Whenever people ask me if I have a favourite cuisine or a favourite dish, I always say that I don’t because, frankly, there is so much good food out there that it is hard to choose.
I’m reluctant also to say if I have a favourite among the many regional cuisines of India. But if you hold a gun to my head, then I will probably concede that – at least in my opinion – the greatest Indian cuisine is the food of Kerala.
Why Kerala? Well, partly because it is a personal preference. I just love the food. But there are also good rational reasons for my choice.
First of all, Malayali food is one of the few Indian cuisines that covers everything. There is terrific fish as you would expect from a coastal state. But the meat and poultry dishes are great too. How many other states can boast a good recipe for duck along with a brilliant one for crab? And then, there’s the outstanding vegetarian food. (Though frankly, Malayalis tend to get a little carried away with their drumsticks… And you have to be one of God’s own people to love tapioca as much as they do).
Secondly, Kerala is a synthesis of three of the greatest religions in the subcontinent – Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – and the cuisine reflects that. The Moplah cuisine of the Malabar Muslims has an Arab flavour, borrowed from the traders who regularly visited the region. The Syrian Christians are among the world’s oldest Christians (legend has it that they were converted by St Thomas, the apostle who was the Doubting Thomas of the Bible). So there were Christians in Kerala when many people in Europe were still living on trees. Syrian Christian cuisine is rich and varied and uses pork, beef and other ingredients you don’t always find in other Indian cuisines.
And the Hindu Malayali food is delicious, full of great vegetarian dishes that are distinguished by their lightness and subtlety.
Thirdly, it is the spices. Indian food is not only about the quality of the ingredients (as Western cuisine is); it is about combining the flavours of the spices. And Kerala is the spice garden of India. It has the most wonderful, fragrant spices and the food of all three communities – Muslim, Hindu and Christian – is distinguished by the skill with which spices are used.
When I first got into Malayali food in the 1980s, it was only available in South India and especially in Kerala itself. Because the cuisine is so complex, it revealed its secrets slowly. Even now, each time I try a new dish from Kerala, I am surprised by the dexterity with which meats, vegetables and spices have been cooked.
The mark of a great cuisine, I always think, is that the food that ordinary people eat – not just the banquet and party food made by great cooks – is interesting and memorable. My favourite Kerala dishes have always been the simplest ones.
Take Egg Roast. It is not, as you might imagine, a roasted egg. It is, in fact, a dish in which hard-boiled eggs are cooked in a wet masala. I first tried it for breakfast in the 1980s in Cochin. And now, I am addicted to it.
Why is it called a roast when it is actually a dry-ish curry? Nobody I spoke to seemed to know. One theory is that the egg is meant to be roasted, which makes no sense to me.
And where is it from? I asked Arun Kumar TR, the filmmaker-turned-chef who has now reinvigorated the excellent Zambar chain. Arun said that every little dhaba and restaurant in the Fort Cochin area served it. Perhaps, it was a Christian dish.
I checked Lathika George’s The Suriani Kitchen, a wonderful cookbook, full of Syrian Christian recipes and found that she had claimed it for her community. Like Arun, George also regards it as a dhaba dish, and provides a recipe.
She writes: “Perfectly browned onions are the base of this slowly stir-fried dish. This is a favourite in little tea shops and truck drivers’ haunts all over Kerala, usually served with parota or appams. Bakeries sometimes stuff the spiced eggs into triangles of flaky pastry and sell them as egg puffs…”
So is it really a Syrian Christian dish? I asked the great Ananda Solomon, who is from Mangalore but whose house falls on the border with Kerala. Ananda denied that the Egg Roast was a Syrian Christian dish and insisted that it had Muslim origins. But he also said that it had now spread all over Kerala and was common to all communities. Ananda sometimes puts it on the menu of his Konkan Café in Bombay in the winter, but his version has a slight Mangalorean touch because he uses a little kokum for sourness. Ananda says that Moplah food has Mangalorean influences and insists that the name ‘Roast’ was imposed by the Brits who called anything that wasn’t a curry a roast.
Finally, I decided to check with Dinesh Nair, the foodie who is MD of the Leela chain. Though the Leela goes on and on about Megu, Le Cirque etc. (with justification), the chain’s real strength has always been its South Indian food. Dinesh’s father Captain Nair opened his first hotel in Bombay convinced that even if all else failed, it would still be a success solely on the strength of his wife Leela’s Malayali cooking. The original cooks and chefs were all chosen by Mrs Nair herself and her family continues to be obsessed with food. For instance, the idlis at the Bangalore Leela have been justly praised for their excellence. So, Dinesh insists that the rice for idlis at every Leela property is flown in from Bangalore to ensure the same level of perfection.
