Appam & Stew Aboard the NH49 in Kerala

A resplendent morning with a slightly overcast sky is pregnant with numerous possibilities. It could be a bright sunny day, but it could possibly be a rainy day too.

It was the year when the memories were still fresh of the fury and torment of the south-west monsoons that had wreaked havoc along the Malabar coast. Life was slowly limping back to normalcy. Aid agencies pumped up with donations from generous donors from the world over, volunteers wishing to serve on the ground and most importantly the proud people of Kerala, humbled by nature's fury were putting their best efforts to return to near normalcy. It was that time when the surviving victims were putting the memories behind and picking up the threads to move on with their lives.

The weathermen have now begun to be extra cautious with their forecasts because they know there are more eyeballs focused on them than on the prime-time television soap operas. The monsoon season is not yet over and although they say lightning seldom strikes twice, nobody could afford to take chances. A passing cloud could become a deluge and a high tide in the ocean could result in water logging in the plains.


It is just a few weeks since the floods. The furious monsoons have abated. The air force, army and the and aid agencies that descended down for the rescue operations have wound up and returned back home. It is now the time for government and people to pick up the ropes and act. The potholed roads ravaged by the floods have been re-laid in a flash. The trash that now contains, once functional refrigerators, television sets, furniture, mattresses and wardrobes are getting burnt or recycled. People cutting across political affiliations have gathered up to ensure the roadways and railways are cleared up and are in working condition. They are the lifelines for connectivity across small towns that were crippled by the floods. Everyone knows that their collective effort in these times would restore normalcy in their lives. People realize that it is going to be a lot of back-breaking work, however, it must be done.

Where there should have been greenery, it is all brown patches of dried up banana trees and colocasia shrubs that were submerged in the floods for longer than they could sustain themselves. Landslides, uprooted trees, walls of mud huts with thatched roofs dissolved into the clay along the river banks and decomposed carcasses of dead cattle and livestock. They have all altered the geographical and economic landscape that an entire generation had got accustomed to.

gray grees

Such is the course of nature, reminisced the wise and elderly. 'Mother nature's patience level had been breached' they cried hoarsely. 'They had seen more furious monsoons in their lifetime, but this one was a disaster waiting to happen', they said. Rampant concrete constructions that came with development and defied local wisdom of rainwater harvesting and blocked the natural path of rainwater flow along the lakeside, on the ponds and river beds. They said that was the reason for the wreckage caused by what would otherwise have been a season that saw a slightly above average but manageable monsoon.
'It is the wrath of that celibate fellow from up the hills let loose on the menstruating women', some said.
'It is the El Nino's southern oscillations and its unpredictability', cried out the weather scientists.
Callous Governments and corrupt town planners were nevertheless blamed.

On the brighter side, the collective consciousness had risen and the lesson was learnt. Once in a few decades, nature has its way of revising the fundamental lessons and remind the mortal humans of their limitations. This year was one such year.

No matter what, traumas heal, hope triumphs and life move on.

It is yet another dawn waiting to break along the NH49. The sun, oblivious to the happenings along the Malabar coast this season, is announcing its arrival of yet another day. The sky is blushing pink in various hues and colours. The brain fever bird perched atop the Gulmohar tree is screeching as if it picked up a sore throat in the heavy rains. The rooster is cooing announcing the arrival of the day.

The fitness freaks have set out on their morning walks, perhaps the first one after many weeks.

The mosque is blaring on the loudspeaker its morning call for the Aazaan and beckoning the faithful.
Competing with the loudspeakers from the mosque is the loud rhythm of the drum beats from the nearby temple. Festivities although considerably subdued, are on the way. As the day progresses, the devotees would throng the temple to pray for better days and a brighter future. Hope sustains humankind. The worst is perhaps behind them and this is the time to rebuild and rejuvenate.

Driving along the freshly laid out road along the NH 49 is a pleasure. It is a two-lane state highway that has been christened as the National Highway 49. When travelling across Kerala, it feels like the town hardly ends to give way to the countryside. Equally, marvelling is that the resplendent greenery is always peppered along the towns and across those quaint houses and tree-lined streets.

Ostentatiously huge houses built from the money earned out of hard labour and loneliness and sent home from the oil-rich countries in the gulf dot the National highway nestled amidst coconut groves and pepper plantations, lightly camouflaged by the girth of huge flowering trees.

