Sunday, January 20, 2008

My Introduction to Kerala

This has got to be the fifth or sixth vegetable stew post for RCI-Kerala, hosted by Jyothsna of Curry Bazaar. This was also one dish that wasn’t dished out to us at our hostel mess, run by a Malayali chef and his sons and nephews and staffed by a number of assistants whom we addressed as Chechi (older sister).

If you were from Kerala, or spoke Malayalam, you would be sure to win the Chechis’ favour – you could come away with an extra papad, and on the weekly 'sweet day', you could be rewarded with an extra ‘apple cake’ – these were restricted to one per student, unlike the sambar and rasam which we could have any amount of but didn’t really want.

My introduction to Kerala and its food was largely at this hostel. In a college where Kottayam was called The Homeland and our Malayali friends introduced us to many treats from their tuck boxes, I first heard of aappam. “Think of it as an idli with frill,” said my roommate from Changanachery. Then there was the meat pickle which only later I found out was beef and not mutton, the diamond cuts, the prawn and fish pickles, a novelty to me, and the rose cookies flavoured with coconut milk. Evening tea once in a while featured a cold, grey pancake with bits of coconut in it. To someone who was not exposed to Kerala food, it was a mildly sugary ootappam!

The main meals, however, did not feature much Kerala food. I don’t remember if the rice was of the parboiled variety but it was the simplest of food, and also the most flavourless. (I came to appreciate its goodness only after I moved to another hostel which offered much tastier food but also gave me a month or two of tummy trouble.)

I don’t even remember if we got avial in that mess, the first one. What we did get was the whole green gram curry. Or a very dry sauté, as it was made there. I would be completely clueless as to the method of eating it - in general, people from Andhra don't treat vegetables, even dry preparations, as side dishes for sambar rice or rasam rice. They are eaten mixed with the rice, usually with some ghee. I used to think it was something the chef would rustle up every week when he fell short of vegetables at the right price; little did I know it was a traditional item. We also used to get a few vegetable preparations that were spectacularly unidentifiable and undistinguishable in looks and taste to a person such as I who had had no exposure to cooking and kitchens – I ate them for three years thinking they were such-and-such but they turned out to be something else totally.

I do have that mess to thank for a good habit, though – the lack of choice made me eat whatever was available and now I don’t dislike any vegetable.

The stew, however, is a different story. I only came across it much later in a book on Kerala cooking but didn’t really probe. I don’t remember where I first tasted it, or when I had my first aappam. Friends of ours invited us for lunch, and something like this featured in the menu. They had a nifty little tool which helped them cut the carrots and potatoes into wavy shapes, and the stew, with a peppercorn or two peeking through, dotted with orange and pale yellow and green from the beans has been one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever seen.

Here we go then, from memories to now:

Carrots, 1-inch pieces: 100 gm
Potato, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces: 150 gm
French beans: 6-7, cut into 1-inch pieces
Onion – 1, sliced
Green chilli – 1, sliced
Ginger – ¼ inch, peeled and chopped
Coconut milk – 1 pack of 200 ml
Crushed pepper – 1 tsp

Green cardamom – 2
Cinnamon – ½ inch
Cloves - 2
Curry leaves - 4-5

Oil (I used coconut) – 1 tsp
Salt – to taste

Boil the vegetables till they are tender – they should hold their shape and not get squashed. (I used a pressure cooker, put about half a cup of water, and let it hiss once.)

Heat the oil in a pan, sauté the cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.

Add the onions, ginger, curry leaves and the green chilli, sauté till onion is transparent.

Now add the vegetables and salt. Mix gently.

Reduce the heat to the minimum. Pour in the coconut milk and heat for a minute or two. Add the crushed pepper, remove from fire.

I’m not sure if this is the way it’s made traditionally, this is made from the memory of a recipe, but it tasted very similar to what I have had in Kerala homes and restaurants.


  1. I wonder why they call it a Mess! :)

  2. Hi Sra,

    I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence -- if I had eaten in your hostel I would have traded my apple cake for even more 'limitless' sambhar ;)

    The vegetable stew looks delicious. That, and I can see lots of other goodies I have to catch up on here! :)

  3. You write so well.


  4. Hostel is not perhaps the ideal place to get introduced to a great cuisine, but am sure you enjoyed the food served outside hostel....and agree 100% on ur conclusion, hostel food teaches you to eat anything edible!!

  5. Hey Sra, loved your decsription about your hostel :). The stew looks really creamy, where are the appams :-D. The first description of appams i heard was "idli in the center and dosa on the periphery" :-D. (Goes back to look at the stew).

