Women lust after Chef Mani not for his power-packed good looks but for his culinary prowess. Some even propose marriage and this talented chef, who helms the kitchen in Pepper Trail, a luxe back-to-nature retreat in Wayanad, north-east Kerala, looks bemused. He thanks them uncertainly because Chef Mani speaks and understands only Malayalam and marriage proposals in any other language mystify him! Even men have tried to pirate him to start restaurants in their hometowns and instal him in their home kitchens! At Pepper Trail, set amidst 200 acres of coffee, tea and spice plantations and encircled by tropical rainforests, the magical surrounds are as much a lure as the bugle call of one’s stomach, answered so ably by Chef Mani’s creations.
In the open-sided Pavilion, the dining area of the resort, we revelled in amazing vistas. A paradise flycatcher flitted past; a Malabar hornbill sat on a distant bough and a brown wood owl came a-calling even as a parade of dishes sashayed across our taste buds akin to ramp models strutting their stuff. I diyappam or steamed noodles made from rice flour; vegetable stew and caramelised bananas; puttu or rice cake with a sweet-sour kadala curry (black channa masala); a delicately spiced tapioca curry; a traditional chicken kizhi, where a subtly spiced chicken is steamed in a banana leaf and served with a mint and coriander chutney. We tried the roasted masala fish curry and ripe banana curry, too. All of it was edible art, artfully served and laced with an earthy, wholesome flavour. The culinary climax would be bamboo payasam, Kerala’s version of kheer, with bamboo rice.
“Bamboos flower once in 145 years and rice is extracted from the flowers and added to payasam,” explained Anand Jayan, owner of Pepper Trail and a foodie who loves to share his passion for local cuisine with his guests. He remembers the time when the food they ate as children was wreathed in the smoky flavours of a wood fire and every bite was savoured and respected…for food is an integral part of a living culture. Indeed, it all began with Wayanad pepper, perhaps the most aromatic and powerful in the world, and that is what Christopher Columbus was seeking. Instead, he stumbled on the West Indies. We too were looking for the much-vaunted subtlety of North Kerala’s cuisine and discovered that in that region, it is threaded by the aroma of Arabian kitchens brought by traders and wayfarers who passed that way in search of the region’s spices.
The cuisine is also laced with the flavours brought by latter-day traders like the Dutch, Portuguese, French and English. “They may take the pepper vine to England,” said Zamorin, the king of Kozhikode, “but can they take the Thiruvathira Njattuvelia??” The latter is the 14 days of rain in June-July which powers the growth of pepper. Indeed, locals reiterate that the food of North Kerala, based on recipes handed over generations, is palate-pleasing because of the clamour and clang of different cultures. Most importantly, it is relished in a circle of warmth, with family sitting together for meals. In Kerala, the foodscape undergoes subtle changes from north to south, thanks to the mixture of spices and the subtle differences in cooking styles of home cooks. Moving away from Wayanad, we dug into the abundant seafood of the Malabar coast of North Kerala.
It was delicately spiced and figured on our menus at Kadavu, a retreat on the backwaters of Kozhikode. The basis of cooking in Kerala is the coconut— the oil is used for frying, and the milk and flesh for the gravy. Spices are used gently or powerfully enough to put your taste buds on high alert. The Kerala curry that we had on several occasions was a thick bouillabaisse of coconut milk and freshly ground spices simmered together. It was aromatic and piquant, and the secret behind it is its long, slow cooking time.
In the coastal North Malabar region, we dined like kings at linen-less eateries on meen mulakittathu, red fish curry which had a tangy ocean-fresh punch. Chicken dry fry (kozhiporichu) was chicken marinated in a mantle of chillies, salt, turmeric, ginger-garlic, aniseed, then slathered in lemon juice and fried to a crisp in coconut oil. The typical kadka fry was mussels simmered in Kerala spices until they were dry and crunchy. There were also lacy appams (originally a Syrian-Christian legacy, but that’s another story) and idiyappams served with smooth curries and stews, and kallumman kai ada made of chicken slivers or mussels wrapped in fried dough and irachi porichathu, lamb slices tossed and fried in ground spices and served in papad baskets.
The fare of the North Kerala Muslim community called Mapilas or Moplahs is more heavily non-vegetarian. Their staple is the mouthwatering biryani, made of lamb, chicken, egg or fish, and eaten with crunchy papad. Arikadukka is another gourmet item and is essentially mussels stuffed with delicately spiced rice dough, steamed in the shell and fried. Chemmeen or prawns are tossed and fried in aromatic Kerala spices and tangy kokum, finished with coconut and served on a banana leaf. This is best paired with a chiffon-like layered Malabar parotta.
Perhaps the piece de resistance of the North Kerala Muslims is a whole marinated lamb stuffed with chicken mince, eggs and masalas and pot-roasted, best relished at a feast laid out to welcome a new son-in-law or a Moplah wedding feast. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a sadhya (or banquet in Malayalam), you will be faced with a formidable array of dishes, over 28 items. These are placed in a precise way on a banana leaf. A sadhya is labour-intensive and cannot be rustled up with a few stirs of a ladle. We relished a sample sadhya at the swish Nombili restaurant at Lalit Resort and Spa, Bekal and the sweet finale, a gooey payasam, made from wheat and rice stewed in coconut milk with jaggery plus slabs of halwa (the latter is typical of Kozhikode), almost did us in. The ultimate was mutta-mala, a steamed egg white pudding with a frill of egg yolk.
Apart from these gourmet creations, what lingers in memory are the finger-licking meals that we have had at no-frills eateries. But, for us, what distils the flavour and essence of the state are the canary-yellow, plump banana fritters that were paired with masala chai every afternoon at Pepper Trail. Soft as a sigh within and crisp outside, they melted in our mouths, generously surrendering their sweetness like the land itself.