Kerala Moms

Kerala is independent territory, independent of food chains. You can eat what your mom wanted you to eat. And they make it so well that you’ll have no argument with it. On our drive back from Munnar to Kochi half a year ago we stopped for lunch on the way in a clean and well-lit restaurant. We picked the place because of the green wall which was the front of the restaurant. The food couldn’t be bad, we thought, if they have enough taste to cover the front wall will a vertical garden.

The toilet was clean, and had the endearing sign which you see in the featured photo. The menu had lessy errors than is normal in a roadside eatery. It turned out that apart from the fruit juices on the menu they could give us coconut water. We went with that to accompany a traditional Malabar Biryani: fragrant with spices. If I were a Vasco da Gama eating it on a far shore I would have set sail for Kerala immediately. The raita which came with it was mouth-burningly hot with green chilis; five centuries after the churn of new foods crossing oceans in holds of ships, Kerala’s inventory of spices has increased. The coconut juice helped in moderating the raita.

On the way out we’d stopped for breakfast at a more typical roadside place which promised the usual pan-Indian roadside menu. But the touch of Kerala changes things. Pineapple with potato tikka? Not found in the hot and dry northern plains, I’m afraid. Bindi masala and plain rotty are typical roadside spellings. The province of Munchuria has long become unmoored from the cold north, and has taken root in Indian kitchens. We looked at the menu and asked for what else they have.

While we waited for idli, vada, and coffee, I did my usual trick of walking up to the sweet counter and peering deep into it. The collection was small but interesting. Pedha, laddoo, and barfi is now found right across India. But there was a local coconut-based sweet packed into plastic bags. And there was that thing off on the side which looked like a cross between jalebis and murukku. Probably too sweet for the first thing in the morning. I went back to my idli and coffee.

Country roads

I’d written earlier about a quick trip to Kerala to see the once-in-a-dozen-years flowering of the Neelakurinji. It was mostly a road trip, but I hadn’t written about the road. Driving from Kochi to Munnar takes you on roads through a continuously built-up area. One village gives way imperceptibly to another, a small town shades into villages. There is no transition, no discontinuity.

Every turn in the road looked vaguely like this: low houses, some palm trees, a church or a temple or mosque, businesses everywhere. It was a holiday so the roads were rather empty for nine in the morning. Businesses were also closed. This part of the country had been hit by a flash flood due to an over-active monsoon less than a month before, so we kept a close watch on the sky as we drove along.

There were some store fronts which seemed peculiarly Malayalee; the photo which you see above was one. We would come across a home depot of this kind every twenty or thirty kilometers. So much kitchenware on display! Was this part of the post-flood recovery, or was it common? I don’t know, and I would have to go back to find out. Or, if you have been there recently or more than a year back, you could let me know whether you noticed these shops too.

We’d driven out without breakfast, with just a coffee at a busy little roadside stall which was doing roaring business. When I drank my coffee I realized why. It was a very good coffee; milky and sweet, like the usual coffee here, but strong and aromatic. Now it was definitely time for breakfast. We stopped at a cluster of shops. The colourful advertisements on this glass box signaled lunch.

Chicken is a big thing here, as you can see from the signage in the photo above. Food and chicken are mentioned separately. Chicken normally sounds good to me but not as the first thing in the morning. We chose a shop which was clearly selling breakfast. Idlis, puttu, sheera and coffee could be seen. While the Family and Other Animals found a table, I walked around to the block. There was a hairdressing saloon with very appropriate photos on the door. If I wasn’t in dire need of breakfast I would have walked in to investigate.

Back at the breakfast table the orders had been placed. I asked for a plate of idlis and another coffee to be added to the order. As I leaned back I saw that this was a rather inclusive place. Kerala used to have a very small but influential population of Jews. They have mostly migrated to Israel about fifty years ago. Now about 55% of the population is Hindu, about 25% are Muslim, and about 18% are Christian. The picture on the wall was politically very mainstream, but was probably not entirely political. It could also signify that the dietary practices of all these groups were understood and followed. Business is business after all.

Heading for the hills

Map of the Munnar-Valparai-Kodai area

April is pretty cruel over most of the Indian plains. Just the right time to head to the hills. Unfortunately the Himalayas are a little too far for a quick trip, and the Sahayadris are not high enough to provide a respite from the hot and humid weather in Mumbai. Our thoughts turned to the region where we spent a nice weekend about a year back. We just heard about Valparai, booked a hotel, and went off. So now, we looked at the map and realized that we had found an area ripe for summer.

The hot plains towns of the south, Kochi on the Kerala coast, Coimbatore and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, form a tringle of entry points to the wonderful hill towns of the Western ghats. The most well-known of these are Munnar in Kerala and Kodaikanal and Valparai in Tamil Nadu. Forests, now protected, rise from the plains at the foot of the Ghats to the elevation of around 1500 meters, which is about the altitude of most of these hill towns. They still hold spectacular species of animals like the Nilgiri Tahr and lion-tailed macaques, along with such a variety of birds that just thinking of them puts a shine in The Family’s eyes. When you peer deeper into the map you find more half-forgotten names from your long-ago school days. There is space here for a lifetime of summers. We will be scratching the surface with a weekend’s trip.

So where do we go? Kochi to Munnar or Madurai to Kodaikanal? Any tips?