Continued from Food and Wine Trails Spring 2013, we Follow the ladies of Poppadoms on their journey through india….
DAYS 13-14: FORT KOCHI
Hello Kerala! We got off the plane wrapped in all these layers and straight into 32 degree heat! The next day Mum experienced her first Keralan cooking class with a local housewife. She made four dishes using a single coconut – from Coconut Chicken Masala and Cabbage Thoran, to a Mixed Vegetable Avial and Channa Kadala. Plus this layered ground rice and coconut flour cylinder called Puttu, which is gluten-free too. With exception of the Thoran, I haven’t tried any of these before. It was a nice light change from the rich dishes in Rajasthan. Mum really liked the fact that the dishes didn’t use much oil or salt too. Plus, Jasmin learnt how to eat rice and dishes the traditional way by hand. At last our food journey in Kerala has begun!
Later that day the temperature rose to 36 degrees, so we went down to the beach to check out the Chinese Fishing Nets in action. The nets were a present to help the fishermen with their catch. The problem is there is a lot of by-catch and definitely no sustainable practices. Kerala is located in the south of India and is known as ‘God’s Own Country’. It is beautiful with lush green rice fields, sky high coconut trees and surrounded by lake, as well as the Arabian Sea. With all that luscious scenery you can tell why Kerala has more of a laid-back feel to it. The only downside is the amount of rubbish, especially on the beaches.
DAY 15-16: ‘VENICE OF THE EAST’
The next day we headed to Alleppey, a small town on the backwaters of Kerala that is also dubbed ‘Venice of the East’. Through the homestay we booked an all day canoe ride on the backwaters for the next day.
The locals had the ultimate seasonal and local philosophy. They cook whatever fish they happen to catch and other ingredients are plucked from trees or plants. For lunch we had a Keralan Thali on a banana leaf ‘plate’. Ours had small portions of many items including chutney (1 beetroot and 1 coconut/mango), Keralan rice, Thoran (dry cabbage dish tempered with mustard seeds and grated coconut), a yellow daal with potato (which was like a porridge), dry spice rub fish, and raw mango pickle). On the rice they poured some raw mango sauce too. We ate it with our right hand using the technique we learnt from Mum’s cooking class. The goal is to have a clean palm and not have anything dripping from your fingers or on your fingernails. We’re still practicing!
After visiting some of the local villages and waving to the kids we tried some Toddy. This is Kerala’s local coconut beer from the fermented sap of the coconut. Usually there’s a clay pot positioned in the coconut tree too collect the sap, a ‘Toddy Tapper’ then climbs the tree twice a day too ‘tap’. The morning extract has a lower alcohol content than the later one. They were trying to sell a 1/2 litre to us, but we ended up going halves with the other couple to try the taste. It was disgusting, or shall I say an acquired yeasty taste. All I could taste was a warm yeast favour followed by a slight taste of coconut. It was only later that we were told by Biju that we were probably given old Toddy and it should be served cold – doh!
DAYS 17-19: BACK TO COCHIN
The next day we decided to pamper ourselves and check out The Rice Boat restaurant inside the swanky Taj Malabar hotel.
Like the name suggests the restaurant is shaped and designed to feel like a rice boat that Kerala and its backwaters is known for. Rice boats are crafted using locally harvested jack wood planks called ‘aanjii’, these planks are firmly secured with handmade coir rope. During the entire assembly of the boat, not a single nail is used! It’s then coated with black resin made from boiled cashew kernels.
We decided to share 3 fish dishes – the signature Meen Pollicathu (a delicious fish fillet encased with an aromatic spice blend and wrapped in a banana leaf to poach), Moilee (a light, mild coconut milk and ginger sauce), and the Meen Roast (with spice rub that’s been shallow fried). This was hands down the best seafood I’ve eaten in my life! The Rice Boat has a simple approach to their cooking, showing the dishes eaten in villages across Kerala. For dessert we ordered the fresh Coconut Soufflé (it was more like a mousse or no-bake cheesecake minus the cracker base) and the Cardamon Trilogy sent by the Chef. We cannot wait to eat here again and try another set of new dishes. The Chef was so passionate about his food and we chatted for ages talking food and comparing locations.
DAYS 25-26: AND…RELAX
From our 15 days in Kerala we learnt that Kerala is a melting pot of cultures, with 60% being Hindu, 20% Christian, and 20% Muslim. Not only has that influenced the food of Kerala but there has been an international influence too with Chinese and Portuguese techniques, as Cochin was the main hub for trading spices. As well as the open Tamil Nadu border.
Even though there are many different religions, everyone is united through the Onam festival, for the harvest in the middle of August. A special 25-36 item ‘Sadya’ menu is created and served on a banana leaf. And even though all of the items will have coconut in them, each will be unique in flavour.
Finally, when I asked the chef to describe the food of Kerala he replied ‘Kerala is ‘God’s own country, and the food is ‘God’s own food”.