  6. hey the hostel mess, the chechi et al. sound vey familiar....if i'm right then we are from the same college :)))

  7. Thanks Sra!! Hey, I only now remembered this could have featured as my entry to your grindless gravy event!! Btw, you are the only one to correctly spell it as aapam and not appam! :)

  8. oh i love stew so much. dont make it much myself cuz of the trouble it takes to make the coconut milk! looks lovely :)

  9. Sig, yes, should research that!
    Linda, it wasn't even an apple cake - it looked like a blob of something dark - never knew why it was called that - it was more like a ball.
    Mamatha, thank you v much
    Mishmash, oh, I was a great one for eating out, still am
    Musy, thanks, that's a good description too
    Rachel, very likely, very likely
    Jyothsna, I try to be accurate with spellings, thanks. One of my many rules for my event which put people off was no dunking in coconut milk, which is what this dish is ;)
    Nags, unless you are particular about coconut milk, get a packet from the market!

  10. Looks delicious. This is one of the simpler Kerala preparations.
    Needless to say, I make this often:-)

  11. I read it as Aapam too in the book and then I saw many Appams in other blogs, so I spelled it the most popular way,I will correct!:P
    Veg stew looks great and sounds very aromatic too. Great post with all the links as well, helps a lot to understand!:)
    Happy Monday to ya.

  12. Appu nair's mess by any chance?

  13. I don't have an appa kadai. But I will make this even I have to serve with dosa.

  14. mess is an approriate name for the mess they make out of yummy dishes!
    hostel definitely inculcated a love for better food in me.
    As for the stew, the recipe is very accurate.. my only difference is that i add the veggies to the sauted spices and let it cook there in water or second milk of coconut.

  15. yummy recipe sra and nice post about hostel mess

  16. sra..looks so good..i think it will taste nice with pulav too...and what u said about the curries is true..actually one of my friends an andhrite when he went to chennai for a few months was a little surprized too..that tamilians take the sabji as sides and not as the main dishes..he came and told me as if it was huge can imagine the teasing he got from me ;)

  17. stew looks so creamy :)

  18. The stew reminds me of the side dish served in saravana bhavan.. looks the same. Goes into my never have-time-to-do list of to-dos'

    Jolly good nostalgia trip..

  19. Thats such a fun read Sra. I have similar experiences with my college mess. It was just horrible.

  20. TBC, thank you. I'm going to make this more often too!
    Asha, thank you. You must have noticed now English/local word spellings in English change from State to State here!
    Rachel, yes. :)
    Suganya, I'm no expert but I think a thick dosa will be better than a thin one.
    Mallugirl, yes, that's what I remember, but I somehow dislike boiling veggies in the pan so I took this way out.
    Sagari, thank you.
    Rajitha, hi, yesterday we tried it with pulav, it was good. It can be a culture shock, you know. :)
    Richa, it's just the coconut milk. It gets creamier after sitting in the fridge
    Revathi, nostalgia unabashedly! I visited my college recently after many years and was overcome by tidal waves of it!
    Shilpa, the other hostel, where I did my MA gave us lovely stuff - noodles and sauce for breakfast, veg palav on Sundays, don't remember any sweets though!

  21. There's something about replicating a recipe from memory that feels like an act of sorcery. Thanks for taking us back to your school days, Sra. It's a very tasty - and pretty - trip.

  22. ah!!! we r talking of messy mess food;) i dont think any mess food should be considered as food in first place let alone to be differenciated as regional cuisine... he he he...
    love veg stew. we just had them yest with steaming sona massuri rice:)

  23. Wow Sra, this looks great! Agree with you on hostel food:)

  24. I actually have all of those ingredients in my kitchen right. So, no excuse not to try this wonderfully warming, delicious recipe!

  25. I went to hostel in Pune and was fed up eating chawli everyday, but cannot forget those fluffly and soft rotis... This stew looks so creamy, will have to try this for sure, tx Sra!

  26. a chechi ruled the hostel I stayed and yeah if you knew malyalam you would get omlet with the rice or else you can expect it when it is time to wash your hands. Brings back memories!

  27. Susan, thank you. An act of sorcery, that's a new perspective. :)
    Sia, ha ha - your comments always make me laugh
    Mandira, you were in hostel too? the only hostel where i liked the food, it made me ill, initially.
    Susan, it's a really velvety affair, do try it.
    Hi Padma, good rotis in any mess or canteen are really rare, you were lucky!
    Shankari, ah, the power of the chechis, real characters, weren't they?

  28. stew looks so perfect and inviting....yeah hostel made me eat all those things and like them as well, which i hated to eat at home...nice post

  29. I do have that mess to thank for a good habit, though – the lack of choice made me eat whatever was available and now I don’t dislike any vegetable. - you see, something good came out of it. :)

  30. is istu.

    and i don't know who coined this term "mess" for canteen. sounds really stupid.

  31. Perfect stew!
    I didn't get a chance to live in the hostel..:)

  32. Bhags, thank you.
    Cynthia, yes, it did a lot of good.
    Bee, I'm still searching for the origin of mess.
    Seena, thanks. Hostel's an experience, can be good and bad.

  33. i tried ur beans and lentils recipe :) check it out on my blog when you have time :)

  34. Hey Loved your recipe, will surely try it. But it was your description of the hostel mess, chechis that got me just like Rachel. Think I am from the same college as well.


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