God’s own canteen

A Dhaka connoisseur savours divine cuisine in backwoods Kerala.

Back from Kerala after a two-year stint as a foreign scholar, I used to love informing friends and family in Bangladesh, while reaching for a sip of refrigerated water on a hot, sultry day, that Keralites have no notion of cold drinking water. Of course I had been taken aback when, on my first day at Calicut University, I was served a glass of hot water, in the lightest shade of peach, to go with my lunch. After my first tentative sip of the lukewarm herbal water, however, I was hooked. It was certainly refreshing. I later came to know that herbal water is part of Kerala's rich ayurvedic tradition, and the best protection against any water-borne disease.

I first arrived in Calicut during Onam, the festival season, and God's own country – as Kerala is touted to tourists – was living up to its name. Breakfasts were mouth-watering savouries such as dosas, idlis and appams – made of toddy-fermented rice-batter – served with freshly brewed coffee. Women flitted about in pristine off-white saris with gold borders; homes were brightened with floral designs made with all hues of flower petals; and sadyas, or festival feasts of sumptuous vegetarian dishes served on banana leaves, comprised every meal, even in the university canteen. What I also found was that God loved coconuts. Coconut trees swayed whichever way your head turned, and the Keralite platter abounds with every concoction imaginable of the fruit's white flesh.

Festivities over, dress and cuisine changed dramatically. The white saris were shelved, banana leaves swept off the table, and vegetarian meals swiftly replaced with biriyanis and meen, or fish, curry. It hit me then that I was in Mappila country. The Mappila, called Moplah in Malayalam, are the Muslim community of Kerala; the Mapilla platter, a mix of Keralite and Arabian cuisine, is conspicuously non-vegetarian. The pity was that three years in Madhya Pradesh learning Sanskrit had made me a vegetarian. When I shook my head and explained, the canteen boy jovially retorted, "But Madam, meen is jala-kusum, flower of the waters!" Within six months, the Bengali in me gave in to his gentle persuasion. Mapilla curry doesn't just taste good, it looks great as well. The fish curry is made with garlic paste, onions and red chillies, and seasoned with mustard seeds and curry leaves, giving the thick curry, glistening with oil, a rich reddish-orange colour.

Have you ever noticed that your idea of 'home' takes shape only once you actually leave it? After a few months of thick, parboiled rice, which Keralites will die for, along with the tangy, tamarind-flavoured curry called sambar and coconut chutneys, my Bengali heart started yearning for a simple meal of daal-bhaat. I dreamt of delicate sun-dried rice, which Malayalis scoff at as far too feathery-light, and lentils cooked the North Indian way – without a hint of sourness. When requests for white rice and daal, made by a few of us North Indian students, were summarily ignored by the canteen cook, we actually took up this very grave matter with the vice-chancellor, and compelled him to serve plain daal-chawal at least twice a week. The lengths to which people go to recreate home!

On the other hand, what I always brought home from Kerala were banana chips fried in the very special Calicut style – with spices and curry leaves. But the thick, black Kozhikode halwa, made of molasses, wheat flour and ghee, never found favour in Bangladesh. No one can make sweets like Bengalis do.

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Himal Southasian