Foodie road trip in Kerala
Spice up a trip to this idyllic corner of south-west India by stopping off for chicken wrapped in cinnamon leaves, coconut dosas and cardamom-laced coffee
Looking for places to visit in Kerala for foodies? Want to know where to eat in Kerala? From the Kerala Backwaters to the Western Ghats, read about the best Kerala holidays.
Make your way around by car, tuk tuk or boat, stopping off at these foodie home stays and hotels...
Spice Village, Thekkady, Western Ghats
Wake up and smell the cardamom, cumin and fenugreek-laced coffee. Prise open the tin in your room and inhale deeply. The beans are grown in the Spice Village’s organic garden, then roasted and ground, and spices added for their health benefits: cardamom for coughs and breathing problems, cumin and fenugreek for digestion.
This small mountain resort in Thekkady, designed around a traditional village with elephant-grass-thatched cottages peppered along pathways threaded through verdant gardens, is in Kerala’s Western Ghats. The slender southern state snakes down 360 miles of palm-fringed coastline lapped by the sultry Arabian Sea. It’s a land of sun-soaked beaches and soporific backwaters, a network of languid rivers and canals plied by houseboats. Inland the mist-shrouded mountains of the Western Ghats, the southern section known as the Cardamom Hills, are swathed in coffee, tea and spice plantations. With its high hill stations and lush lowlands, it has a laidback charm and slower pace of life than the rest of India.
Unsurprisingly, fish features heavily on the menu, the region’s most famous dish a creamy coconut-laced fish curry. Kerala’s cuisine also reflects its long history as a cultural melting pot. From the 14th century the harbour in Cochin became an important port for the lucrative spice trade. The Arabs ruled here at one time, and Chinese settlers left their mark with their distinctive cantilevered fishing nets, while the Portuguese, Dutch and British also washed up on these shores and started trading.
At the Spice Village, food is one of the highlights and we pad along paths fringed with the raw ingredients to a cookery demonstration before dinner. “Black pepper is the king of spices, but you will also find cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric and curry leaves in the spice plantations here,” the chef tells us as he tips peppercorns into coconut oil in the uruli, a traditional brass pan. Adding chunks of chicken and fragrant masala spices, the meat sizzles aromatically. Handed spoons, we dig in. It’s a dry dish (add a splash of creamy coconut milk, if you like), and deliciously fiery.
Later, at dinner on the terrace of the Tamarind restaurant, we tuck into minced chicken with pungent spices wrapped in cinnamon leaves and seared. For dessert, a traditional Keralan dish – jackfruit koottu pradhaman (made with coconut milk and jaggery, it is unctuously sweet). Breakfast is a feast of fresh fruits and juices (melon, guava, pineapple and watermelon) and sweet cinnamon and coconut dosas from the spice griddle.
The resort is close to the Periyar Tiger Reserve and you can trek or go river-rafting through the park with forest rangers, scouring the undergrowth to catch a glimpse of the elusive tigers, wild elephants, sambar deer, bison, wild boars and giant malabar squirrels. Or take a tour of a local spice plantation.
We visit a small, family-owned 20-acre plot. Not tidy regimented rows but a tangle of trees and bushes. Meandering down a cardamom corridor, our guide tells us that the spice can be harvested every 45 days, whereas peppercorns need a full year to ripen. He points out the piper nigrum plant, explaining that green (good for marinating fish), red, white and black peppercorns all come from the same plant. Green is the young seed, red is ripe, white has had the skin removed and black is dried.
The plantation is a maze of clove, nutmeg and allspice trees, robusta and arabica coffee, cacao and chilli bushes. He plucks a leaf from a tree: cinnamon. The inner bark is used for the spice but even the leaves taste of cinnamon. In the earth, ginger and turmeric roots are growing. A vine climbing the trunk of a tree is laden with vanilla pods.
Xandari Backwater Experience, Alleppey
What you don’t find in the Cardamom Hills is coconuts – the palms need sandy soil. Winding back down to the hot, humid coast we board a houseboat in Alleppey to take us to my next stop, a homestay on an island in Lake Vembanad.
This is India’s longest lake, surrounded by a network of hundreds of miles of creeks. The houseboats, known as kettuvallam, are thatched with coconut fibre and were once used for transporting rice to market. Our boat looks like an up-turned armadillo, the water muddy like a masala chai. On either side are paddy fields. Lounge in a wicker chair, sipping fresh coconut juice, lunching on pearlspot (a local fish) with shredded cabbage and coconut as lake life drifts slowly by.
