20 Famous Kerala Foods
Dubbed “God’s Own Country”, this beautiful state is located at the tip of the Indian Peninsular. Fondly called the “Venice of the East”, is known for its myriad of backwaters and boasts of natural flora and fauna the like of no other country on Earth.
Home to the only rainforest in South India, Kerala is blessed with a bountiful selection of hills and beaches, paddies and rocky highlands. This affinity to the coast and the high altitude of the mountains in combination creates an opportunity to explore multiple spices and additives that have made their way into global cuisine.
At the height of the spice trade, Kerala sat high up on the food chain, being the largest producer of black gold, the famed Malabar Telicherry pepper, and cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace made up the bulk of the other spices shipped from its Fort Kochi ports to all major European cities, changing the face of culinary and gastronomical arts forever.
Trade and commerce has strongly influenced the region and it is known as one of the most forward-thinking regions in India. They absorbed these foreign traditions, making them their own; even their language, Malayalam, is testament to this as its a balanced yet beautiful blend of two of the oldest languages in the world, Sanskrit and Tamil.
The 21st century has awakened a new revolution in the hearts and minds of the people of this beautiful state, and today the cuisine can broadly be classified under the following categories:
- The Syrian Christian influenced cuisine.
- The traditional delicacies of the Namboodris, Nairs, and many Hindu communities.
- The rich yet diverse influence of the trading Arabs on the Malabar.
- Global cuisine influenced by ex-pats returning home.
“Overhauling our cooking and eating patterns is not an easy task. There are tastes and flavors individuals are conditioned to or which they simply prefer. Despite this, there are universal favorites as well – the result of unique processing techniques adopted by certain chefs that remain a secret. Cooking is an art. It is a symphony of taste, aroma, and colors that stimulates the senses.”
1. Thenga Choru: Coconut Rice
This simple yet rich and nourishing rice dish combines two of the most abundant resources of the land into a warm comforting accompaniment for literally any veg or non-veg dish from the traditional Nadan or Malayali kitchen.
Considered the poor man’s biriyani, this dish dominated dinner tables in Muslim households before the mainstream biriyani of the north conquered it.
Coconuts are native to the region and have played a fundamental role in shaping the livelihood of the people, from providing timber for boats and houses to using the fibre for ropes and cloth, to using its delicate sweet flesh in cooking curries and sauces, and using the oil to fry food and its medicinal properties.
Freshly grated coconut is combined with dry grated coconut and blended with shallots, mustard, green chilies, and curry leaf to add a subtle yet spectacular flavor to this humble rice preparation.
2. Malabar Parotta
This fabled layered flatbread of the Malabar region is flaky, thin, and crispy on the outside and soft and moist on the inside: and more popular than the backwaters, the elephants, and the lush green landscape that the state is known for.
Originating in Tamil Nadu as a source of cheap and tasty nutrition, it made its way into Kerala, where it was embraced with open arms. Today it forms an integral part of the diet and cuisine and is eaten as fondly for breakfast as for lunch and dinner.
The best combination is to pair it with beef fry, egg curry, or a spicy and robust egg roast masala. No trip to Kerala is complete without enjoying a freshly made parotta with a side of steamy hot curry on a rainy night.
Modern renditions of this classic flatbread include stuffing it with a hearty meat masala, wrapping it in a banana leaf, and grilling it, fondly known as Kizi Parotta, more like a burrito roll. Cafeterias in the UAE and other middle eastern countries combine gyro or shawarma, potato chips, and coleslaw to make parotta roles that are a tasty and affordable meal on the go.
These “Rice Hoppers” are crispy, thin, and golden around the edges while soft and fluffy in the center. Made with rice flour, it has nuanced flavor notes of nutty coconut milk and sweet toddy. Since toddy has become a commodity hard to come by these days, it’s easily replaced with baking soda, but this lacks the authentic flavor of the original recipe.
This is a bread that lends itself well to all kinds of curries, the slight sweetness complementing the pungent gravies equally well. Palappam is normally made in a cast iron pan called an appa chatti.
Since it’s made from rice and has coconut milk blended into it, if not refrigerated it can ferment and turn sour. Sometimes an egg may be cracked over the top of the appam, sprinkled with freshly cracked pepper and salt, fondly enjoyed by children and called the motteappam.
The simplest and my favourite combination is to simply add freshly ground coconut milk and a spoon of palm sugar or honey.
For a Malayali, nothing is more comforting than a piping hot plate of puttu and kadala curry for breakfast. A quintessential dish in almost every household in Kerala, puttu is a preparation of dry roasted ground rice, layered with coconut shavings (and sometimes banana), and then steamed in a uniquely Malayali puttu steamer.
It is also known as pittu and can be found in parts of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and even parts of Sri Lanka. The word puttu in Tamil means “potion”; this is derived from the way puttu is shaped in a cylindrical steamer which produces soda can-shaped segments of steam rice and coconut.
