In May, 1498, when Vasco da Gama’s fleet arrived in Calicut, it was the epicenter of the global spice trade; it was a place for spice production as well as distribution. These spices that came down from the Western Ghats included ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon, but the most valuable was pepper. Pepper, whose growth and harvest was tied to the monsoons, was to Kerala, what oil is to Saudi Arabia. The spices of Kerala did not owe their worldwide popularity to the Portuguese; an obscure Sanskrit name for pepper was yavanesta, which meant, “The passion of the Greeks” and before them came the Romans. From 1000 – 1500 CE, the Indian Ocean spice network was buzzing with Arabs, Tunisians, Italians, Chinese, Jews, Maghribi and Karimi traders and their agents.
While these spices are now used in various Indian cuisines, what makes the Kerala cuisine unique is the delicious base of coconut either as fresh ground, sliced, grated or as coconut milk. Even though spices are abundant in the region, it is the taste of coconut that will overwhelm you in most Kerala dishes. Besides this, the dishes are cooked in coconut oil which adds a distinct taste (We also apply copious amounts of coconut oil on our hair to reflect the tropical sun).
One of the typical dishes is called Aviyal which essentially is a medley of various vegetables. Colloquially, the word is used in conversation to mean things are messed up. It was quite hard to find the history of this dish and we are simply left with two legends of which one dates to the era of Mahabharata. Apparently, when Bhima was serving as the chef of King Virata, there were some unexpected guests. Improvising quickly, he chopped all the available vegetables, added some coconut and voila, the problem was solved. There is another version which mentions that the dish was invented in the kitchens of the Travancore Royal Family when the chef was faced with a similar situation.
I am not a chef and so this recipe is adapted from household records and few books. One of the nice things is that it allows for improvisation; almost any vegetable is acceptable. Also, it is light on spices and relies on coconut to give the taste.
- 5 oz yam
- 5 oz winter melon
- 2 raw green plantains
- 2 drumsticks
- 1 carrot
- 4-5 beans
- 1 potato (small)
- salt to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/4 cup coconut oil
- few curry leaves
- 4-5 green chillies
- 1/2 cup yogurt
- 1/2 coconut – grated
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- Wash and peel all the vegetables. Chop them lengthwise
- Put them in a heavy bottom kadai with the yam, plantains and winter melon at the bottom and others at the top. Add turmeric and salt. Also add water and cover to cook.
- The vegetables should not be overcooked so that they become mushy.
- Make a paste of grated coconut, cumin and green chillies with just enough water.
- Add this paste to the cooked vegetables along with the yogurt. Make sure that no vegetable is spared of the paste.
- Finally add coconut oil and few curry leaves.
- You are done. This can be eaten as a side dish along with rice.
Jayakrishnan blogs about Indian history at varnam.nationalinterest.in
(Image Courtesy – http://www.flickr.com/photos/kamekame/6476773011/)