Tuesday 25 April 2017

Kerala - part one

The state of Kerala
We'd ordered some lightly battered vegetable pakoras, fish curry and local parotta (paratha) bread. It was to be a languorous lunch hour; everything stultified by the thick, heavy midday heat. Nothing moved, apart from the small, eye blink geckos. From the trees of coconut and tamarind came the wonderfully tuneless meanderings of a Malabar Whistling Thrush. Cows belonging to the farm, sat silently in the dust, testing the shade. Not so far away the Arabian sea crashed into the coast; a sound not unlike an urban rush hour. But London was far, far away.

We were sat inland in the lunch shack; still with the sea breeze; the beach just visible. I pulled my damp back out of chair and supped my refreshing lime and mint drink. It was now in the mid 30s with humidity high. Walking was like wading, in sun soup.

The waitress approaches (smiling of course) stunning and serene (and seemingly without sweat glands) in a green and gold saree. She puts a plate on our table. A little something to start the meal. 
"What is it?" We ask.
"It's focaccia with some masala butter." She said, indicating the small buns and the swirl of tan fat, already melting. It's from chef.
Is chef Italian?
"Roy? No. He's from Alleppy I think."

Kerala, in the very south west of India, is full of contrast and suprises. I mean that figuratively, literally, ideologically. It's the richest state in India and run by a communist government so there are hammer and sickle flags everywhere. The towns are plastered with gaudy, modern, angular advertising often with LED and neon. The countryside is an almost constant green but as artificial as the many roadside hoardings for cement and aluminium sheeting. Concrete and cladding? Kerala, you see, as we were told many times, is a 'happening state'. In every ten metres of street, someone is building new.

The land is so diverse too. You can move from blue backwaters to scorching red coastal plains and be in the clouds within hours, cool and dewy among the tea trees, eucalyptus and silver oaks. 3000m up and ten degrees down with brief but wonderful torrential rain.

Tea plantations. Destined for Tetley - no really.
The waitress brings the lunch dishes, clears up the crumbs.
"How was the bread?"
"Fine." I lied.
"Not fine?" She corrected. Cutting straight to it.
"It's tasty enough..." I hoped that was enough.
"But it's not focaccia. Not even close. Sorry."
"Oh. I will tell chef." She almost leaves. A finger trails the table. "What was wrong?"
"The structure mainly. I think the flour's too low in gluten. There's not enough salt and they haven't use olive oil; at least, not that I could taste."
She contemplates me. "I'm sure chef will want to discuss this."
I explain hastily that I am not Italian, not even a professional cook but I have made focaccia hundreds of time. I wonder just how chef Roy will take my criticism.

Banana flowers, okra and tiny aubergines in Munnar market.

Sidebar: the principle language of Kerala is Maylalam, a very ancient Tamil tongue from the Dravidic family. The oldest spoken language in the world, I was told. Some of the dishes we tried we know only by their Malayalam names and by hasty napkin transliteration from patient cooks and waiting staff. So my descriptions will doubtless be fraught with errors.

This was the last two days of our 'once in a lifetime' holiday (such a depressing term) and we were at the Marari Beach resort. I'd been skeptical. A beach resort? But I have never felt so happy to be anywhere. If I had to design my own Valhalla, it would be this. It was gorgeous, with well appointed spotlessly clean villas; spa pools; an empty beach, outdoor eating under plaited palm leaf; fat white people in teeny-weeny bikini and budgie smugglers (not me!) You know the gig. I was very reluctant to leave. And no, they haven't sponsored me - I wish!

Me trying and failing to make the local bread with chef Sreeja
Notice how overexposed the outside is only feet away. So much light.

Spiced Prawns on (badly made) paratha
Drumstick curry
vegetable 'wedding' curry
But there was a farm attached, the resort was largely self sufficient. A two minute walk from your room finds you in a perfect half kilometre square of amazing edible fecundity, thick with scent. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of well tended plants. At the centre is an outdoor kitchen, modern and well equipped, and a long, solid, marble table for ten. You can wander the garden with a chef, picking vegetables and spices (did you catch that? You can pick SPICES) under guidance and then cook a three dish meal in the middle, along with locally caught fish and seafood.

