaries spread their message in the first half of the nineteenth century, with most of their converts from the Thiya community.
A section of the Travancore Royal family moved to North Kerala, where their descendants were given large tracts of land on which they cultivated rice and local vegetables while the larger community lived on a seafood diet. With the advent of colonial rule, the food habits of north Kerala (or Malabar) took a different turn. There was much Arabic food and the British changed hot curries to suit their taste as in the stew. Here is the recipe for Kallumakkaya Fry (Fried Mussels).
Mussels are considered a delicacy in this community. A process of cleaning is involved, but cleaned mussels are commercially available for easy cooking. The combination of tomatoes, chilli powder, ginger-garlic paste and coconut gives it an attractive red colour. This recipe serves 4.
7 oz (200 g) mussels, removed from their shells and cleaned (see Note)
1 heap tsp plus ½ tsp red chilli (lal mirch) powder
½ tsp salt, or to taste
¾ tsp turmeric (haldi) powder
2 Tbsp plus 1 tsp (35 ml) coconut oil, or any oil of your choice
4 curry leaves (kadhi patta), coarsely ground
1 Tbsp (15 g) ginger-garlic (adrak-lahsun) paste
1 medium-size onion, sliced
1 large tomato, chopped
½ tsp coconut powder
2 green chillies, sliced
1/₃ cup (80 ml) water
2 sprigs curry leaves (kadhi patta), crushed
- In a medium-sized bowl, combine the mussels, ½ tsp of chilli powder, the salt, and ¼ tsp turmeric powder. Toss gently to coat. Refrigerate to marinate for 1 hour.
- In an earthenware pot (preferably) over medium heat, combine 2 Tbsp of coconut oil, the ground curry leaves, and ginger-garlic paste. Sauté for one minute until fragrant.
- Add the onion. Fry until transparent.
- Stir in the tomato and add the remaining chilli powder and turmeric powder. Add the coconut powder and sauté for 3 minutes.
- Add the mussels and water. Cook until the water is almost completely absorbed and the mussels are cooked.
- Add the remaining 1 tsp of coconut oil and the crushed curry leaf sprigs. Sauté for 1 minute only. Close the lid and turn off the heat immediately.
Note: To save some time, buy commercially cleaned and shelled ready-to-cook mussels.
Mahashais (Cochin Jews)
The Jews from Cochin comprise the tiniest and most ancient of Jewish communities in the diaspora. Their history reaches back to 2,000 years in south-western India, on the lush, rain-drenched Malabar coast, when they landed there as sailors.
Cochin Jewish food is kosher. ‘Kosher’ is the Hebrew word for ‘fit’. ‘Kashrut’ is the Hebrew word for keeping kosher. Jewish cuisine owes its ingenuity and originality to kashrut: the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy, the ban on pork and fish cooked with fins and scales.
Gelatin was never used; instead, food starch and tapioca became binding agents. Cochin Jewish food is devoid of dairy products, but coconut milk is a great substitute for milk. The staple food of Cochinis remains unpolished, parboiled rice, which takes on many incarnations like dosa, idli, appam and puttu, relished in Cochini households and restaurants throughout Israel as it is done in homes across Kerala.
In this cuisine, large quantities of onions are browned, and the vegetables or other ingredients are cooked in onion juice instead of water, which gives them a distinct and special flavour.
Below, find the Cochin Jews’ recipe for Mahashais (Onion leaves stuffed with mincemeat).
The art of making mahashais is in preparing the onion. Choose large onions. Cut the onion in half though not right to the bottom, This enables you to remove the leaves of the onion carefully so that each is curved and whole. Stuff them with the prepared mincemeat as indicated, and each piece is shallow fried on both sides with the stuffing and baked as indicated in the recipe. This recipe serves 6.
3 lb, 5 oz (1½ kg) large to medium-size onions (see Note)
2 lb, 3 oz (1 kg) minced lamb, beef, or chicken
12 garlic (lahsun) cloves, finely chopped
1 1-inch (2.5-cm) piece fresh ginger (adrak), peeled and finely chopped
1 dried red chilli (sookhi lal mirch), thinly sliced
1 green chilli, thinly sliced
1 large bunch fresh coriander (hara dhaniya), chopped
1 tsp turmeric (haldi) powder
1 tsp red chilli (lal mirch) powder
1 Tbsp (12 g) raw basmati rice
1½ tsp salt, plus more as needed
1 cup (240 ml) malt vinegar 9 oz (250 g) palm sugar
Coconut oil, or any oil of your choice for shallow-frying
- Preheat the oven to 325°F (170°C).
