Kerala Fish Curry and India’s Demographic Dividend

(How to make Kerala fish curry – in a nice mallu accent)

Last week I walked into the smallest restaurant in Trivandrum and asked for a ‘parcel’ of fish curry. The man at the counter turned and asked a small boy hanging around – “arre chhotu, dekh ke aa, fish item hai” and I did a triple flip : backwards. In all the certainties of my mind (and there were at least 3 of them at last count), the fact that Kerala was the one place in India that did not have Hindi speaking ‘chhotus’ was up on top. So what was happening here?

The short answer – India’s Demographic Dividend.

As we have been told ad nauseum, India has a young population relative to the rest of the world. What we have not been told that often, but is patently true, is that this young population is concentrated in a few states in the Hindi heartland, primarily Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And Kerala unfortunately has got its Malthusian economics pat and so has a declining population – which gobbledygook actually means Kerala has very few young people. And, with the local economy booming, this means labour is moving in droves from the North of India to Kerala (shades of the migration that is happening from the interiors to the coastal towns of China).

Each subsequent visit to Kerala reinforces this reality of India’s internal migration. So, while famous economists debate whether India’s demographic dividend exists (unlike you & me, they don’t actually open their eyes and look for such answers; they prefer to read long tables filled with numbers : click here at your peril, to know why one says it exists, and another says no) anecdotal evidence is clear. With each passing visit, I find small local restaurants in kerala increasingly invaded by Oriya cooks and Bihari chhotus. Clearly, there are more young people looking for work in Bihar than in Kerala.

As I found while on a six-month stint auditing the dodgy accounts of a cement company in the backwoods of Orissa many years ago, the Oriya people are a delightful group (I actually think Oriya women are the best-looking examples of Indian womanhood – never fails to produce a bored ahem from the missus). But, cooking an authentic Mallu fish curry, I would not count among their accomplishments. And so I reach the inevitable conclusion. India’s demographic dividend has a direct impact on me. With all Mallu cooks gone (mostly evolved out of cookdom; a few stragglers left for the Gulf), my favourite fish curry, heavily laced by a concoction of coconut milk and coconut oil is under threat. And I better tank up before it is fully gone.

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5 thoughts on “Kerala Fish Curry and India’s Demographic Dividend

  1. Ha ha! That was funny. But you know what, I didn’t realize this at all. Probably, because the southern most State I have lived in recent times is Maharashta, and here most Bihari Chottus are periodically driven away by the various factions of the almighty Shiv Sena, probably to keep their vada-pav and other such foodstuff authentic!

  2. Although I don’t have any numbers to quote, I am doubtful.

    The soaring number of Keralan migrants in Bangalore, to me, seems like an easy example of large young population of Kerala(under 30), but also lack of opportunities at home. Migration from Kerala probably outstrips migration into. It is the same story in coastal Karnataka and western TamilNadu where young Keralites flock in seach of land to till or work, both which seems to be short in supply in Kerala. I would be surprised to hear that lot of outsiders are finding work in Kerala, which was at least not evident to me when I spent a week there last year.

    You are more likely to find that fish curry in corners of Delhi or Bangalore, which only increases your chance đŸ™‚

  3. Shantanu – hey, that vada-pav allusion for authentic maharastrian-ness is interesting. Especially, considering vada-pav is probably one of contemporary Indian history’s most cosmopolitan outputs, gven its Goan/Portugese provenance.

    Arun – statistics on Kerala’s decreasing growth rate of population is well documented across many sources; incidentally the other state that has the very same phenomenon now is Tamil Nadu. All the southern states are seeing decling population growth rates, though Kerala & Tamil Nadu are unique in the sheer quantum of the decrease. The TFR (Total Fertility Rate, a commonly used index to measure growth in population) in Kerala currently stands at 1.7 at which level it is almost the same as a number of western european countries – below replacement levels. So, the fact that Kerala has a low-growth, ageing population is pretty well proven by statistics. My worry about my mallu fish-curry continues..

  4. Different demographics- similar results here in San Diego.
    KC’s Tandoor is a local joint which serves up a decent dosa. The original cook spoke Hindi and the current one speaks Guatamalan Spanish. The other day, he said, dosas are better a little later- wait for the iron to get hotter!

  5. Well Avira, in such ways does food evolve. It is my pet theme that all ‘authentic cuisine’ is actually fusion cuisine. The only difference is, it is fusion cuisine that has stood the test of time. Maybe, one day we will see some fine alchemy of Spanish food & Dosas and in 2070 or thereabouts it will seem to be the ‘authentic cuisine’ of the American south-west. More power to your Guatamalan spanish dosa chef at KC’s. May his tribe increase.

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