When you think of South India, what sort of images spring to mind? Ribbons of sandy shores winding their way along the coast? Swaying coconut palms, silhouetted against a cornflower sky? Lush, tropical vegetation where a host of exotic fruit and vegetables thrive?
If this is the sort of scene you picture, you are probably thinking of the Malabar Coast. This stretch of narrow coastline works its way up India’s south-western shore, beginning at the very tip of India’s tear-drop shaped south coast and ending just shy of Goa. The wide expanse of the Arabian Sea stretches out to the west – the Malabar Coast has been an important trading area, due to the various port cities dotted along its entirety, for thousands of years.
The picturesque vistas of this region of India have attracted travellers and spiritualists since the sixties when the first hippies chose to settle on these golden shores. Nowadays, the Malabar Coast is a thriving tourist region where glassy rice paddies, secret beaches, traditional villages and riverboat cruises through the backwaters provide visitors with a chance to experience the slow, rhythmic life of authentic India.
Of course, this being India, one of the biggest draws of this region is the mouth-watering cuisine on offer. As might be expected, due to the close proximity of the sea, seafood plays an integral role in the diet of the Malabar Coast population. However, there are also a wide range of vegetarian dishes to sample, showcasing all the distinctive Indian flavours of the south. Liberal usage of coconut, curry leaves and mustard seeds mark the cuisine of these states and, despite absorbing the influence from a myriad of cultures that have settled in India and called this region home, the local cuisine remains authentic – bursting with all the spices and seasonal produce of this fertile area.
In comparison to the rich, heavy curries and tandoori breads favoured by many of the northern states, (the meals that were amongst the first to make their way onto the Anglicised curry house menu), the cuisine of the Malabar Coast is lighter and focuses on rice, thinner gravies and plenty of chilli and coconut. Expect fillets of fish fried with spices, ginger, garlic, onions and tomatoes in coconut oil. The dish is immersed in creamy coconut milk and left to simmer, blending sweetness with sour notes in a heavenly seafood brew. Breads such as appam, made with rice flour, are used to mop up the excess gravy that the rice has failed to soak up.
The biryani is another speciality of the region, cooked with fish or – in the case of the Muslim population – with mutton, beef or chicken. Expertly spiced (even a garam masala can contain eight difference spices), biryanis make use of a wide range of local ingredients and are often garnished with dried fruit and cashews. Additionally, the Malabar Coast is famous for the crispy rice pancakes known as dosas, filled with a wide range of delectable vegetables, spicy sambar, or more often than not with a selection of chutneys and pickles.
For dessert, exotic fruits like pineapple, mango and watermelon make a thirst-quenching pudding – or for something a little more sinful, jaggery sweetens up a range of decadent desserts from halwa to kheer.