Tomato Curry in Southern Kerala

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Thirvanathapuram, more commonly known as Trivandrum, is nearly on the southern tip of India. It is Kerala’s business capital with booming shopping and many Indian tourists who come south on vacation.

To get to Trivandrum from northwest Tamil Nadu, I traveled ten hours from Coimbatore, a loud, industrial city and a major transportation hub. On the way south outside of Coimbatore, there are few cities as you pass by banana plantations and forests of coconut palms.

While beautiful, there were clear signs that it wasn’t some untouched paradise. There is no system for dealing with trash, so the trenches along the road act as landfills, as do the rivers. The main road to Trivandrum — which is really a highway based on how fast people drive — is very narrow and dangerous.

Villagers live just off the road in little more than shacks where there is no plumbing and rare if any electricity. Sewage
flows into the rivers. Passing through these villages, the buses do not slow down, and traffic accidents here are often fatal.

At one point along the way the road ran parallel with the railway tracks.  The bus I was on slowed. Nearby, a group of people crowded around the train tracks. A policeman wearing blue rubber gloves was inspecting a dead

The man had been hit by a passing bus and thrown onto the tracks. It was jarring sight, to say the least. Still, the body will be removed, and nothing will change. No bus driver will be charged with any crime; life in India will go on at the same pace, full of the same uncertainty.

Hot wind blew through the bus. After any day of road travel in India, my shirt collar is nearly black from the dirt and grime in the air. As we neared Trivandrum the ocean was just on the other side of a narrow grove of palms, and you could smell and feel the saltiness in the hot air. The city was very hot, the midday sun harsh.


I sat in the lobby of a business hotel and ordered a soda (Coke, made with local sugar cane sugar, glass bottle, ice cold, pretty damn good) so I could use their wireless connection on my laptop. But the power kept going out, the Wi-Fi connection along with it. It was another built-up city in India with that veneer of first-world luxury — so many
billboards and so much shopping but no reliable electricity and open sewers along the streets.

So I scrapped work and went to find lunch. Recently, I’ve been searching out old restaurants — those places that often have the same menu they’ve had for decades, where the same waiters have been serving the same local-style food for
just as long.


In Trivandrum, this is Ambika Café near the old train station. They don’t serve anything that they haven’t made very well for many years: porota, idly, dosa, appam, and different vegetable curries all made with grated coconut, the most readily available ingredient in this part of southern India. At the cashier’s there were Hindu shrines and family portraits, and back in the kitchen the cooks were making a fresh tomato curry and more dough for porotas.


Porotas are the most common south Indian flatbread: a ball of dough, made from wheat flour and ground coconut, is braided, stretched flat, and cooked on a greased griddle.


At Ambika they served porotas with the just-made tomato curry. This vegetable dish was very different from most that I had seen in the south. Instead of just part of the gravy, fresh tomatoes were the main ingredients.


Tomatoes stir-fried with fresh green chilies, a few heaping T’s of red chili powder, and a lot of garlic.

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