What’s Cooking in Kerala

Christians, Hindus and Muslims savor their culinary heritage

story and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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If Norman Rockwell were alive and working in India’s southwestern state of Kerala, he would have delighted in the scene unfolding at the home of Mary and James Vadakumpadan and would have set about capturing it on canvas.

The Vadakumpadans live in the leafy suburb of Korathy, some 18 miles from Ernakulam, Kerala’s second largest city. Here, modern pavement and rice paddy share the landscape in equal measure. But on this late afternoon, the Vadakumpadan home recalls an idyllic scene from old-fashioned country life in Kerala.

A government contractor in his mid-40’s, James sits in the kitchen near the pantry hunched over a chirava — a wooden tool with an iron tongue attached for grating — scratching out a coconut kernel from the shell. At his side stands a tall vat of homemade uppumanga (mango soaked in brine for a year). Sunlit steam wafts in the air from the freshly made pappadam (a crispy lentil flour flatbread) and puttu (a steamed cake made of rice flour, coconut and salt) cooling on the counter.

On the deck out back, his wife, Mary, operates the ammikallu, a traditional food crusher made from a flat stone slab and granite rolling pin — these days more of an antique than a household appliance. With a splash of water, she wets the slab and rolling pin, bunches up some chopped red onion, grated coconut and green chili pepper and flattens the mixed ingredients until their colors begin to blend into one.

At Mary’s feet, spread over a shallow, sun-bleached basket, tamarind basks in the late afternoon sun. A loose pile of coconuts picked from the trees towering overhead spill into the walkway leading to the garden. On a nearby clothesline, banana leaves hang out to dry. And on the roof, rice harvested from the adjacent paddies waits to be threshed.

The wide array of produce harvested from the Vadakumpadans’ relatively modest family garden surpasses some of the best mid-summer farmers’ markets. Fruits, vegetables and herbs seem to grow on every inch of the property. And all of this bounty — mangos, plantains, jackfruit, chili peppers and other fruits, herbs, grains and vegetables — will find its way into their homemade curries, chutneys and breads.

Mary adds a pinch of salt, grabs the heavy rolling pin and with a few last strokes — presto, coconut chutney! She knows the recipe by heart, having learned it as a child.

The Vadakumpadans’ son, Anoop, returns home from work. At the same time, his grandfather appears from the paddies and approaches the house. The whole family sits down together to catch up and enjoy a late afternoon snack.

But this quaint snapshot of traditional country life in Kerala is fading fast. Once staples of Keralite society, country homes such as the Vadakumpadans are now fewer and farther between. As Kerala urbanizes and more people migrate to cities, the rural life left behind struggles. Many worry that much of Kerala’s unique and diverse culinary culture — deeply rooted in family tradition and regional food products — may not endure the state’s changing economy and way of life.

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Tags: India Kerala Syro-Malabar Catholic Church