No matter where you travel in this big, wide and beautiful world, learning about a culture through its food always has the potential to be an extremely profound and rewarding experience. When a traveler dives deep into the nuanced depths of regional cuisine, opportunities for cultural exchange emerge, insightful conversations blossom and the understanding of a people and region is expanded.
The best way to directly experience a destination’s specific food culture in a real and authentic way is to meet a local food enthusiast to explain the culinary “ins and outs” of their country. A very interactive option is to take a cooking class, which is exactly what I did during my trip to the quaint mountain village of Munnar in Kerala, South India.
Being more familiar with North Indian cuisine, I was curious to find out a South Indian approach to food and cooking. Having visited the picturesque spice plantations that surround the entire village of Munnar, I was immediately interested in not only learning more about local ingredients, but to also become more familiar with how they are used in the cultural food context of Kerala cuisine. It didn’t take me long to find Nimi Sunilkumar — an award-winning cookbook author, food blogger and cooking class instructor.
Nimi comes from a traditional Indian background and it’s evident just how much it influences her culinary adventures. Her true inspiration and muse is Kerala, and her first cookbook “Lip Smacking Dishes of Kerala,” is her love letter to the region’s vast diversity of flavor and cultural influence.
The cooking lesson was a crash course for me but I was eager to absorb all of Nimi’s culinary knowledge. Here are my top favorite nuggets of information that I gleaned from the lesson:
There is no such thing as “Indian Food.”
Often times, Indian food is discussed in monolithic terms with disregard to the vast spectrum of cultural differences that exist within this incredibly large country. As Nimi explained in her class, every state in India has their own individual and unique perspective on food.
Traditional food dishes of a region are deeply ingrained within a community and recipes are passed down from generation to generation directly in the kitchen. Rarely are recipes written down and most are inherited by word of mouth.
By holding onto these culinary traditions, cooking becomes a means of honoring the past and of honoring the family — two very important values in Indian society. In many ways, it’s also a way of actively preserving a culture’s most sacred elements for generations to come.
They don’t call Kerala the “Land of Coconuts” for nothing.
Most Indian dishes come into existence because there’s an abundance of a certain ingredient in the area to capitalize upon. Fish is widely used in Kerala cuisine more than any other state in India, mostly in part because of the state’s long-running and well-established fishing industries in the region.
One integral ingredient of Kerala cooking is the multi-faceted and multi-purpose coconut. This is a distinctive facet of Kerala cuisine as I rarely ever came across coconuts being used in recipes outside of this state. Whether it be fresh coconut flakes in a dessert, coconut milk to thicken a curry or coconut oil used almost exclusively as the oil of choice in dishes, the people of Kerala truly love and respect the coconut. Palm wine is even made and consumed in the region!
Cooking is an act of love.
The majority of Indian food dishes and meals take a lot of time, effort and food preparation to complete. There is an array of spices needed to make a recipe, as well as some specific kitchen tools and instruments. As I found out during my class, it’s not always easy to make food from this region, especially as an outsider to the culture, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying.
The main point I picked up from Nimi’s cooking lesson is that cooking in Kerala is a practice of love — love for culture, history, tradition and family. Yes, the meals are quite labor intensive but that’s what makes them so special. Every aspect of cooking a meal comes from a very conscious and intentional place of focus and commitment. The beauty of Kerala cooking comes from the love the people have for their locally-sourced ingredients and the individuals they are using their time and energy to cook for.
As you might already have assumed, food is an integral part of my journey as I Hopscotch the Globe. Food is more than mere sustenance, and its significance in a culture shouldn’t be overlooked. So, embrace what’s on your plate and don’t be afraid to ask why it’s there!