Occasionally there are empty plots of land where colocasia shrubs whose roots would have made a sumptuous meal after the monsoons, are struggling to sprout and come to life after being submerged in the devastating floods. The lingering sunshine from the morning sun is perhaps giving the much-needed hope and energy for the few that have held on to life. Amidst the dried-up brown and dry colocasia shrubs are a few green shoots sprouting from the roots? On the tender colocasia leaf is a raindrop dancing like a ball of mercury that has dropped from a broken thermometer.

No landscape of the small town and rural India is complete without a local tea shop where one can taste and smell the pulse of the local town and its happenings as well as feel the ripples of national events throbbing through its veins.


It has been more than an hour since Shaji's tea boiler has been at work at his roadside tea shop. A dimly lit tube light is at work since bright sunlight is still an hour away. Freshly rinsed glass tumblers have been laid out on the counter. In some time, slowly but steadily a stream of local customers would arrive at his tea shop for their morning cuppa. Copies of the local newspaper, fresh with yesterday's regional news have just been delivered by the newspaper boy.

The boiler is steaming with water and the smell of boiled tea leaves is wafting across the road. On the transparent glass jar, Shaji fills out the freshly baked banana cake that looks hard from the outside but is soft and fresh when you bite into them. A slightly unripe banana stalk threatening to ripen anytime during the day is hung on a coir rope right at the entrance of the tea shop, at a height just right for the customer to stretch and reach out his pick. At the corner of the entrance to the shop is a coir rope hanging loose and at an arm's length distance. It has been lit with fire from the kerosene stove. When the flame has been doused, it burns slowly but steadily giving out a faint glow of the fire and smoke like an incense stick sans the fragrance. As the day progresses, it would slowly burn away, but not before lighting up a hundred cigarettes for the customers.

In Kerala, the tea leaves brewed in the tea boiler pan are never boiled along with the milk. They are added separately. As the tea leaves are set to boil in a boiler fired by a noisy kerosene stove, another huge stainless-steel vessel is keeping the boiled milk warm. As the regular customer arrives, Shaji instinctively knows his preferences. Black tea with sugar for Unni chettan, tea without sugar but with milk for colonel uncle, and equal proportions of milk and tea mixed with generous spoonfuls of sugar for Rafiq bhai.
The occasional passerby who stops at his shop would need to specify his preferences before Shaji can mix and match and dole out the hot steaming glass out for him or her. When you do not specify your preferences, you get a cup of tea that has seventy percent strong boiled tea, twenty percent milk, half a teaspoon of sugar and about ten percent froth that has been deftly frothed up by pouring out the beverage from a height of two feet and above into another glass cup placed at the tea counter. This action serves many purposes like ensuring the mixing of tea, milk and sugar, bringing the beverage to the right temperature for the customer to slowly and noisily sip the ten percent froth generated on top of the glass cup and giving the tea boy his much needed exercise to build up his biceps and sometimes even a six-pack.

The regulars arrive one by one. Initially, there is an eerie silence around the shop. No one is talking. Perhaps because they are grumpy or perhaps because everyone is a regular and Shaji, like Google knows their preferences based on previous tea drinking history.

They help themselves to a banana from the stalk or a piece of the banana cake from the glass jar, pick up a cigarette and light it at the burning end of the coir rope before picking up the steaming hot cup of tea bubbling with froth that has been laid out for them. The morning cuppa is incomplete without that vital ingredient, the local newspaper.

This morning the headlines are all about local member of parliament's cheeky remarks on flood relief operation and the Chief minister retort on the MPs arm chair contribution while holidaying in a foreign country during the flood relief operations. The other half of the newspaper headlines are about a shoddy rescue operation during the flood of a women's hostel in the nearby town.

Opinions about who is right and who is wrong are divided along political affiliations. As the regular customers slowly gather and sip their cup of tea, the discussion gets louder and fierce.

A passerby, un-initiated into local ways of political analysis could get utterly bewildered by the happenings and would wonder if she should dial the police as the situation could potentially turn violent. But Shaji is unperturbed by the goings-on. This is business as usual in his shop. The argumentative Malayali's hold on to their opinion and stubbornly stick to their point of view. They take a dig at each other's political parties, agree to disagree, finish their morning cup of tea and go about their daily business.