Wandering, wide eyed, I recognised some after our ten day trek - cinnamon, nutmeg, banana, tomatoes, pepper, coconut, mango, courgette, orange, lemon, lime, cocoa, allspice, clove. Lower down, thickets of cardamom, tea, coffee, curry leaf, lemon grass and hibiscus. Root around and you'll soon find ginger, galangal and turmeric. But there were many I'd not heard of: snake gourd, jack fruit, kokum, drumstick, amazing purple banana flowers. I could spend a happy eternity here. So long as the air-con was working, at least.

Sreeja's selection of spices. The teapot contains coconut milk of course
To the left is an 'uruli' the traditional heavy iron cooking pot.
One the last day I spent a brilliant, laughter filled couple of hours with chef Sreeja (one of three women chefs in the kitchen, she informed me). She looked perturbed when I said I'd already made the classic Kerala fish curry a few times but I'd love to try making the local bread. It's spelt 'paratha' but pronounced 'PoRoTa'. I'd wondered about its distinctive texture. Sreeja crinkled her nose but reached for the phone. Within minutes and with the calm, reassured efficiency we'd experienced for our whole stay, things moved. Dough arrived.

This is what Paratha is meant to look like - a texture unlike any other bread I've eaten. Mine didn't. After kneading the leavened dough you roll it into strips, roll the strips up and then flatten it. You then pan fry the dough and while still warm you bash the bejeezus out of it. This is a technique that looks deceptively simple, like oh, you know, kneading a decent sourdough or drawing a cartoon, that very quickly reveals the limitation of both your perception and your ability. This was not something I was going to master in a single morning.

Chef Roy did pitch up later, while I was at another cooking class. He looked very formal in his starched whites and high toque hat. "A problem with the focaccia?" He asks politely. But of course he'd not come to quibble or defend but to question. He quickly rescued me from my embarrassment. We discussed the problems he faces now they've banned (because of the bleach) high gluten, white US flour. He has to add gluten in powder form. I've not heard of this technique and I imagine it's fraught with technical problems. Olive oil is very expensive. We had a fantastic discussion comparing bread making notes.

Breakfast uttapam
One thing I wasn't expecting was how keen the Kerala chefs were to talk about 'European' cooking. Sreeja looked through this blog (I mean the entire thing) and was very interested in my cauliflower purée. She'd been asked to prepare a menu by the head chef and was keen to bring in some different dishes. I'm going to email her and find out how it went.

Tree tomato. Tastes like Kiwi
Some of the stand out dishes for me were the simplest - such as the bread. So often the case. Breakfast was one of my favourite meals. Freshest fruit bowls of mango, pineapple, tree tomatoes and melon followed by a spicy uttapam with coriander leaf, tomatoes, chillies and onion. Uttapam is a version of appam, a thick pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk, often served with a lentil sambar and a coconut chutney. Coconut is everywhere in Kerala cooking. The name literally means 'land of the coconut'.

Fish and seafood was obviously a major feature, Kerala being a coastal state. We enjoyed a kingfish 'Thora' (hard Th), a dry dish made with kingfish, grated coconut and purple spinach which confers an unusual pink colouring.

My favourite dish - well two - were served when I didn't have my decent camera to hand so the pictures look terrible. One of deep fried, honeyed cauliflower florets and the other of spiced paneer. I'm afraid even the names escaped me. I keep posting the pictures in here and then cutting them; they look so awful I'm finally omitting them. Food photographed badly is an offence. 

King fish thora
It's taken me ages to write this blog and I'm not happy with this really. I've left out so much. It will take several instalments. I have hundreds of pictures. (Yay! Holiday snaps!) I think I was defeated by the variety of my experiences and the complexity of my reactions. History, language, food, plants, people, places, geography all intersect.

Many people who have been to India often use the exact same phrase on our return: it's an 'assault on the senses'. I understand the sentiment but 'assault' suggests of violence or pain. Arriving in India is more like entering a party on a very hot summer's day where twenty fabulously interesting people, different appearance and character, all talk to you at once.

There's so much more. The amazing bushes of giant bamboo; the driving; roadside snacks of crushed sugar cane and lime; the fearless macaques; the unbelievable level of service; the lack of stomach upsets, beggars and mosquito bites; the Western Ghats. Too much. I must go back.

Finally this. Driving back from a tutored spice walk in a forest near Kumily we saw this Tamil temple procession. I've never included video before (and boy, is Blogger bad at it) but this was worth the effort.