Philipkutty's Farm, Vechoor
We dock at Philipkutty’s Farm, a 35-acre smallholding and homestay, built on an island reclaimed from the backwaters in the 1950s by Anu Mathew’s late husband’s grandfather. The cluster of traditional villas decked out with ornate dark wooden furniture face the palm-fringed waterfront.
In front of the house are mango and fig trees. The rice fields have been converted to a system of ridges and canals, and the main crops now are coconuts, bananas, nutmeg, cacao and peppers. They also grow their own vegetables, fruit (cherries, passion fruits, guavas) and spices, and farm a few cows, geese, ducks and hens. Most of the food here is grown on the farm. For breakfast there’s fresh mango juice, homemade pineapple and syrupy banana jams, yogurt and fresh fruit.
It is a wonderful spot to relax in for a few days. There is nothing to do but lounge on the veranda with a book, visit local villages or cruise the backwaters in the farm’s small boat. Along the banks the family has installed traditional Chinese fishing nets, and you can help to haul in the catch in the evening. Or take a cookery lesson with Anu’s mother-inlaw, Aniamma Philip.
The style of cooking in this region is Syrian Christian, many of the dishes focussing on fish with rice, and rice-based breads such as appam. Local specialities include avial (a coconut, curd and vegetable curry), karimeen pollichathu (fish wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in hot spices), piralen (a spicy stew) and fish molee. Rick Stein swung by on his romp around India, and Anu proudly shows us her recipe for prawn molee in his resulting cookbook.
Pull up a stool while Aniamma cooks a Keralan fish curry in a clay pot (the clay prevents the spices burning). She uses pearlspot fish and malabar tamarind, which gives the curry its traditionally sour taste. For dinner that night, Anu makes prawn molee and coconut curry, and we sit in the pavilion over the water chatting and listening to the sounds of the cicadas, the palm trees like sentries, dark and angular against the night sky. It’s a magical setting, the molee moreish, creamy and tinged with fire.
Eight Bastion, Cochin
This contemporary boutique hotel in Fort Kochi boasts a tranquil courtyard garden and small pool. In this historic quarter the streets are lined with Dutch and Portuguese colonial architecture. You can dip into the centuries-old St Francis Church before swinging by the oldest active Jewish synagogue in the Commonwealth, and wandering along a waterfront lined with the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets.
The Bungalow Heritage Homestay, Vypin
Hopping onto a ferry from Cochin, cross to the island of Vypin and make your way to The Bungalow Heritage Homestay to meet Neema Veliyath for a cookery class in the house her grandfather built in 1930. The ground floor is colonial Portuguese, the first floor Dutch, a vision of dark, polished rosewood planks two inches thick. The two guestrooms, decorated with original heavy wooden furniture, are named after the flagships of two of the greatest explorers: São Gabriel was Vasco da Gama’s ship, Santa María was Christopher Columbus’s vessel. Neema spent 20 years sailing around the world with her daughter on her husband’s merchant ship. “Now,” she jokes, “the world comes to me.”
Before the class we head to Ernakulam Market. Wandering around the stalls, Neema points out bitter gourds, plantains and giant limes used to make pickles. “The difference between the cuisine of northern and southern India is that we eat more rice, they eat more wheat. And we add coconut, which reduces the heat, so our dishes are less spicy.”
Back in the kitchen we begin by marinating the chicken in a ginger and garlic paste. We’re whipping up chicken masala for lunch along with fried okra, prawn ularthiyathu and beetroot pachadi, a vivid dish with shallots, chilli, coconut and garlic. We watch closely as Neema starts to blend her garam masala – a mix of cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom, green and black cloves, mace, cumin seeds, fennel and star anise. If there’s one thing we learnt in Kerala it’s that you have to make sure that the spice is right.
How to book Kerala Holidays
Cox & Kings’s 13-day escorted tour of Kerala costs from £2,425 per person, including flights, transfers, excursions and accommodation with breakfast and some other meals (coxandkings.co.uk). Jet Airways flies daily from Heathrow to Cochin via Mumbai or Delhi from £420 return (jetairways.com). Although Kerala was hit by severe flooding during the monsoon season, all the places mentioned in this guide continue to operate and welcome guests. For up-to-date travel advice, visit gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice. More info: keralatourism.org. Follow Lucy on Instagram and Twitter @lucygillmore.
Written by Lucy Gillmore
Photographs from Getty