Surprisingly a cup of tea in the tea shops in the land of spices is devoid of any freshly added spice like ginger, cinnamon or cardamom. It is the local newspaper that adds all the spice. The otherwise strong cup of tea is spiced up by politics and makes for an intellectually enriching, interesting and occasionally explosive conversation not just at the start of the day, but throughout.

As the daylight picks up, the traffic gets denser along the NH49. Local buses, expensive cars, beastly motorbikes and creaky autorickshaws equally compete for space and speed on this two-lane national highway.

The grey overcast sky from the early morning has given way and with the advent of sunshine, the day looks bright and clear. It is humid but not hot at this time of the day.

When on a road trip it is best to go with your instinct and eat at places that you have never heard of before.
Aboard the NH49, is this mid-sized billboard hanging out by the roadside which says 'MDM … stew and palappam Rs. 5.' As you slow down, you see a small shop on the opposite side of the road that is trying hard to cater to a cross-section of customers by advertising Chinese (sic), North Indian, South Indian snacks. However, at that time in the morning, the man behind the oven is busy preparing the dough for the Malabar parotta (as different as chalk and cheese in genre, species and characteristics from the north Indian understanding of paratha). All they have available at that time of the day is Appam and stew unless you are prepared to wait for about twenty minutes, says a woman's voice from the kitchen.

A slightly wobbly green plastic table surrounded by blue plastic chairs does not make for a great ambience, but the not so busy NH-49 cutting across the coconut groves and the fresh rays of early morning sunlight piercing through the dense greenery on the opposite side of the road is soothing for the eyes. Besides it is a good place to stretch your legs, breathe some cool fresh air before the day gets humid and have a leisurely breakfast.

The lady lays out a lemony yellow plastic plate and serves fluffy white appam with bare hands. Along comes a hot bowl of stew and the fragrance of freshly culled out coconut milk spiced up with cloves, cinnamon and cardamom ensure you have made the right stop at the right time. The spotlessly white appam is soft in the middle, which comes from mixing the dough with freshly fermented coconut milk. There are some dishes that cannot be mass manufactured in restaurants with heavy footfall. Served fresh and hot they taste as authentic as they can and some with what is called the 'homely touch'.


MDM restaurant supplies its palappam and stew to the nearby hotels who stock it up in their buffet breakfast menu. This roadside kitchen survives on its bulk orders of Appam and stew from the nearby hotels claiming to serve 'authentic local food'. That was the reason they had Appam and stew available in the early hours, ready to the shipped to the hotels in time for the display in the buffet breakfast menu.
Light on the palate, slightly sweetened in taste by the coconut milk and mildly spiced up, the vegetable stew is an authentic local dish of the Malabar coastline.

'Stew' as the name of the recipe was perhaps was an inheritance from the British, who were familiar with the other stewed versions like the apple stew, lamb and lentil stew from Europe.

The localized version is the 'Ishtu' as it is called by the locals. Its ingredients and recipe are certainly as local as it can get. Cloves, cardamom, cashew and seasonal vegetables or mutton pieces slowly stewed (not cooked) in freshly extracted coconut milk. It was probably christened as the Malabar stew by the British almost a century ago. The locals have adapted the nomenclature and pronounce it 'ishtu'.
When you look around and search for the origins of this recipe, you can trace it down among the Srilankans and Tamils settled in the coastal district in Tuticorin and Nagapattinam. In its Srilankan Sinhalese version the stew is known as 'Sodhi'. This dish perhaps originated from Sri Lanka which has a similar terrain and flora like the Malabar coast. A vast coastline, abundant coconut trees, spices and locally grown vegetables and livestock evolved and mutated into a recipe that was adopted by the locals and the colonial rulers alike.

In its Malabar version, it is best served with fluffy appam's that are prepared with fermented lentils and rice dough mixed with tender coconut water and coconut milk extract. Best served hot and eaten in a traditional Kerala home or at a nondescript roadside eatery along the national highways dotted across the Malabar coast.


Author: SK04 Feb 2019 Member Level: Bronze   Points : 1

Great article Jayanthi. I love Stew & Appams. Would surely try it at MDM restaurant when I visit there next time.

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