The South Indian state has a knack for combining eggs and coconut
Travelling through Kerala, one of India’s southern-most states, is an immersive experience in the color green. Paddy fields growing dozens of rice varieties range from lime green to bright parakeet to deep emerald. Stretching out in all directions, the fields stop only where the coconut groves begin. In these several-acred plots of land, dark green palm fronds extend into the sky, and below their boughs, green coconuts beginning to brown sit in clusters.
I’ve been making my way around Kerala’s verdant landscapes since I was a child, because I grew up in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Kerala was the closest and cheapest holiday destination available, and many of my family’s Malayali (the name for Kerala’s people) friends opened their homes to us. And, of course, their kitchens. Which is how I fell in love with Kerala’s breakfasts.
Kerala’s ports became centers for the spice trade in 3000 BC, and ever since, the coastal state’s cuisine has varied between its many religious and cultural communities. But the one thing they all have in common, Syrian Christian to Malayali Muslim, is that Kerala’s lush green landscape finds its way straight onto their breakfast plates.
I grew up thinking that wheat was a breakfast essential: toast with butter and jam, egg sandwiches, and the occasional chocolate pancake. But in Kerala, rice is the hero of almost every breakfast dish. The phrase for “eat” in Malayali is "choru unnu," which translates literally into “eat rice’.” Except by the time it arrives onto your breakfast plate, it doesn’t look like rice at all.
Rice flour forms the basis for many of Kerala’s finest breakfast dishes.
Take puttu, steamed rice and coconut cakes, shaped into cylinders or mounds. Fluffy but filling, Puttu is made by combining rice flour with water and salt, and each family has its own unique formula for preparing the perfect dough, passed down over generations. The dough is layered with grated coconut and steamed in coconut shells (or insteaming machines), and then served with a variety of accompaniments. These include egg roast—a stir-fried dish of eggs and onions, and my favourite, kadala curry —a spicy gravy made from grated coconut and tiny brown chickpeas.
Rice and coconut is a ubiquitous pairing in Kerala’s cuisine. The coconut tree is an essential part of not only Kerala’s farming landscape, but of most homes, too. No matter how tiny the home, its inhabitants often have a coconut tree on their land. Even apartment buildings in coastal India will often have a coconut tree in their compounds, thebounty shared among residents. Appam and ishtew is another breakfast combination made of coconut and rice. Appams are thin, light, just barely sweetened coconut and fermented-rice pancakes. They take the shape of a large soup tureen, and are served with ishtew, which is poured into the centre of the bowl-shaped pancake. Ishtew is a domestication of the word “stew,” and is a collection of vegetables or meats prepared in lightly-flavored coconut milk. Appams come in many different varieties – from the ubiquitous paalams to the spongier vattayappams to the thick kallappams—and recipes often vary from home to home.
No breakfast in Kerala is complete without a steaming cup of tea or coffee. Chaya, or sweet milky tea, is made by boiling water, milk and strong tea leaves together, and sometimes includes ginger or cardamom,though as long as there’s plenty of sugar, it’ll do just fine. For coffee-drinkers, there’s the black kattan kaapi, for which finely ground coffee beans and water are passed through a traditional steel filter, and then served with raw cane sugar or molasses in a glass.
Significant percentages of India’s tea and coffee are grown on plantations strewn across the rolling green hillsides of inland Kerala, and like its rice and coconut counterparts, its ubiquity in the state’s green landscape is reflected in every morning breakfast.
From rice pancakes to coconut milk, from fried bananas to filter coffee, maybe what Kerala really knows about breakfast is that eating locally doesn’t mean compromising at all.