Besides rice and tapioca which are the staple for many, Kerala thrives on meat and traditional food. And following age-old traditions of lighting fire and making dishes in big pots and pans in an open ground or courtyard, are various tribes of Kerala. It’s all about traditional cooking in tribal villages using roots, edible portions of a plant obtained from the surrounding forest and a dash of Kerala tribal touch, running in families for generations.
The food of the wild comprises of preparations involving vegetable roots, plants, climbers, leaves, wild mushrooms, crabs, bamboo shoot and meat. The tribal women cook food in earthen pots and pans. They light up a fire in the open space and cook the dish in the pot.
There are various tribes in Kerala, each with a different style of living and cooking. For instance, the Mullu Kuruma tribe of Wayanad uses a lot of greens and leaves in their preparations. On the other hand, there is the Kurichiya tribe of Kannur and Wayanad regions who are also known as Hill Brahmins. They are engaged in agriculture and hunting of birds and wild animals, and cook together in a common kitchen for several families living nearby. Here are five simple dishes from some of these communities.
This could be called by many names, including chicken grill or plantain chicken. Its method of preparation is rather unique. No, fancy grills and griddles are not used for grilling the chicken. Instead, basic spices are rubbed all over the chicken with slits to let them seep in. By basic, we mean the usual powders like turmeric, chilli, coriander, cumin and pepper. The juicy chunks coated with mild spices are then wrapped in plantain leaves to secure the spices in place and prevent them from escaping the tender meat. Simultaneously, charcoal is lit and when it turns hot, the chicken wrapped in plantain is placed on the hot charcoal for the perfect grill. Open the leaves to enjoy the aromatic pieces of succulent chicken, the tribal way.
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This is an exotic dish of prawn curry. Coastal areas of Kerala offer the best seafood and the tribes sure know how to add some zesty flavours to any dish. They use kokum fruit pulp in its preparation. Water is heated in an earthen pot and brought to boil. To this, ginger garlic paste along with other spices are added. This is where kokum comes into picture. It is added to the pot. The prawns are cooked in coconut oil and then added to the pot. A seasoning of fired crispy curry leaves and mustard seeds, serves as the perfect garnish. The tasty prawn curry infused with kokum, can be had either with roti or steamed rice.
Njandu means crab. This delectable dish is made using fresh crabs in broad earthen vessels. The wood is lit up and left to heat while the crabs are cleaned and steamed. They are then dressed with minimal spices. The trick of the taste is in hand pounding whole spices such as pepper, chillies, garlic and the rest before adding coconut oil. The taste and smell that diffuses into the crab through these whole spices is remarkable. Very little water is added to the vessel to which crabs and spices are added. It is then cooked in a low flame till the water is nearly absorbed. The crabs are then left in the hot pot for the remaining water to evaporate. They are served hot and can be had as a snack, unless you are a fan of parathas and rotis.
For a change, let’s talk about some greens. We are talking about pantithal leaves here, available locally at many vendor stalls. These fresh leaves are finely chopped and kept aside. Minimal amount of coconut oil is heated in an earthen vessel placed on wood fire. Once the oil is hot, spices and cumin seeds, mustard seeds and green chillies are added and stirred. Meanwhile tamarind is made into a liquidy pulp and kept aside. The leaves by themselves are quite rich in flavour. They are added to the pot and covered with a lid for a while. In order to give it a tangy twist, the diluted tamarind pulp is added to the leaves and stirred. Once the water leaves the vessel, the dish is ready to be consumed hot, often as an accompaniment to the main course.
Puzha Meen curry
This literally translates to river fish curry. As the name suggests, it is a spicy red curry that uses fish from the river. A perfect concoction of chillies and spices imparts a characteristic flavour to the fish. In this case, water is retained to a large extend to form a tangy red curry comprising of chillies and kokum. It can be noticed that the tribal cuisine is all about its vessels, use of natural fuel and method of preparation. Similarly, this fish curry too is prepared in exotic pots that are kept on wood fire or hot charcoal. It can be eaten with rice, however, most of you might prefer boiled tapioca as an accompaniment to enhance the flavour.
The increasing popularity of the cuisine has made it to the tables of many restaurants and hotels of Kerala’s cities as well. Each one adopts its own style of cooking and presenting the dishes in the most authentic way possible. For now, we have discussed five, but there are many more.
Aditi Shukla is a blogger, content writer and editor, and an avid traveller, foodie and music fanatic. She runs the blog Lyf&Spice to share her travel experiences and gourmet journeys.
Note: Kurichiya tribe was earlier wrongly identified as Malayali Brahmins, instead of Hill Brahmins, this has been corrected.