What one ingredient would you think is synonymous with Kerala? If you immediately thought the coconut, you wouldn’t be wrong. But you’d be woefully limited in your culinary connection with God’s own country.
Another unsuspecting, but equally representative food of the state is Tapioca. The two, state and starch, are far more inextricably linked than you’d imagine. But how did this plant of Brazilian origin become representative of our southern cousins?
Well, World War 2 might have had something to do with it.
Surprising as this might be to any Malayali, or even South Indian for that matter, much of our rice around the time of the great war was imported from Burma.
During the Japanese occupation of Burma, this supply was cut off, and a massive rice shortage occurred in Kerala.
It was at this time that Tapioca emerged as a shining substitute of starch and sustenance.
But it goes further back.
Tapioca boasts some serious royal connections, given that it was first introduced to the then Kingdom of Travancore during the reign of King Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma 1860s. When a great famine raged across the kingdom, the King resolved that he would never let his people go through an ordeal like that again.
In order to ensure this, he employed the services of his brother-also-a-botanist Vysakham Thirunal Rama Varma.
After some hectic, long drawn out research ( given the general lack of internet at the time), his royal botanist broski introduced the tuber to all the chettas and chechis around.
Little Side Le Note
Vysakham Thirunal went on to succeed his brother to the throne, and was so ardently devoted to the cause of furthering Tapioca that memoirs of some ancient ajjas and ajjis from those times recounts him having the product of his research cooked and served to him, so that his fearless consumption would instil confidence in his people to try the tuber out without fear of becoming victims of some crazed royal’s scientific experiment.
He even sent out a detailed account of how it was meant to be cooked, boiled-water discarded-boiled again, to get rid of the bitterness.
It did little to catch the fancy of his people though, who weren’t hot on discussing or consuming it. Until World War 2.
Back To Main Story
Adverse events like famines and wars paint a dark origin story, but the present-day consumption of Tapioca is a rather joyful affair.
Because of its high starch content, it very quickly became the quintessential labourer’s food in the 1860s. And has gone on to become a beloved part of Kerala cuisine ever since.
Today, you seen it all forms ranging from chips to vegetables, but also as a rather fantastic source of carbs to go with all the protein items that Kerala is famous for.
The Malayalis have many names for it depending on which part of Kerala you’re from—maricheeni if you’re from the city, cheeni or kappa if you’re from the Central side of the state. But in Kozhikode, it’s kolli kizhangu, and if you shift the compass a bit, poola kizhangu in Palakkad.
We pay homage to this most excellent history of an unassuming tuber through our Meen Moilee Kappa.
The main thing you need to know (and the only thing that really matters) is that this dish is as 100% straight up mallu as Avial. The band.
That's why you have to roll that tongue when you say 'moilee' and make sure you stress on the double-p in 'kappa' to ensure you sound like you know what you're talking about.
The dish itself is a famous fish curry in that area of the south, and has kind of been around in the kitchens of Kerala since fish have been in the sea. (We exaggerate. But you get it.)
So, to break it down, ‘meen’ is Malayalam for fish, the word ‘moilee’ translates to stew, and 'kappa', which we have already discussed, is nothing but (one of the names for) tapioca.
A Little History on the Dish-y (sorry)
The origin of this particular dish can be traced back to when the Portuguese occupied the coasts of Kerala.
It certainly explains how this the mildly flavoured dish finds a place in an otherwise flavour-heavy cuisine.
Believed to be a typically Syrian Christian preparation, the traditional method of serving this dish used to be in an earthen vessel, with some appam on the side, you know, for touchings. (Literally.)
At The Permit Room, our Moilee is basically a mild coconut-milk based stew. We keep it mild so that the focus stays on the flavour of the fish.