(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.