Kerala—the Spice State

Coconut and Waterways in Kerala

Coconut and Waterways in Kerala

Spices For Sale

Spices For Sale

From Chennai in Tamil Nadu we flew to Cochin in Kerala. It is said of Kerala that there are more coconuts here than there are stars in the sky. However, despite all the coconuts, it is not the thing for which this state is famed. Kerala is India’s “Spice State.” It is from here that about 80 percent of India’s spices are shipped. It is among the most beautiful places in the world. It is also the state with the highest literacy rate in India (almost 100 percent) and a long history of multiculturalism (this is where traders have come for 3,000 years to obtain the fabulous spices that made India the goal of so many explorers—Kerala is the point of origin of pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger).

It would take days to describe everything we saw and experienced in Kerala, so I shall share only some of the highlights. We enjoyed an elaborate meal in a private home, then were delighted to see family members’ wedding albums. We had a cooking demonstration of Keralan cuisine at the splendid Coconut Lagoon, a resort built among waterways, palm trees, flowers, and butterflies, where one stays in traditional Kerala teak houses. (The photo across the top of this blog is from that cooking demonstration.)

Classic teak houses of Kerala

Classic teak houses of Kerala

In a handsome wood and bamboo houseboat, we plied the famous “backwaters” of Kerala, which gave us an opportunity to witness the lives of local families, farmers, and fishermen, as they tended their nets, washed clothes or pots, or walked past the impossibly lush rice paddies. (The photo at the top of this post was taken from our houseboat.)

A fisherman holds up a huge fresh prawn.

A fisherman holds up a huge fresh prawn.

One day, when we stopped to watch a local ceremony (complete with richly caparisoned elephant and a path outlined by small fires), we were made to feel welcome, and were even guided to the best spots for viewing. Before seeing a performance of Kathakali, Kerala’s religious dance/theater, we got to see the actors apply their complex make-up. We perused palaces, including the Hill Palace, which had a fascinating collection of royal jewels, Western paintings, ornate palanquins, Roman coins, and antique weapons. We visited local fishermen and admired their impressive catches (including shrimp—or, rather, prawns—almost as large as lobsters).

One of our favorite days in Kerala was the day we headed north to Trichur. The transit had been lovely, through small towns, past plantations of rubber trees and banana plants, across bridges spanning winding rivers lined and overhung with greenery. Our guide, Uni Krishna, had promised to take us to a local market, and in Trichur, he made good on that promise. We stopped at an extensive and opulently stocked produce market.

One small corner of the sprawling Trichur Market

One small corner of the sprawling Trichur Market

As we got out of the van and began to make our way across the wide, busy street, people were friendly and smiling, but looked startled. Within minutes, news of our presence had spread through the market. As we turned a corner, a hundred or more men let loose a thunderously joyous cheer. On two other occasions in the market, upon turning corners, a roar of welcome greeted our appearance. Men and boys waved, grinned, beckoned, tidied up produce to look good for photos, carried out their largest jack fruit or best peppers, laughed, chatted, introduced themselves, pointed out good images to photograph, and posed near their stalls. We photographed mountains of bananas, grapes, apples, chillis, shallots, gourds, eggplants, potatoes, ginger, and vastly more. When we finally tore ourselves away from this wonderful place, Uni Krishna explained that tourists almost never come north of Cochin, so our presence would be an exceedingly rare, if not unique, event for the people at the market. I can honestly say that it was unique for me, too. What a welcome!

Cooking lesson

Cooking lesson

Across town, at the Siddhartha Hotel, another treat awaited us. We were in Trichur to experience a sadya, a traditional Keralan feast. This is so traditional that, not only are the types of foods and number of dishes well established, but different foods also have specific places they are to be set down on the traditional banana leaf used as a plate. Three cordial chefs demonstrated the preparation of more than a dozen dishes, many of them utilizing vegetables we’d just seen for the first time in the market place (snake gourd, ash gourd, drum stick), as well as prodigious amounts of spice and coconut milk. (Coconut milk and coconut oil are two of the defining elements of Keralan cooking.)
Sadya - Traditional Keralan Vegetarian Feast

Sadya - Traditional Keralan Vegetarian Feast

Eventually it was time to leave Kerala (sigh). We headed back to the splendid, new airport (which, despite the marble and glass, still offers such charmingly anachronistic touches as waiting rooms furnished with wood and upholstery armchairs, all with embroidered antimacassars), and jetted off to Bangalore, in Karnataka.

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2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Food, Geography, History, Travel

2 responses to “Kerala—the Spice State

  1. Chitra Sundaram

    Hi: Thanks for your lovely post on visiting Kerala. I was curious to get some more detail about your visit to the Hill Palace Museum near Cochin. We are getting varied reviews from travel books, and only rare visitor reviews online. Everyone seems to agree that it is not being maintained particularly well, but would you say it is worth visit? Are the collections interesting?

    Thanks Chitra

    • Greetings, Chitra.

      Actually, it has been a couple of years since my trip, so I don’t know how it might have changed. However, I found it fascinating. We had a good guide, which made a difference, I’m sure. The grounds are lovely and the building is handsome, and we enjoyed them, but the main interest was in the antiques and paintings and cultural artifacts. Some of the things that were memorable were the silver-covered rosewood throne, the Royal Jewel room (only open on weekends — and quite dazzling — 197 objects, at least when we visited), charts of the development of the Malayalan alphabet, paintings of the Cochin royal family, as well as of Rudyard Kipling and several English poets, palm-leaf books, a collection of Roman coins excavated at Travancore, and a solid silver chair. I love history, so it delighted me.

      I think it would depend on whether you had to give up something else to see it. If you have a choice, for example, between seeing the Hill Palace and cruising through the backwaters in a houseboat, I’d pick the houseboat. But if you can do both, I think the Hill Palace Museum is worthwhile.

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