On that visit in 1975, my South Indian father, American mother, sister, brother and I spent two weeks in Kerala, the state at the southwestern tip of India where my father had grown up in a traditional Hindu family. We stayed in the town of Kottayam with Aunty Kamala in a large whitewashed house designed by my grandfather. It was set in a lush compound, dense with coconut palms, banana trees and bougainvilleas. I remember thinking it was the prettiest and the hottest place I'd ever been.
Kerala is on the Malabar Coast, with the Western Ghat mountains to the east. Monsoon rains from the Arabian Sea ensure a healthy crop of rice each year and fill the coconut-lined canals crisscrossing the countryside, which are alive with freshwater fish. The cooler hills to the east are blanketed with coffee and tea plantations, cardamom groves and black pepper vines.
The first two times I traveled to Kerala I was surprised by the food: it wasn't anything like the North Indian dishes I'd had in Indian restaurants at home. But it was only later, after I'd graduated from college and been cooking for myself, that I really paid attention to what I was being fed and how it was made.