Dinesh directed me to the Leela’s legendary South Indian chef (legendary to other chefs – he keeps a low profile, otherwise) Purshotham. Like Ananda, Purshotham says that the dish is now too ubiquitous to be associated with any one community but agrees that its origins lie with the cuisine of the Muslims of the Malabar coast.
Though all Leela hotels do a fabulous Egg Roast, on par with anything I have eaten in the dhabas of Kerala, I thought I should also find out how the home-cooked version is made. So I checked with Hindu friends in Malabar how they made the dish in their own kitchens.
Their recipe was broadly the same except that, because my friends are from plantation families, they relied on spices more than the dhaba cooks did. Also, their version kept the onions slightly more solid at the end of the dish (not unlike the Lathika George recipe) while the Leela Egg Roast depended on the onions melting into the masala.
Broadly, the differences in all the recipes were to do with a few ingredients. Ananda used kokum, Lathika George used no garam masala. My Malayali friends used cinnamon bark and cloves to make a more fragrant Egg Roast. Purshotham used fennel, which nobody else did.
And they treated their eggs differently. Usually people put the whole hard-boiled eggs in. My friends halved the eggs so that they could soak in the flavours. Purshotham kept the eggs whole, but made deep gashes in the whites to let the masala permeate the inside. My friends poured the masalas over the eggs. Purshotham cooked the hard-boiled eggs in the masala for a few minutes.
I’ve included Purshotham’s recipe because so far, it has been secret and available only to Leela chefs. And I’ve included the recipe from my Malabar friends because it is a home-style method. Lathika George’s recipe is in her book and therefore, in the public domain.
But whichever recipe you select, you should end up with a mound of onion-rich masala, delicious, dark and fragrant, combining the teekha flavours of the Malabar coast, the spicy aromas of the plantations of Kerala and the earthy simplicity of small roadside dhabas. The eggs, yellowed with spice stains, should be poking shyly through the masala, imploring you to eat them.
You should scoop it all up with a freshly-made appam or a parota and let the taste of Kerala fill your mouth.
It is God’s own dish.Chef Purshotham’s Egg Roast
4 portions (should serve 8)
16 hard boiled eggs (remove shell, make gashes)
800 gm onions, sliced
50 gm garlic pods, peeled and chopped
15 gm ginger, julienned
15 gm green chillies, slit
10 gm curry leaves
200 gm tomatoes, sliced
20 gm coriander powder
8 gm red chilli powder
3 gm turmeric powder
2 gm fennel seeds
3 gm black pepper, crushed
2 gm cumin powder, roasted
2 gm garam masala powder
Salt to taste
10 gm coriander leaves, chopped
60 ml vegetable oil or coconut oil
* Heat oil in pan, add fennel seeds, garlic, ginger, onions, green chillies and curry leaves.
* Stir fry for few minutes on a low flame until the onions become translucent.
* Add red chilli powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, cumin powder and salt and fry for a few minutes.
* Add tomatoes and saute until tomatoes are mashed.
* Now add eggs and stir fry without breaking the eggs.
* Add crushed black pepper, garam masala powder and chopped coriander leaves and cook on low flame until the oil separates from the sides of the pan and the eggs are slightly crisp.
* Adjust the seasoning and serve with appams.
The Home-Style Recipe
1 portion (serves 2)
4 hard boiled eggs
6-7 big onions, finely sliced (keep a fistful aside for later)
3 small tomatoes, diced (don’t dice them too small, it lets out too much moisture)
3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Small piece of ginger, finely chopped
2-3 green chillies, slit into two (add more if you like it hot)
2-3 tsp cooking oil
2 pieces cinnamon bark
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp red chilli powder (less, if you don’t like it so hot)
1/2 tsp garam masala
Coriander leaves and curry leaves
Salt to taste
* Heat the oil in a hot pan. Add garlic, ginger and onion (in that order) to the oil and fry them slowly over a slow fire till they are a little more than golden brown. Stir continuously so that the onions do not burn or caramelise.
* Now roughly grind the cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves with a mortar-pestle and add to the pan. Keep the fire low. Once you sense the aroma of the cloves, stir in the turmeric powder,
coriander powder and red chilli powder. Let the spices roast with the onions for a minute or so (be careful not to burn them).
* Throw in the green chilli slices and tomatoes. Stir till the
tomatoes are cooked, making sure the gravy is not too squishy. Stir in the garam masala.
* Your gravy is ready.
* Now, halve the boiled eggs, place them on your serving dish, and pour your gravy over them. Throw in some chopped
coriander and curry leaves. You can fry the onions you kept aside, and mix them in just before serving for added texture.
* The dish tastes better if you let it rest for an hour or so before serving as the eggs will take a while to absorb the flavours.
From HT Brunch, May 20
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