- Peel the onions carefully. If you are rough or hasty, you cannot get each onion leaf whole, they will tear. Using a sharp knife, slice from the centre of the top of the onions as though you are cutting them in half, but do not cut all the way through. They should still hold their shape.
- Wash the minced meat and place it in a bowl. Add the garlic, ginger, dried red chilli, green chilli, coriander, turmeric powder, chilli powder, rice, and salt. Mix thoroughly.
- Take an onion in your hand and slide your finger under the first ring. It should come away easily. Take 1 tablespoon of the minced meat mixture in your hand and make an oval shape. Wrap the onion leaf around the mince. It will hold well. Do not overfill the onion. Continue with the remaining onions and meat mixture.
- Heat 4 Tbsp of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, gently add the mahashais to the hot oil in a single layer. Fry for about 5 minutes or until golden brown. Carefully turn to brown on all sides. Transfer the mahashais to an oven-proof dish. Repeat until all the mahashais are fried.
- In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar and sugar. Season to taste with salt. Pour the mixture over the mahashais. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil during the last 10 minutes of baking.
Note: Use well-shaped onions that are not double inside. if possible.
Malabar Meen (Fish) Dum Biryani (Moplahs)
The Kerala Muslims are generally referred to as Mapillas or Moplahs. Their spoken language is Malayalam and they observe the Malayali culture of Kerala, melded with the Arabic culture. The Muslim population form roughly about 26.56 per cent of the Kerala population. It is believed that Cheraman Perumal, the last of the Chera kings converted to Islam and travelled to meet Prophet Mohammad.
This was the time the Arab traders arrived in Kerala, and Islam might have been introduced in the region by the Arab traders in the seventh or eighth century. The Arabs settled down in Cranganore, establishing a separate colony. In the Colonial period, Muslims increased by conversion. In the middle of the eighteenth century, a large majority of the Kerala Muslims were landless labourers, poor fishermen and petty traders, a trend that was reversed during the Mysore invasions in the late eighteenth century, making them a dominant community.
Below, find the Moplah’s recipe for Malabar Meen (Fish) Dum biryani. This recipe serves 6.
For the rice:
5 Tbsp (70 g) ghee or (75 ml) coconut oil, or any oil of your choice
8 whole cloves (laung)
6 green cardamom pods (choti elaichi)
3 1-inch (2.5-cm) pieces cinnamon (dalchini)
1 star anise (chakri ke phool)
½ medium-size onion, finely chopped
2 lb, 3 oz (1 kg) kaima/basmati rice
Boiling water, as needed
¾ tsp salt, or to taste
Juice of 1 lime
2 lb, 3 oz (1 kg) seer fish, or any fleshy fish with fewer bones, cleaned and thickly sliced (3/8-inch slices)
For the marinade:
2 Tbsp (30 ml) fresh lime juice
1½ Tbsp (12 g) Kashmiri chilli (Kashmiri lal mirch) powder
1 Tbsp (15 g) ginger-garlic (adrak-lahsun) paste
1½ tsp black pepper (kali mirch), ground
1 tsp salt, or to taste
¾ tsp turmeric (haldi) powder
¼ tsp garam masala
¼ tsp ground fennel seeds (saunf)
Cooking the Fish:
½ cup (120 ml) coconut oil, or any oil of your choice
2 Tbsp (28 g) ghee, plus more for the baking vessel
4 large onions, thinly sliced
Salt, to taste
2 Tbsp (30 g) ginger-garlic (adrak-lahsun) paste
15 green chilles, crushed
2 tsp garam masala
1½ tsp Kashmiri chilli (Kashmiri lal mirch) powder
½ tsp turmeric (haldi) powder
½ tsp fennel seeds (saunf), ground
3 medium-size tomatoes, chopped
¾ cup (12 g) fresh coriander leaves (hara dhaniya), finely chopped
½ cup (48 g) fresh mint leaves (pudina), finely chopped
¾ cup (180 g) thick curd, well beaten
½ cup fresh coconut (nariyal), ground to a paste OR 3 Tbsp (27 g) poppy seeds (khuskhus) plus 25 cashews (kaju), soaked in water for half an hour, drained and finely ground with the poppy seeds
2 Tbsp (30 ml) fresh lime juice
1 sprig curry leaves (optional), mix it with the marinade after removing the leaves
1 pinch saffron strands (kesar)
½ cup (120 ml) hot milk
ghee, as needed
2½ Tbsp (25 g) raisins (kishmish)
15 cashews (kaju)
1 medium-size onion, thinly sliced
¼ cup (4 g) fresh coriander leaves (hara dhaniya), chopped
¼ cup (24 g) fresh mint leaves (pudina), chopped
½ tsp garam masala
- To make the rice: In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, heat the ghee or oil. Add the cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon, star anise, and onion. Sauté until the onion browns.
