A Gourmand's Shore
There is a reason why coastal cuisine and seafood go hand in hand. They have been promoted likewise. Seafood is not only readily available on the coast, but widely eaten as well – and this includes the vintage yet stunningly contemporary coastal cuisine of India. But that is not all to this lesser-explored food culture that predates the Silk Route and is considered to be made for the sophisticated palate.
Baked fish and coconut curries are just appetisers to this 21-course sit-down meal, each course comprising, at least, 100 select dishes. Sample this: The 7,517-km coastline gives India its favourite tiffin – idli, vada and dosa – just three items of the five dozen-odd appams, chakulis and pithas made in this region. It gives us the fritters (pakoras) including the famous vada of vada pav, bhel, jhalmuri and banana chips – a few of the hundreds of snacks that the southern half of India doles out including the famous fried chicken, popularly called Chicken 65. The famous fried fish, pathuri maach (that led to the iconic Parsee patrani machchi) and the stew (that made South the oldest innovator of curries) come from this region. The coconut chutney is one among the several relishes in coastal Indian cuisine, including the tomato khatta (that changed Spanish salsa), curd dips and wood apple chutney. The oil-free kottu, which inspired the jalfrezi later, is again the gift of the coast. It has the largest section of innovative desserts including the Kerala black halwa, the hard-to-replicate mutta mala; the delicious khaja, Mysore pak and the unignorable rosogulla and its brethren.
Beside popularising the art of creating dishes that cater to all the five palate senses, coastal cuisine has been at the forefront of innovations as well, partly thanks to the maritime trade that brought the best of influences to the coast and partly due to the communities that made the coast their home.
For instance, poee – a Goan bread – became the first unleavened bread to enter the Indian culinary ledger which till then was predominantly rice, puri and appams, chakulis and pithas made of fermented rice batter. The Goan bread eventually became the bun and led to the emergence of vada pav. Likewise, laddoo and kashtayam were easy ways to administer medication, but soon became sweetmeats. Rasam, India’s traditional consommé, was developed both as an appetiser and health builder. Such was the addiction to rasam (and payasam) that Vasco da Gama actually borrowed Zamorin’s two cooks so he could relish it on whim. Sol kadi had the same fan following and made kokum as popular an export as palm toddy and coconut sugar. As for the laddoo, the interesting melange led to the birth of chikkis or pralines. Legend has it that Lonavala’s famous Maganalal chikki began as a way to sustain the rail workers who didn’t have time for a lunch break.
Yet another popular dish that coastal cuisine excelled in was stir-fry satays. According to old Sangam literature, the Chola kings preferred a mutton dish that was made thus: large pieces of the thigh portion marinated with pepper, dry ginger paste, then roasted in fire on wooden skewers and tossed with arugampul (Bermuda grass) for flavour. This is said to have influenced Chengiz Khan who adopted the dish in parts to sustain his army and eventually created the first form of what the world knows as kebabs.
The art of flavouring rice – not with stock but a spice or two – was yet another innovation from coastal India. While the origin of flavoured rice dishes like curry leaf rice or coconut rice was necessity based – rice is an anecdote in every meal – not many know that it was Asia’s first pilaf, which unknowingly created the first fried rice. The legend has it that when Ma Huan arrived in India as part of the Imperial Chinese fleet under Cheng Ho in 1403, he was stunned to find pilafs. It is said that he stayed back to learn the art of making it and also discovered many versions of using it.
The iddiappam is said to have inspired the Chinese, who visited India to sell their silkware, to create noodles and later, egged the Arabs to develop the popular sewiyan. The handmade sewiyan was the first industry that was footed by Arab traders, who settled in the Muziris, as an alternative to the long grain rice they had back home. It was the Sangam- era mappillai samba rice that supposedly reached the Ottomon Empire that led to the creation of pulav and paella in Spain. Of course, there is an argument made in favour of the muri ghonto, a Kalinga-Bangla specialty and a port delicacy at Kalingapatnam and Tamralipta, which could have inspired the paella, given the use of seafood and parboiled rice. Much like how the mutton chukka of Karikal Chola time inspired the Indonesian satay and the Sikanderi raan led to the creation of the kutti chara – a whole goat stuffed with chicken or arikadaka – mussels and rice flour cooked in – shell.
It wasn’t just the art of stuffing that coastal India was known for. Two of the interesting culinary techniques that emerged from the coastal India was the no-oil cooking (santula and patua for example) and the art of combining vegetables with meat for flavours like the Bengali chorchuri. Another example of culinary brilliance in the coastal cuisine is the ingenuity to use a plant completely. So while the banana fruit is used as ready sweetener for breakfast (chuda-dahi-banana or pottu-sugar-banana), the flower was used initially to create a variety of kebabs and koftas that eventually was adopted for meat-lovers. In fact, manja (banana stem) much like yam and jackfruit, was as big a part of the meat-eating community of coastal India as for non-meat lovers. The Bahmani kings, who eventually toppled the Vijayanagara Empire, were instrumental in popularising yam and jackfruit by making traditional dishes part of their elaborate meal which were later picked by Shahjahan to be a part of his feast.
According to old Silk Route ledgers, the all-popular phirni first came to the southern coast of India as bahtiyeh from Khuzestan (Iran) along with balal, a tangy style of corn on the cob. Bahtiyeh, which in its earlier iteration was a gruel of rice powder and milk boiled together, was incorporated into the payasam category and refined further by adding jaggery and cardamom. While it developed into a grainy kheer in the south, in Odisha, it developed into gointa gudi or what many food historians today believe could have led to the idea of rasmalai and the Maharashtrian modak.