The South Indian state of Kerala may be home to a wide variety of creamy, coconut-infused curries, but that isn’t to say that the Keralan cooks don’t enjoy a little bit of hot and spicy home cooking from time to time.
In fact, chillies are considered to be an essential element of the Keralan store cupboard. The colourful varieties incorporated into the Keralan menu range from the super small yet super spicy birdseyechilli (consume with caution) to the dried, red byadgi chilli, an aromatic version which doesn’t pack too much heat.
South Indian cuisine, just like the cuisine of the northern states, has been shaped by a diverse mixture of cultures and ethnicities that have brought their recipes and cooking techniques to Kerala. The state plays host to a variety of cultural groups including Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews, all with their own cooking traditions which have had a significant impact on the daily cuisine of Kerala. For example, Hindus tend to follow a predominantly vegetarian diet whilst Muslims are forbidden from eating pork. As a result, the cuisine of Kerala offers a range of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes that’s sure to delight the Indian foodie.
However, the love for chillies seems to surpass any cultural divides and the traditional dishes of Kerala feature several different types of chillies for flavour and bite. It takes a whole lot of skill to understand the nature of the different varieties in order to not accidentally over-heat a dish or lose too much spice. A common rule of thumb when it comes to chillies is that the heat is contained in the seeds – simply scoop these out to significantly reduce the fire.
One of the best-loved Keralan delicacies, famed for its use of hot, dried, red chillies, is Keralan chilli chicken. The meat is prepared with a curry paste of ginger, garlic, shallots and whole chillies along with an assortment of spices such as turmeric and the aromatic curry leaves which bring many a South Indian curry to life.
However, chillies don’t always take centre stage in Keralan cooking. Quite often they play a minor yet nonetheless integral role in the show. A traditional Keralan feast is known as a sadya. The sadya consists of an assortment of dishes, served in a particular order, and one of the key components is the vegetarian preparation known as thoran. This dry curry concoction utilises cabbage as the main ingredient, but the spicy chillies complement the vegetable perfectly. It is served as part of the sadya along with a variety of other vegetarian specialities, pickles, rice and dal.
Chillies also work particularly well with the aforementioned coconut, Kerala’s other favourite ingredient. Coconut provides a mild and creamy respite from the heat of hot chillies and blends beautifully when mixed into a curry with a selection of masalas.
There’s no doubt about it, spicy food is something of an acquired taste. However, you will find that the more frequently you try it, the more you will crave it. A visit to one of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants will offer a range of dishes ranging from mild to hot – ask the staff for their recommendations or push the boat out and challenge yourself to try something new.