Kerala has it all… backwaters and beauty, culture and tourism, literacy and wildlife.
And then there are bananas.
According to me, if the state had to have a “poster-fruit”, it will have to be the banana. Because, in my three-day visit to the state, I encountered more bananas than I have encountered in three years — and probably in my life. Banana leaves for plates, bananas in every corner you turn, bananas of all sizes and kinds — red bananas, green bananas, yellow sugar-free bananas. And my favourite, banana flavoured chips. But the Kerala banana chip and I go back a long way…to the crowded streets of Mayur Vihar, a locality in East Delhi. Here, a little shop called South Indian Hot Chips did brisk business every evening. Out of their endless varieties of fried goodies — jackfruit, carrot, mint, potato, onion (to name just a few) — my indisputable favourite were the banana chips. I would go there so often, that the shopkeeper (a gentleman from Calicut) knew my order, and my face, by heart. Two packets of banana chips, every Sunday at 4 pm. My quota for the week.
While I knew the chips I had in Delhi were the real deal (they were made fresh every day, and the shopkeeper, after all was a native of God’s own country) — it was quite something else to munch on my beloved banana chips in Kerala. Every bite was crunchier, the oil was tastier, the goodness was all-encompassing and quite addictive.
Banana chips are an important element of Onam sadya (the feast Malayalees prepare — and gorge over— during the harvest festival of Onam.) It is locally known as “kayaupperi” or “kayavaruthathu” and available in almost every store and supermarket throughout Kerala. Earlier making upperi was a family tradition, more like a Grandmother’s secret recipe. It is believed that it all started in a chip shop in Calicut when the owners decided to market the banana chips and sell them in packets, so that people could take to their families and friends outside Kerala. And that is how banana chips reached the world.
“They were called Calicut chips for the longest time,” my friend (and host) in Kerala tells me. She remembers how outside the Palghat railway station, rows of shops with large frying pans would attract quite a crowd every evening. “The chip makers would slice the bananas straight into the oil — and they would sizzle, crack and pop. I think the anticipation of waiting for your packet while watching the banana slices being fried, added to the whole experience of eating the chips.” Her description of the shops takes me back to my holiday in Spain, where I stood in line outside a tiny, crowded shop selling “fryums”, displayed in huge glass cases.
Banana chips are made from the nendran variety of bananas. Apparently all one has to do to make the chips is get raw nendran, slice it into rounds (about 1 mm, not too thin, not too thick) and drop it straight into hot coconut oil in a big iron wok. “Well, they say it tastes ‘authentic’ only if you use coconut oil,” says my friend.
We walk over to a local hot chips store in Kochi. The shop has been around for 25 years. Large iron woks lined the threshold, and a few men stood behind them, skilfully transporting one batch of sliced bananas after the other into the wok. In a corner, another man was deftly peeling a whole bucket of onions. Behind the counter stood the owner busy attending to his customers, who stood in a neat, orderly queue.
“About ten kg of sliced bananas produces 4 kg of banana chips,” the shop owner tells us. I buy 2 packets, my usual order. “That is it?” he asks me, smiling. “On my next visit to Kerala,” I tell him.
“There are other varieties of chips made from nendran too — semi-sweet ones (“sharkara upperi”), coated with jaggery and dry ginger, and of course the banana fritters,” my friend informs me as we munch on the chips on our walk back home. “Fritters are batter-fried in egg and maida, and can go really wrong — when too soggy, or too crisp. But when it’s made right — it’s just heaven!”
“This is heaven,” I said. I couldn’t help expressing the obvious.
We make a trip back the next day, on my insistence. Hours later, I fly out of Kochi, with 20 packets of banana chips in tow.
Onam Sadya: Onam feast
Nendran: A variety of banana, found in Kerala, much bigger in size than regular bananas. Usually used to make banana chips.