- Add the rice. Sauté for 5 minutes.
- Add the boiling water (1½ to 2 cups water, or 360 to 480 ml water for each 1 cup of rice, depending on the quality of rice; you can also use coconut milk or fish stock).
- Stir in the salt and lime juice. Cover the pot and cook until the rice is half cooked about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest for 10 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork and let it cool.
- Alternatively, for the draining method of cooking rice, keep a larger quantity of water in a heavy bottomed vessel. Add the whole spices, 1 Tbsp (14 g) of ghee or (15 ml) of oil, 1 Tbsp (15 ml) of lime juice and salt to taste. You can add fish stock to improve the flavour. When the water boils, add the rice. After about 2 minutes, when the rice is half
cooked, drain the water and set the rice aside. Mix in a little ghee. For the draining method you need to boil 13 cups of water for 1 kg rice.
- In a small bowl, stir together all marinade ingredients to form a thick paste. Smear the paste evenly over the fish slices. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to marinate.
- To cook the fish: In a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the fish and fry until nearly done to maintain its softness, about 2 minutes on each side. Carefully remove from the skillet and set aside, leaving the oil in the pan.
- Return the skillet to medium heat and add the ghee, then the sliced onions. Season with a little salt. Fry until slightly brown.
- Add ginger-garlic paste. Sauté well. Add the crushed green chillies and sauté for 5 minutes.
- One by one, stir in the garam masala, chilli powder, turmeric powder, and ground fennel seeds. Blend all the ingredients well.
- Add the chopped tomatoes. Sauté for about 3 minutes. Cover the skillet and cook for 5 minutes until the tomatoes are soft and blended well with the masala. Taste and season with more salt, as needed.
- Stir in the mint and coriander. Mix in the curds.
- Add the coconut paste or poppy seed–cashew paste and lime juice. Mix well.
- Carefully place the fried fish into the masala and spread a little masala on top of the fish. Cook for 5 minutes until the masala is completely cooked and the fish is fried until golden brown and crispy.
To garnish: In a small bowl, combine the saffron threads and hot milk.
- In a small skillet over medium heat, heat a little ghee. Add the raisins and cashews. Fry until lightly brown.
Layer the masala in a heavy-bottomed vessel. Smear the dish with a little ghee. Place half the masala in the dish. Top with a layer of cooked rice. Sprinkle with half each of the raisin cashew mixture, sliced onion, coriander, mint, and garam masala.
- Drizzle the masala with the saffron milk and a little ghee.
- Layer on the remaining masala. Top with the remaining rice and finish garnish with the remaining raisin cashew mixture, sliced onion, coriander, mint, and garam masala. Tightly cover the vessel with a lid or aluminium foil.
- Place a heavy-bottomed tawa on low heat. Place the vessel on top of the tawa and dum for 20 to 25 minutes.
A special pudding made during Ramzan and served at Iftar when the fast is being broken in the evenings. This recipe for sweet rice pancakes serves 4.
1 tsp coconut (nariyal) oil, or any oil of your choice
1 cup (200 g) basmati or ponni rice, soaked in water for 4 hours and drained
1 cup (80 g) fresh coconut (nariyal; see note), grated
½ cup (100 g) sugar
½ tsp ground green cardamom (choti elachi)
1 large egg
1 tsp cumin seeds (jeera)
- Grease a shallow baking dish with the coconut oil and set aside.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the drained rice, coconut, sugar, cardamom, and egg. Using a food processor/ mixer-grinder, grind the ingredients until perfectly smooth. Strain through a cheesecloth or a fine mesh sieve into a bowl to avoid any lumps.
- Sprinkle the cumin seeds over the top. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Place the dish in a steamer or pressure cooker and steam the pudding without the weight for 25 minutes, or until the top feels firm to the touch.
- Remove and let cool. Carefully invert the pudding onto a plate. Cut into wedges and serve. It will keep, if covered and refrigerated, for 4 to 5 days.
Note: To facilitate easier grinding, use about 1½ cups (360 ml) of thick coconut milk instead of the grated coconut.