Usually paired with a thick and spicy black chickpea curry, it’s also commonly enjoyed with a ripe sweet banana and a hot cup of tea for breakfast. Most children enjoy it with palm sugar and coconut milk too.
Contemporary versions of this humble dish have been made with quinoa, broken wheat, millet, and much more.
5. Podi Pathiri
These thin, light, and delicate rice crepes made with cooked rice flour are a simple accompaniment for non-veg curries and are a staple in the Northern Parts of Kerala, home to the Malabar and the native Muslim population.
There are extensive varieties of pathiri, depending on the type of filling, either sweet or savory, but the most famous is the plain pathiri.
Rice flour is added to boiling water in a technique similar to making choux pastry, where it is steamed and kneaded to form a pliable dough which is then rolled out into thin crepes before being cooked on a flat griddle.
Sweet banana fritters are a famous snack found across Kerala, usually enjoyed with a large cup of tea in the evening to relieve your munchies.
Pazham pori is made from a ripened plantain called nendram pazham, which is a local fruit found in most of the regions in Kerala, though this variety has a sharper flavor and a more robust texture compared to sweet varieties. The banana is dipped in a sweetened flour batter and fried till it is golden brown and crispy.
Usually served as an accompaniment with evening tea, this delicacy can also be paired with braised beef for a wonderfully sweet and savory combination.
As famous as coconuts are to Kerala, bananas come in a close second. The same variety of bananas are used to make the fabled banana chips that are deep-fried in coconut oil, a taste that can only be described as a slice of heaven in your mouth.
This is a medley of vegetables coated with a thick and creamy layer of coconut paste and evenly enrobed with the mild blend of spices. Aviyal is considered the most important accompaniment for curries that can be poured, such as Sambar. Aviyal is usually paired with steamed white rice, but in the southern parts of the state, it is eaten with crepes made with lentils called ada dosa.
This is one of the star dishes that the people of Onam Sadhya or Spread adore. It is a favorite with the vegetarian diaspora of the state and is considered a staple of religious and cultural bounty. This dish is an ode to the diverse and abundant fruits and vegetables available in Kerala.
8. Chakkakuru Thoran
Another famous and beloved fruit from this beautiful state is the jackfruit, which people either love or hate. A cousin of the durian, it has a strong and pungent sweet smell and is prepared in a myriad of ways: from chips to desserts and even as a main course. In all its forms, the process of separating the flesh is labor-intensive but, ultimately, worth it.
The dish here is an appetizer made from the cured seeds of the jackfruit. Thoran refers to a dry stir fry, here served as a side dish that is incredibly tasty with a nutty flavor and a texture similar to almonds.
It is usually paired with rice, spiced buttermilk, pickle, and papadam. Simple, straightforward, and healthy dining for the body and soul. Shallots and grated coconut give it a sweet and savory touch like no other.
9. Kappa Vevvichathu
Tapioca is another ingredient not native to the area but which was adopted as a necessity at the height of World War 2 due to a rice shortage. It was wholeheartedly embraced by the locals who made it part of their cuisine. Tapioca is widely cultivated across Kerala where it is a staple in many households.
This dish is simply boiled tapioca seasoned with a tempering of grated coconut, shallots, mustard, green chilies, curry leaf, and turmeric powder.
It is a replacement for rice on the dinner table and is fondly enjoyed with spicy and rich fish curry or pepper beef roast. It can also be blended with a concoction of meat and masala when it is fondly called kappa biriyani.
10. Meen Moilee
This is a hearty and rich fish curry made with a creamy coconut milk base, blended with shallots and tomatoes and mildly spiced. Legend has it that it is a dish influenced by the Portuguese, whereas some argue that it was from the influence of traders from the Malaca straits, hence the name moilee.
Nevertheless, this dish is a beloved dish, famous in Syrian Christian households, and is a traditional recipe that has been passed down the generations.
The signature tune of this dish is the natural flavor of the fish that comes through, and the fish most preferred is the seer or kingfish found in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.
The combination of the mild tartness from the tomatoes and the sharp yet mellow heat of ginger, garlic and chili make for a perfect accompaniment for a crispy hot plate of appam.
11. Mutton Stew
Fondly called Ishtew, this is usually made from lamb or mutton and is a staple across all religious diasporas. Since lamb or mutton is considered kosher and halal, most Hindus, Muslims, and Christians consume this mildly flavored rich delicacy.
It is made with a combination of carrots, green peas, beans, whole spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves and topped with freshly ground and squeezed coconut milk. The mild flavors of this soup complement the light-texture of the lamb, but it tends to require a bit more time on the range when dealing with gamey mutton.
This is usually consumed for breakfast accompanied with hot rice hoppers fresh off the cast iron pan and onto your plate.
Chicken can be substituted for lamb, preferably with the skin left on as this tends to add more moisture and an overall rounder flavor to the light stew.
12. Beef Ularthiyathu: Slow Roasted Beef
Kerala is one of the few states in India where the slaughter and consumption of beef is legal, mainly due to their progressive political views and also the preference of water buffalo over the traditional bull-cow combo preferred across the world.
