Next time, ask for Travancore cuisine on houseboat

20 August, 2017

Mumbai: The rich aroma and delectable ingredients including home-grown spices epitomise the cuisine of a region, attracting visitors looking for gastronomic experience side-by-side the panoramic spots they come to unwind.   

In India, every state, every region is synonymous with its unique food, and so is Kerala's Travancore, which boasts not only of its culture and history but also its cuisine, an interesting mix of spicy as well as simple vegetarian and non-vegetarian preparations.   

The Travancore cuisine not just allures domestic and foreign travellers at resorts and eating joints but it is served on house boats as well while they enjoy the scenic sail in the backwaters of the 'God's Own Country'.   "The USP of this cuisine is its simplicity and freshness of ingredients. In a layman's words, the Travancore cuisine is the homely cuisine of the farmers to fishermen," says Arun Mohanraj, the chef at Vivanta by Taj, Kumarakom.   

"Since the people who live in this part of Kerala mostly depend on fishing and house boat tourism, the Syrian Christian influenced Travancore cuisine is used widely on house boats," Mohanraj told PTI.   Its signature dishes like fish curry, 'Karimeen Pollichadhu' ((Pearl Spot cooked in banana leaf), stew, avial (made of mixed vegetables) and chicken curry are rated high by visitors.   

Also, the never-miss Malayali 'Sadya' comprising rice, sambar and a range of side dishes and payasam (dessert) is of great demand.   Mumbai-based celebrity chef Ajay Chopra is impressed by the mouth-welling dishes of the region.   

"There are countless differences that indicate differences between the food of the north and the south, from Kashmiri chillies in the north to Guntoor in the south, or use of wheat in the north versus use of rice in the south," says Chopra, the managing director of Zion Hospitality Pvt Ltd.   

"However, when you particularly look at the cuisine of Travancore, it is highly influenced by the Syrian Christians, and which is why they have a good balance of bland as well as spicy preparations with a fair mix of meat, seafood or vegetables," says the widely travelled chef.   

Syrian Christian food makes the most part of this cuisine since the region has got a good dominance of them, which gives it the major part of non-vegetarian classics like chicken ishtew (stew), fish curry, chicken roast, kozhi mappas (poultry, meat, fish or vegetables cooked in creamy coconut milk with tomatoes), says Mohanraj. 

One unique ingredient used in Travancore preparations is 'Ball Tamarind', which give them a distinct flavour.   "Ball tamarind is a fruit widely used in Kerala in different recipes to get the sour flavour.It is dried in sun till it becomes black and tough. Traditionally, ball tamarind is used in Travancore cuisine mainly in seafood preparations. The popular recipe from this cuisine to use ball tamarind is the fish curry," he says.   

It is interesting how certain key ingredients, for instance coconut, are used in different ways across the country, says Chopra.   "Because South India is mostly along the coastline, coconuts are abundantly available and happen to be a part of their staple diet, right from coconut milk to coconut oil. North India, on the other hand, uses coconut in a dried form to make coconut laddoos or doda barfi," he says.   

Mohanraj says the cuisine of Kerala as a whole, when compared to the other cuisines of India, is a very simple with locally available resources and fresh ingredients. "Being the land of coconuts, Kerala cuisine is majorly based on the fresh coconut oil, which itself makes the cuisine special," he says.   

Kerala cuisine is outstanding because of its unique ways of using fruits and vegetables in its dishes like Kappa Puzhukku (curried tapioca), Pineapple Pulissery (a tempered yoghurt curry with pineapple), Chakka Kuru Peralan (jack fruit seeds cooked in a tangy onion and tomato mixture), he says.   

"In the present times where people are more into fast foods, the Travancore cuisine does not fail to keep up its promise to the real foodies who always wants to have the taste of local delicacies," he says. According to Dr V Venu, the principal secretary, tourism, Kerala government, the state attracts cultural tourists all over, not limited to the erstwhile Travancore, due to its syncretic culture, diversity of communities and faiths and variety of celebrations, festivals and performing arts.   

"The flavours of the villages of central Kerala, particularly Kuttanad cuisine (perhaps what you refer to as Travancore cuisine), have become very popular with backwater tourists. This cuisine is served on board houseboats, and in restaurants and toddy shops in the countryside," says Dr Venu.   

"Special dishes of the Syrian Christian community also have become very popular of late. It is perhaps the unique preparations and subtle flavouring that makes the cuisine so attractive," he adds. As per the state's economic review of 2016, the arrival of domestic tourists to Kerala marked an annual growth rate of 6.59 per cent, going up from 11.69 million in 2014 to 12.46 million in 2015.   

The share of the state in the national pie of foreign tourist arrivals accounted for 12.2 per cent in 2015, it says.   "In each region of Kerala, there are certain elements that become an integral part of the tourism experience. An example for this is the Moplah (Muslims of the Malabar region) cuisine of north Kerala. In a similar way, the southern cuisine finds a special place in the overall tourism experience in the south," says Venu. PTI