Dubai and its love for the Kerala Cuisine

Let’s admit it, most Keralites like me and you could never imagine our beloved Appams and Puttu would one day find themselves making an appearance on the international food scene. As far as I can remember, food from Kerala kept a low profile – something relished and celebrated within the confines of our state’s borders.

In contrast, our North Indian friends enjoy wider patronage and international stardom on the food trail. The Kuttanadan Meen Curry was never thought as a substitute for the Mutton Rogan Josh, and the Thalassery Dum Biriyani for its Hyderabadi counterpart, for instance.

I live in Dubai, the modern day Metropolis that arguably has the most diverse cuisines from all around the world, much like its tourists and the expat inhabitants. And I think it’s an ideal place to look for indicators, to see changes in trends happening in the international culinary space. A lot of non-Indians in my friends circle have very little knowledge about the many different varieties of cuisines that are native to different regions of India.

Sadly, like in the case of how Bollywood has come to represent the be-all-end-all of Indian cinema, North Indian food has been perceived as the only ‘Indian’ cuisine, dwarfing all other regional cuisines, South Indian in particular.

I had always wondered as to why Kerala cuisine couldn’t really cut it, when it comes to attracting a wider audience at the international level. People who understand the gastronomic heritage and the values associated with the Kerala cuisine will agree that its versatility is massively underplayed and the potential to be a worthy contender to cuisines like Thai is so underrated.

Well, if you have been observing Indian restaurants in the past few years, then you would have noticed a few significant changes taking place. Eateries are making their ‘Indianness’ a lot more all-encompassing by including different regional fares. Celebrated chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor and Atul Kochhar are showcasing a wider range of flavours in their offerings and this has helped a wider variety of Indian food to get noticed.

Atul Kochhar
Atul Kochhar

These globally celebrated chefs have turned to traditional Kerala recipes to create some of their signature dishes, introducing them to foodies from different corners of the world. What is commendable is that while doing this, they do not tinker with the recipes too much and keep them simple and authentic, in the process busting the myth that the flavours of our recipes must be tweaked to suit the taste buds of the Caucasians and Hispanics. The truth is, Kerala dishes are best enjoyed when the traditional recipes are left untampered with, as this is what every serious food connoisseur would appreciate.

This recent transformation of the cuisine is quite evident in Dubai. We see that non-Indians now have an increased awareness about Kerala cuisine and they are prepared to pay a premium price to enjoy this cuisine as a wholesome gourmet offering. These days, you can spot quite a few western expats at some of the premium restaurants serving Kerala cuisine. That would have been a rarity a few years ago.

They now flock to these restaurants as if they have just unearthed a rare gem, a culinary experience they did not know existed. They now mention the Fish Mango Curry in the same breath as the Thai Fish Curry and they find it to be refreshingly different from all the Indian dishes they have been familiar with in the past.

Undoubtedly, restaurateurs have also stepped up their game and gone a few notches above their usual marketing mix, to give the cuisine a much required uplift and make it more appealing to the larger public. They now understand that factors such as ambience, aesthetics and customer delight play a huge role in increasing the footfall of sophisticated gourmet diners in their eateries. In Dubai, the one restaurant group that arguably initiated this transformation is Calicut Paragon, with the opening of their first eatery in 2005. Bagging a Time Out award came in handy for them to get some increased visibility with the quality conscious international crowd.

Its now left to the restaurateurs to see how they use knowledge of this new leverage to their advantage and steadily grow their international customer base further. The lesson is simple – restaurants can offer just regional cuisine and still be successful as long as important factors such as ambience, aesthetics and customer delight are attended to. It has been the norm for the Keralite restaurants to offer a broad multi-cuisine menu backed by delicious Kerala dishes with the hope that someone would pick them. This is no longer seen as the winning formula. A well thought-out marketing plan and attention to key factors (again, ambience, aesthetics and customer delight) will ensure Kerala cuisine its place on the international scene. One thing is for sure, Kerala cuisine 2.0 is here to stay!