Wake up and smell the appam. A crash course on the multi-faceted world of breakfasts in Kerala.

Left to right: Row 1 appam, nul puttu, Row 2: amba meen moilee, veg stew
Row 3: red rice puttu, kadala curry, pazham kanji, Row 4: white rice puttu, filter kaapi

The southern Indian state that I had not visited at all till recently is possibly the one most talked about in terms of tourism. Kerala.

My work as a market researcher had not taken me there. Nor did that as a food writer. Nor had we holidayed there.

Thankfully this anomaly was fixed was just before the year 2019 came to an end. This was when we were invited over by the newly opened and rather magnificent Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, to spend Christmas with them at the hotel.

K and I vegetated at the hotel over the three nights that we were there. We love luxury hotel rooms. Spas too. The hotel offered the best of it all. Plus, a magnificent view of the backwaters. I went out one day and explored the backwaters and Fort Kochi. I had the rest of my meals in the hotel. I cannot really do a travelogue therefore nor give you a list of places to eat at when in Kochi. What I can talk to you about is the food that I had during the trip. The dishes that I had which made me realise how little that I knew of the food in Kerala. The latter despite my having had my fair share of the Keralite sadyas, meen moilees, chicken stews, porotta and beef fries and Kappa and mutton biryanis earlier in Mumbai’s Keralite restaurants such as Deluxe, Taste of Kerala, Sneha, the ‘Air India cart’ at Nariman point and even the Dakshin at the ITC Maratha.

What’s new, you ask? You do go everywhere and then say that you realised that there is so much that you did not know about it. You do not really know much about things do you?

This is true I admit, but this is a wonderful place to be in if you think of it. It does mean that there is so much more to discover in life. A two night or a three night trip can never make a traveller an expert on any place I know, but I promise to keep sharing whatever I discover through my trips with you.

Let me start by telling you about the Malayali breakfast dishes that I ‘discovered’ at the Malabar Café at the Grand Hyatt, Kochi. The restaurant that I kept going back to for Malayali food through my stay at the hotel.

Appam with veg stew and egg ghee roast

Take the appam that I was served with stew on day one. Being non-Malayali, my previous experience of eating appams was at restaurants over lunch or dinner. It never struck me that this was a breakfast item. The delicately textured appams, crisp at the edges, made by chef Lata and her team of lady chefs at the Malabar Café’s counter, were indeed breathtaking. One even got a whiff of the toddy in which the rice batter had been fermented.

Heady stuff this. First thing in the morning at that!

Amba meen moilee, appam

I had a chat on this at the Malabar Café with the very experienced Austrian executive chef of the hotel and an old India hand, Herman Grossbichler. He had made us excellent savoury French toast and turkey ham sandwiches, mutton pepperoni pizza and eggs royals (benedict with smoked salmon and not ham) from their Sunday brunch menu and an on the spur prawn linguine, for lunch that afternoon. Chef Herman told me that the fact that they had recruited women home chefs to train and work with the hospitality school trained chefs at the hotel, made all the difference to the quality of the local food served.

“They showed us how to make appams in cast iron pans and not just in non-stick pans for example,” he said excitedly. I remembered this later when I saw a senior lady chef watch with a hawk eye while a young male chef prepped a biryani for the night!

The stews that I tried at the hotel, vegetable and chicken both, showed a beautiful synthesis of the silken flavours of coconut milk with the sharp and heaty bursts of pepper in between.

Another interesting appam breakfast pairing that I got to try was the amba meen moilee or the mango fish curry. Made with seer fish in this case. The combination of the tart of the mangoes, the creaminess of the coconut milk and the elegance of the fresh fish, made for flavours that were so refreshing that you would not need a coffee or a tea to wake you up after that.

Here is something that I learnt at Kochi. Unlike in the rest of south India, they seem to prefer tea to their filter kaapi here.

Appam, veg stew, egg ghee roast

The subtlety of the stews here was in sharp contrast to the unbridled boldness of egg roast that I had, which I found a bit intimidating to face in the morning on account of the high spice levels. As did I the beef curry. I could see myself having these with appams or paratha later in the day.

When it comes to spice and heat levels, the breakfasts of Kerala  has something on offer for everyone.

Veg stew nul puttu

I learnt that you need not combine the stew or the moilee just with appam. That you could have it with the nul puttu too for example. Rice flower, vermicelli noodles, akin to the string hoppers of Sri Lanka or the idiappam of Tamil Nadu.

There is a fair bit of overlap between the food of Tamil Nadu and Kerala as I learnt through my breakfasts at the Malabar Cafe. A bit like that between the cuisines of the plains of Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, who are neighbours in the east.

The boundaries of food are far more fluid than any manmade cartographic ones.

White and red rice puttu with kadala curry

It is not just the love for porotta or the nul puttu that is shared between Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The same is the case with the puttu too. A dish that I had for the first time ever, during my stay at the hotel. Puttu consists of broken rice (either red or white), which is rolled in banana leaf and then steamed, along with freshly grated coconut, in cylinder like contraptions.

On the first day, I had the puttu with the chicken stew which I was told to pour on to the cylindrical mass, mash and eat by Pragit from the Grand Hyatt. I loved this combination. When I shared a picture of this on twitter though, I had a few Malayalis responding saying that the correct way to have it is with the kadala curry.

I did so the next day, when chefs Selvaraj and Lata organised a comprehensive Malayali breakfast table for me at the Malabar Cafe. The kadala curry is made with black channa and roasted coconut and I must confess that I liked the puttu and stew pairing better than the kadala one. 

When I mentioned this on Instagram, a number of Malayalis told me that they do have puttu with leftover curries converted into a stew the next morning with coconut milk, or even with ripe bananas, sugar and ghee. Not just the kadala curry! They told me me that they were surprised to hear that I had been faced with angst after I spoke about having the puttu with stew. "We do have it with stew," they assured me.

This taught me to not get that shaken by what is said on Twitter!

Pazham kanji

I have kept my favourite breakfast ‘discovery’ from the Malabar Cafe for the last. I am talking about the pazham kanji or old congee. Leftover rice from lunch and dinner, which is soaked in water and fermented overnight and served the next morning with an assortment of condiments such as buttermilk, pickle, mustard tempered curd, small raw onions, fresh green chillies or even anchovies (as it in Tamil Nadu it seems). I found it to be tangy and very cooling and rejuvenating and could imagine it as being the perfect energy burst in the morning.

In concept, it would be similar to the panta bhaat of West Bengal and the pakhala of Odisha I reckon. Arpita on Instagram told me that there is a version of this called mad bhat in Chhatisgarh.

It is evident that food unites our country a lot more than we give it credit to.

Porota and beef stew

There's more to my Kerala food stories coming up. I hope that this breakfast tale whetted your appetite for that. I will soon share stories of lunching at a toddy shop and of tea time at Fort Kochi. Keep watching this place to see what else features in 'God's own menu.'

It was to easy to figure out why they call this 'God's own country'
Please watch this video on the breakfasts of Kerala and do remember to subscribe to my YouTube channel, Finely Chopped TV, to catch more such videos:

Talking of the fluid boundaries of food, please read my latest Times Kitchen Tales article which came out in the Sunday Times Magazine of the Times of India today, on the subject.

Link to article

To be continued. 
Hospitality sponsor: Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty

More pictures from the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty:

Our suite:

View from the room:

Christmas eve dinner by chef Somporn and team at Thai Soul

Sunday brunch on Boxing Day by Herman Grossbichler

French toast and turkey ham sandwich

Mutton pepperoni pizza

Eggs Royale

With the GM of the hotel Shrikant Wakharkar and his wife Radhika joining us