Kerala: The Spice Garden Of India

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Masutha Thyparambath appreciates that from her home in Westbury she can see the graceful portico and courtyard at the entrance of the Islamic Center of Long Island where she is a member. “It is a serene experience,” she said.

Masutha with shrimp pancake, Zayr with salmon cutlets and Zulf with shrimp panckes still wrapped in foil.

Westbury residents Zulf Habeeb and Masutha Thyparambath are from Kerala, the Indian state that runs along the southwest coast of the country. He is from Cochin (Kochi) and she is from Mahe (part of the Malabar region), seven hours to the north. After completing his schooling and college across various parts of India, Habeeb worked in the IT industry for five years before moving to Dubai and then came to the U.S., living in Atlanta, then Queens. In 2004, he married Thyparambath, a university educated physical therapist. Their seven-year old-son Zayr, attends Powells Lane School in Westbury.

It is clear that Habeeb has great affection for Kerala and speaks proudly of the multicultural nature of the state. Kerala is considered one of the most tolerant states in India with Hindus, Muslims and Christians practicing their religion side by side. Judaism arrived in Kerala possibly as early as the 7th century BC, although most Jews emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1955. Two synagogues remain.

Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India and today the state is a popular tourist destination, with National Geographic’s Traveller magazine naming it one of the “10 paradises of the world.” It has even surpassed the Taj Mahal as the number one travel destination in Google search trends for India.

After tasting the traditional dishes that Kerala has to offer, I think delicious food is a big part of what makes the state a popular destination.

Puttu is made in a metal tube 

On the table was an interesting looking brown and white cylinder, which we learned was puttu. The bi-colored puttu was made of coarsely ground rice and wheat. To make puttu, a metal upper vertical tube is filled with layers of rice and wheat and rests over a bowl in which water is boiled. The steam from the water cooks the grains. Sometimes coconut is layered in between the rice and wheat. Puttu is often served along with gravies and we had two choices—shrimp curry and goat meat stew. Other dishes included crispy salmon cutlets made with fresh salmon, chicken biryani and puris. The big hit for us was a rice pancake cake folded over and stuffed with a shrimp paste and steamed. There was coconut in the pancake. Coconut is an important crop in Kerala’s economy and the state is actually named after the coconut tree with “kera” meaning coconut tree and “alam” meaning land, thus, “Land of Coconut Trees.”

Although Habeeb is passionate about cooking, he tends toward improvisation so, except for his shrimp curry, when it comes to traditional dishes Thyparambath is in charge, preparing the dishes that she learned from her mother.

Dessert was made by another guest at the table, their neighbor Najma, originally from Pakistan, who treated us to gulab jamun (fried milk balls dipped in sugar syrup) and a pudding of semolina halwa.

Shrimp Pancake (Chameen Ada)
Makes 6

1 lb medium shrimp, deveined and cleaned*
3 medium onions
3 or 4 small shallot
2 or 3 green chilies**
1 tsp ginger/garlic paste
¾ to 1 tsp red chili powder**
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp fennel seed
½ tsp turmeric
3 curry leaves
salt to taste
½ cup grated coconut
2 to 3 tsp oil
2 cups rice flour
2 cups water
½ tsp fennel seed powder
2 to 3 tsp coconut milk powder

Notes:
*You can substitute ½ lb boneless fish for the shrimp
**You can also decrease the quantity of green chilly and chilly power to make it less spicy.

1. Marinate the shrimp in red chili powder, turmeric powder, salt and oil for an hour.

2. Heat a large frying pan and add oil. Shallow fry the shrimp. Cut each shrimp into 4-6 portions. Set aside.

3. Heat oil and sauté onion and green chilies. When the onion becomes brown, add ginger-garlic paste and then the coriander powder, chili powder, garam masala and turmeric powder and salt. Add the shrimp to the onion mix and stir together on medium heat to make the filling.

4. Dry roast ½ cup of grated coconut, 3-4 small shallots and ½ tsp of fennel seed. Once the coconut turns light brown, dry grind the mixture to powder without adding any water.

5. Add the above mix, finely shredded curry leaves and salt to the shrimp filling and stir together on medium heat for 5 minutes; set aside.

6. Mix coconut milk powder, fennel powder, salt and the rice flour in a bowl to make the rice dough. Heat 1 cup of water and add the rice dough while occasionally stirring and cook for 5 minutes; let it cool down.

7. Take a small portion of the above rice dough mix and flatten it on a baking paper, aluminum foil or banana leaf and then add the shrimp filling in the center. Fold the dough and the baking paper by slowly pressing the edges to seal the filling and steam cook in a steamer or rice cooker for 10 minutes until the rice dough is firm.

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