The beautiful south is the gentle doorway into India. A tropical climate with abundant rainfall in the monsoon periods means that vegetation is lush and the living is easier. Kerala and Goa, the two states most hospitable to tourism, are also coastal regions where seafood remains a relatively plentiful harvest.
The people of the southern coast have developed tolerance for outsiders, having in the past had to deal with foreign merchants determined to get their mitts on the lucrative spice trade. Over the centuries, invaders have been absorbed and wed, customs adapted, and their recipes considered and sometimes embraced. Happily the same attitude extends to the travellers of today.
The place to start appreciating the subtlety and infinite variety of the cooking is logically and satisfyingly at breakfast. A fermented rice batter, sometimes helped on its way by toddy from the palm tree, is the starting point for the exquisite pancake called dosa. This disc of burnished beauty, the size of an LP, is sometimes folded over spiced potatoes when it becomes a masala dosa and is served with a thin lentil-based spiced vegetable broth called sambar and fresh coconut chutney. It kick-starts the tastebuds of a morning and coddles the tummy. Iddlis, utthapams, adai and appams (aka hoppers) are riffs and variations, and all are soft, spongy vehicles for the piquant gravy that quickly seems the only way to start a day.
Look up and you see that the coconut is inescapable (take care one doesn't drop on your head). The flesh and oil of the nut caress the fish, chicken and vegetables in milky stews known as molee and make the best vegetable preparation ever: thoran. It might be carrot, cabbage or beetroot first shredded, then spiced, stir-fried and steamed and christened at the moment of serving with a 'tempering' of oil, peppercorns, mustard seeds and curry leaves.
A useful phrase I encountered is 'the facultative vegetarian'. This means eating fish and chicken among other days of stricter observance. With the variety of vegetables available and the cunning ways of cooking them, it soon starts to seem the sane way forward for health and gustatory happiness. In Ayurvedic medicine, food is part of the prescription, and there are many Keralan retreats where your 'dosha' can be identified and an advantageous diet supplied. A retreat rather than a resort is how Neeleshwar Hermitage on the — so far — unspoilt coast of north Kerala describes itself. Here, in an environment that does a good job of anticipating paradise, the menu changes daily and the food is beautifully executed.
Everyone will tell you that the best food in India is in homes. One way of testing this — it tends to be true — is via home stays. One such is Ayesha Manzil, also in northern Kerala, where the Moosa family welcomes you to their 19th-century colonial mansion, where Faiza Moosa, as well as overseeing the kitchen, gives demonstrations of the local Moplah (descendants of Arab traders) cuisine.
Perhaps the finer points of a Portuguese influence on the local cooking are not what drive most people to Goa. But away from the delightful beach shacks, where it is foolish to look beyond grilled fish or a prawn curry, there are restaurants where it can be experienced to educative and delicious effect. The Portuguese introduced red chillies, promoted the use of palm vinegar — the quintessential bass note in a vindaloo — had no qualms about eating pork, a statement that can be thoroughly explored by trying sorpotel complete with blood, liver, heart and tongue, and understood the complexities of spicing in sauced dishes such as xacuttis and cafreals.
At the Park Hyatt on the still flawless Arossim beach, the Goan restaurant Casa Sarita has this year been voted the best by Goa Times. It is an ideal venue in which to explore the various traditions not omitting irresistible pao soft buns stuffed with spiced pork, kingfish curry with coconut, the clean-limbed chicken chilli fry and slow-simmered lamb xacutti. A large international hotel is not the obvious choice in let-it-all-hang-out Goa, but this hotel seduces, with its vast pool, the beautiful beach and the fact that the people of Goa make even a hotel in a chain into their own sweet own.
Chef Urbano Rego, who has been cooking for over 40 years, is a legend in Goa. His creations can be tried at The Beach House at The Taj Holiday Village in Sinquerim. King prawns in coriander sauce, a simple explanation of a complex spice mix, fluffy crabmeat in its shell, fish with a sauce owing its depth to vinegar, and chicken cafreal, where the flesh has been marinated in toddy are dishes to look out for — and travel to. The gateway city to south India is Chennai (formerly Madras). The food of Tamil Nadu, particularly the cuisine of the Chettinads, is another story for another time.
Doubles at The Park Hyatt Goa (goa.park.hyatt.com) start at £80 a night.
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