The meat of the water buffalo is leaner and usually is slow-cooked to give tender, melt-in-your-mouth results.
This recipe calls for cubes of boneless beef cut and slow-roasted in a heavy bottom pan with a melange of roasted ground spices, shallots, chunks of dry coconut, and tempered with coconut oil and curry leaves. A Malayalis dream and go-to comfort food when paired with the Malabar parotta.
13. Meen Pollichathu
Another delicacy emerging from the backwaters of Kerala is this beautiful pan-seared dish made with the infamous pearl spot from the marshes off the western coast. It is marinated in a medley of spices and pan-seared before being enveloped in a banana leaf filled with a spicy and tangy mix of shallots, garlic, and tomatoes cooked into a deep paste and enriched with coconut milk.
This hot pocket is then transferred back onto a hot griddle to allow the juices of the fish and the delicately spiced coconut milk paste to fuse in an act of culinary wizardry to produce one of the most mouth-watering seafood delicacies from the south of India.
Fresh pear spot is the fish of choice but this may be replaced with pomfret, bass or pink perch.
14. Beef Vindaloo
Similar to the famous pork vindaloo from Goa, this dish is also influenced by the Portuguese from their many journeys to the Kingdom of Cheranad, or the Principality of Travancore.
The beef is cut into big chunks and cooked in a deep red and rich base made with tangy, ripe tomatoes. This dish is a favorite with the Latin Christian community in Kerala.
Pair it with parota or pathiri or rice, to make for a flavor-packed, tasty combo like no other. Shallots, vinegar and green chilies give this curry its much-renowned punch of heat.
15. Tharavu Roast
This is a recipe fondly prepared and eaten at Easter. The 40 days of lent are usually a strict time of abstinence for members of the Christian community and they mark the end of this period of fasting and abstinence with a feast for the ages. Kuttanad and Kumarakam are the regions famous for this hearty dish.
The term roast loosely refers to a style of braised meat where the ducks raised in the backwaters are braised gently with onions, shallots, and a mix of earthy spices to give you a spicy and flavorful dish that leaves an unforgettable taste on your tongue.
Usually eaten with appam and parotta, it is a must-try when visiting Kerala.
16. Malabar Biryani
The Arabs have been trading with this region since the 7th Century, meaning many cultural influences have been exchanged between the two communities, though the famous Malabar biryani is sweeter in than its North Indian counterpart.
You can find sultanas and sweet spices dominating the flavor palette and the base for the biryani is made with onions that are cooked into a deep caramelized base giving the dish its signature taste.
Mostly prepared with chicken or fish, it can also be made with lamb or beef.
The main ingredient in these biryanis is the short grain kaima rice or the aromatic jeerakasala variety, which is shorter and denser in texture compared to basmati.
This layered cake-like confection is a great dessert for special occasions. It may take a long time to make the pathiri, but once done it’s just a matter of assembling all the ingredients together.
Thin crepes are rolled and cooked on a flat griddle before being layered like a lasagna with a sweet mix of milk ghee, eggs, and bananas – sweet on the tongue with a tinge of caramel. Top it with a sweet sugary syrup with hints of cardamom and nutmeg or, for added flavor, sprinkle on some cashews and sultanas roasted in ghee.
A savory non-veg version of this is eaten to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
18. Palada Payasam
The most common payasam or sweet gruel served at most festivities is sweetened with palm sugar and jaggery, giving it a real earthy and smokey flavor that every one loves.
Ada refers to thin flakes of banana, sugar, and rice that is blended together before being boiled like a roulade. This is then chipped into bits and left to dry before being mixed with a sweet mix of milk, palm sugar, cane jaggery, and ghee, with hints of green cardamom.
19. Sharjah Shake
Influenced by the many cool bars or milk bars encountered by Malayalis working in the east, this sweet milk shake is an ode to the undying trade and cultural links between Kerala and Arab Emirates.
Full cream milk and bananas are paired with a mix of almonds, cashews, sultanas, dates, figs, and pistachios along with vanilla ice cream and sugar to give you a cool and thirst quenching thick shake unlike any other.
The main ingredient in this tasty shake is the chocolate milk added to the medley of nuts giving you an experience like no other. Top it with some crushed ice and its one of the best ways to beat the heat or just kick back and sip on by the shoreside.
20. Black Halwa and Banana Chips
We can’t end this article without mentioning two of the most popular snacks from this amazing state. The first is the famous banana chips fried in coconut oil, with a hint of sweetness from the almost ripe bananas, topped with savory and nutty notes of coconut oil and turmeric.
A perfect Indian snack for the road or something to amaze your guests. The variety of banana used is the firmer, starchier cooking banana or plantain, such as the Saba and Nendran.
Black halwa, also known as karuppu halwa or kerala black jaggery halwa, is a sweet toffy-like dessert made from rice flour, palm jaggery, and ghee, which is cooked till it becomes thick and toffee-like. It is the perfect companion for your evening cup of tea. Kozhikode in Kerala makes the finest of the lot.