I misjudged the Leela. Far from being clueless about local food, the hotel actually puts on quite a spread in their regular menus both at lunch and dinner. It turns out the conference had requested a less adventurous menu, hence the constant attempt to feed us Thai and French.
The executive sous chef (as hardboiled a mallu as they come) revealed this secret to me over a crib session, and invited me upstairs to the Terrace restaurant to sample some of the real thing. True it was. Suddenly, lunch was full of unpronounceable names and strange textures. Surprising for a land with a fishy reputation, the veggie options far outnumbered the couple of non-vegetarian items on offer. The food was all that Kerala is reputed for - complex flavours, complicated textures, lots of spices, coconut milk, pepper and, of course, appams. I'm not going to try and produce a documentary on all that I wolfed down, but suffice to say that two sneaky visits to the non-conference menu filled me up with plenty of choice.
While a lot of things were great, the pachadi choices in particular entranced me. I had six different kinds there, including a memorable mango pachadi, an outstanding karela pachadi and a very nice pineapple one. Pachadis are had with rice, especially Kerala red rice, which was also religiously on offer at the buffet.
But Leela was only one part of mallu foodland that I discovered in the last two days. My other food experience came from Dubai.
I love doing these dramatic, single line paragraphs that end in something attention-grabbing. Yes, Kerala supplies Dubai with mallus in generous quantities, but please put any pictures of meals being shipped in foodsafe container across the Arabian sea out of your head. Dubai Fast Food is a shack on the way to the beautiful backwaters of Poovar; the only thing Dubai about it is the name. The food, though, is worth writing about.
We chose Dubai Fast Food without any particular recommendation - it had a nice big sign and was visibly selling the local evening speciality - fried chicken with parathas. We noticed it on our way to the backwaters, and stopped on the return. It did not disappoint; the small doorway led to a larger (though equally rundown) seating space suitably furnished with aluminium tabletops and plastic chairs. Local resident Anant rolled out a stream of orders in malayalam, and soon food started landing up. The layered malabar parathas were wonderful - quite addictive even on its own but magical when combined with the squid's spicy gravy. The squid itself looked like leftover plumbing chopped up, but smelled and tasted flamingly good. The fried chicken was nothing like KFC (though many a local shop uses KFC to advertise it) - this was spice-coated deep fried chicken, nearly black in colour but juicy in every bite. There was also the other Kerala staple – beef pepper fry.
The place also sported an industrial grade puttu steamer, but alas this would have taken too long, so we stuck to those wonderful malabar parathas and thosas (very like set dosas). Another revelation was the tapioca. Kerala is in love with that vegetable, making chips, curries, fries, even dessert with the damn thing. At DFF (can't keep saying Dubai Fast Food) the tapioca came cooked like dry potatoes, tempered with curry leaves and mustard to be had dry with parathas. It looked like potatoes, but tasted distinctly different – we ended up picking at it like a snack rather than with paratha. Chef Dinesh at the Leela showed me a different twist to the tapioca tale - he ladled some chicken gravy on top of the tapioca to make a fantastic combination. Apparently, any spicy gravy works and this is how the tapioca side dish is usually had.
I finally left Kovalam satisfyingly full of malayali food, much of which I had not encountered earlier. I had not tried everything; that is not even remotely possible. As befits any major cuisine, Kerala is a vast cauldron of dishes, ingredients and techniques that lifetimes can be spent on. My attempt merely was to avoid avoiding kerala in the few meals that I was there, and on the last day and a half that was handsomely met except in one aspect - dessert. There somehow, even the Leela chickened out on anything truly local. The closest they got to a payasam that was a suspiciously north-looking sevai version in the otherwise usual sea of baked goodies.