My in-laws’ house in southwest India, on Kerala’s coast, is normally very quiet. But whenever Jayanti, my mother-in-law Shyamala’s cousin, is in town, it comes alive as the two women bond over cooking Kerala’s most traditional dishes. Arriving one afternoon, famished and excited, I find Jayanti hovering over a boiling pot of tamarind soup known as rasam. Beside her, Shyamala arranges beetroot thoran, the ruby-hued roots stir-fried with chiles, curry leaves, and coconut oil. I watch as she fries bullseye, flaky, crimson-scaled local fish, seasoning them with turmeric and chile powder. On a table sits a huge pot of sambar, a spicy lentil-based stew exuding aromas of asafoetida, turmeric, coriander, and garlic. My father-in-law, Mohanan, sets the table, and my wife, Shyba, and I sit down with our young son Leo. We dig into a communal bowl of rice with our hands, drench it in sambar, and roll it into small, soggy spheres before popping them into our mouths. We scoop up more rice, adding pinches of the thoran. We grab pieces of fish, and ladle out the rasam. Once my belly is full, I lean back with an audible sigh as Shyamala and Jayanti look at each other, smiling.
Home cooks in Kerala prepare a vibrant spread of traditional dishes