Remembrance of Kerala Repasts: Thrissur’s culinary delights
By Ravi Shankar*
Food is an important aspect of the culture of a place. Doctors should be knowledgeable about the rich traditions which have developed around food. As a trainee in Kerala, the author reveled in the rich and varied local cuisine. May his memories whet your appetite and perhaps you’ll recall some long dormant gustatory delights of your yesteryears.
I carefully opened the banana leaf in which the ‘ada’ was wrapped. The delicate aroma of freshly steamed coconut and jaggery with a hint of clove and cardamom wafted to my nostrils. Each bite was a poem, a symphony of flavours. Ada/adai or ela ada is a Kerala delicacy consisting of rice with sweet fillings encased in a dough made of rice flour wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Jaggery or condensed jackfruit juice is used to provide sweetness. Mani’s café is a small restaurant near the Swapna cinema theatre in Thrissur, Kerala. The unassuming place makes great adas and ‘vadas’. Vada is a round doughnut made of black gram, coconut and spices. Crispy and hot they are a perennial favorite and go wonderfully with coconut chutney. Sambar (the south Indian lentil and vegetable stew) also blends well with steaming vadas.
Thrissur (Thrissivaperur) is a temple town in the Southern Indian state of Kerala and the headquarters of Thrissur district. The town is known as the cultural capital of Kerala and transports me back to my medical school undergraduate days. Our college (Government Medical College, Thrissur) was located around 14 kilometers (8 miles) from the town in a vast, sprawling campus that had previously been the TB sanatorium. As students we used to visit the town for our hospital posting, entertainment and shopping. Having good food was another of our objectives.
The Sree Radhakrishna Coffee Club was an old-fashioned traditional restaurant and my favorite place for upma. A traditionally dressed proprietor presided over the place. The thing I remember clearly about him is hypertrichosis. Upma is a thick porridge made from coarse rice flour or dry roasted semolina. The place served delicious upma which was very popular with their regular, loyal customers. Filter coffee served in small steel cups was heavenly. The drink is made by mixing boiled and frothed milk with the infusion obtained through percolation brewing of finely ground coffee powder in a traditional filter. I watched a recent video about this restaurant. The place has been upgraded and their masala dosas (a south Indian rice pancake made from fermented batter) are also very popular. Our favorite place for dosas and masala dosas was Hotel Bharat which opened in the late 1980s. The spacious vegetarian restaurant serves a variety of dishes. In India the terms, hotel and restaurant are often used interchangeably. Their north Indian dishes are popular during dinner. Their masala dosa is triangular and filled with spicy yellow potato fillings. You can taste the honest goodness of turmeric and green chili. They also made a very crisp vada which melted in the mouth. Vada was always an expensive delicacy which made a dent in our student allowance. During my recent visit to Thrissur I visited Bharat Hotel and the place continues to be crowded. The restaurant is now airconditioned. During the last three decades living standards have improved substantially in Kerala.
The Jaya Palace Hotel was our favorite for non-vegetarian dishes. They were known for their Kerala parotta and beef dishes. The parotta is a layered flat bread made from maida flour. Their beef fry was spicy and well roasted with chunks of coconut. They also served a spicy and thick chicken curry which was my favorite. The curry blended well with crisp parottas and with chapatis (an unleavened Indian bread). The rich taste of coconut blended well with the chillies and other spices. The heat made you sweat and cooled you down. There were also food carts called ‘thattukada’ which served Kerala delicacies. One of my all-time favorites is pazhampori. Ripe bananas are coated in a batter and deep fried. The sweet bananas melt in your mouth and burst into song. Pazham narichatu is a similar delicacy from the Malabar region of north Kerala. Bananas are stuffed with a filling of coconut, jaggery or refined sugar with spices and fried. Pazham narichatu is a sweet piece of heaven.
The hostel mess also occasionally served some memorable food. Crisp dosas were a morning delicacy. This was difficult to get as dosas quickly become dry and cold and the mess cook was always busy. We also were rushed and could not wait for hot dosas to be prepared. Once a month we used to have a mess feast which was a long-anticipated mouth-watering event. The highlight for me was the biryani made using long grain scented rice. The fresh lime juice was another great hit with everyone going in for third and fourth helpings. The other favorite was liver fry served as an “extra’’ when there was chicken served in the mess. The liver pieces were fried along with egg in a rich mixture of dark spices and coconut. Always first rate.
Nearly every evening I used to go to a nearby tea shop along with my roommates, Kunjimoideen and John. The place was run by an old couple. Unniappam was the house specialty. Wikipedia mentions that unniappam is a small round snack made from rice, jaggery, banana, roasted coconut pieces, roasted sesame seeds, clarified butter and cardamom powder and is deep fried in oil. They also used to serve lunch occasionally. Lunch was on a banana leaf as is traditional in Kerala. Rice, vegetables, papadam (a crisp round flat bread fried in oil), inji pulli (a perfect blend of ginger, green chilli, tamarind and jaggery) were served. They also served sardine curry made in Kerala style with a rich base of coconut. Sardines were also served fried in a rich coating of chilli and various spices in coconut oil. Absolutely amazing!
Neyu choru (ghee rice) was another delicacy which is not easy to obtain commercially those days. Traditionally made from Jeerakasala rice from the Malabar region they were the highlight of Muslim wedding feasts usually served with mutton curry. We waited for our Muslim batchmates to invite us to their wedding feasts. We ate well and enjoyed our food.
Food is an important part of lifestyle and plays a vital role in maintaining and preserving health. Wrong dietary habits can predispose to diseases. I end with my recollection of what we used to call a ‘fractional test meal’ which was sometimes served for breakfast. Looked deceptively simple. Two hard boiled eggs, one raw ripe plantain and one steamed plantain along with a glass of milk with sugar. Simple food but surprisingly I often found it tasty and enjoyed the test meal. Those were our days. Today as a middle-aged guy I remember the words of the romantic poet, Lord Byron, “The days of our youth are the days of our glory”.
* Author Bio: Dr. Shankar is a medical educator and a clinical pharmacologist with a keen interest in small group learning, the health humanities, rational use of medicines and pharmaco-vigilance. He is a creative writer, hiker and photographer. He has facilitated student learning in different medical schools in Nepal and the Caribbean. He is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education, International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is a research adviser at the Oceania University of Medicine, Apia, Samoa. You may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org