The delectable erachi olarthiyathu, kudampuliyitta fish curry, fish polichathu, and pazham nanachathu — the names may sound like tongue twisters, but the dishes are no doubt mouthwatering. From the piquant beef fry to signature seafood specials, the list of dishes in Kerala’s Syrian Christian cuisine is exhaustive.
The origin of the Syrian Christian culinary heritage harks back to the influences of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, all of whom left indelible marks on local food habits. The Syrian Christians of central Kerala absorbed the foreign influences and integrated them with indigenous food so well that a cuisine with an identity of its own emerged.
Take for instance, the spongy, laced appam, a signature breakfast dish. Appams are crispy, bowl-shaped pancakes made from a batter of fermented rice flour, sometimes mixed with coconut milk, palm toddy, and a little sugar. Some historians believe that appams came from the Dutch pancake. Often paired with appam is the hugely popular stew, colloquially known as ishtew, possibly of British origin. Vegetable stew (gluten-free and vegan) is a lightly spiced, delicate, aromatic curry made with assorted vegetables, coconut milk, and spices.
Several other dishes in the Syrian Christian cuisine speak of European influences. Cutlets came from the British, and soup from Portuguese. Puttu is said to have been created by the Portuguese. Originally cooked in bamboo stems, puttu is now made in cylindrical steel steamers, thus giving it its unique shape. The dish is believed to have first travelled to Sri Lanka before coming to Kerala. As for moilee, there’s a chance that it may have originally been Malaya, the country from where the idea of cooking fish in coconut milk was derived.
Appam and stew / Kappa Chakka Kandhari
Most Syrian Christian dishes are distinguished by the use of coconut — whether fresh, ground, roasted, or as coconut milk, which gives a rich, creamy consistency to the gravy. Freshly ground spices and herbs form other important ingredients that enhance the taste of the dishes. A wide array of non-vegetarian dishes that make full use of fish, chicken, mutton, beef, pork, and duck, play a predominant part in the cuisine. Vegetarian dishes using tapioca, breadfruit, yam, jackfruit, and Chinese potatoes also form part of the Syrian Christian menu.
The use of kappa (tapioca) is typical of Syrian Christian cuisine. Starchy, full of carbohydrates, and a source of instant energy, kappa is a humble dish, yet incredibly satisfying, particularly when paired with sauteed pork, or kudampuliyitta fish curry, a fiery red dish. Kudampuli or Malabar tamarind, a souring agent with therapeutic qualities, is widely used in Kerala cooking. Another dish popular with the Syrian Christians is the pidi (tiny rice dumplings cooked in coconut milk) served with country-style chicken curry.
Restaurants specialising in Syrian Christian cuisine have become huge hits outside Kerala too. With branches in Chennai and Bengaluru, Kappa Chakka Kandhari (KCK) is one such restaurant offering a wide variety of delectable dishes. There’s also Podi & Spice restaurant in Bengaluru’s Bangalore International Centre, started by Tresa Francis, a lawyer turned-food entrepreneur who specialises in authentic Syrian Christian cuisine.
Pidi and kozhi curry / Kappa Chakka Kandhari
Chef Regi Mathew, co-owner of KCK, lists the inviting combinations on offer at his restaurant: “Appam and stew, pidi and kozhi curry, duck mappas and vattayappam, and kappa and kudampuliyitta fish curry are some examples of delicacies from Syrian Christians cuisine that are offered at KCK. Among the meat dishes, probably the most famous would be the beef fry or the erachi olarthiyathu, which is spicy and fried with coconut pieces.”
Regi says that the prawn kizhi, which draws inspiration from the prawn peera but with a twist, is another popular dish. “Prawn kizhi evokes the goodness of grated coconut but takes things one step further — steaming the prawns in banana leaf imparts a distinctive flavour to the prawn. Paired with sun-dried and smoked kudampuli, this dish is all about the heat and smokiness of spice and the sourness of the puli,” he adds.
Regi is a champion of local flavours and has done extensive research on Kerala cuisine. He explains the regional differences in the cooking of the spongy and sweet steamed rice cake called vattayappam: “It has two variations — what you find in Kottayam is eaten as a snack, while in the Thrissur region, it is eaten as a breakfast dish along with a variety of side dishes. The Kottayam version of vattayappam is sweeter, often garnished with raisins, and is thick and porous as it is made with ground coconut, rice, sugar and fermented with toddy or yeast and then steamed. The Thrissur version is smooth, soft, and spongy, as it is made with a paste of coconut or coconut milk. Vattayappam as a main course for breakfast is paired with moderately-spiced side dishes like duck mappas, fish moilee, chicken curry, mutton stew, or vegetable stew.”
Prawn kizhi / Kappa Chakka Kandhari
Pazham nanachathu is hands-down the house favourite. It is made with surplus ripe bananas that are sun-dried and mixed with palm toddy reduced over several hours on wood fire to make paani, an amber-hued liquid with the consistency of honey. Together with fresh coconut, this dessert is a winning combination of textures and flavours. If you have cravings for sweet dishes, try kumbil appam (jackfruit and rice flour mixed with jaggery, and wrapped in banana or edana leaves), elayada (steamed rice cakes stuffed with coconut gratings and jaggery), or the avilosunda (a round snack made with fried rice flour).
Tresa Francis, who runs Podi & Spice in Bengaluru, holds the Syrian Christian culinary specialities close to her heart. The menu at her restaurant range from the predictable appam and stew to more exciting fare like seer fish in a delicately spiced gravy, beef cutlets, ghee rice and chicken curry, and tender coconut pudding as dessert. Tresa says that appam and stew, beef and porotta, Alleppey fish curry, kachiya moru, nadan chicken curry, beef roast, chicken roast, beef cutlet, and prawns mango curry are big hits with her customers.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several national publications besides organising seminars and photo exhibitions. Her writings span a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books.