Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Stanley's Steamers

We awoke on New Years Eve at around 7:30. The crows had long finished their early morning squawk, the cicadas had stopped their humming, and the day was beginning to heat up already. As is now our custom, I put some water on for masala chai, and when it boiled Laurel went in to add the tea powder, milk, sugar, fresh ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and clove. Emma was also up, and went into the kitchen to chat with Laurel. I was checking my email in the living room, during one of those rare moments of phase coherence when both the power and the internet were on at the same time, when I saw our landlord, Stanley, amble up the front steps, looking very determined. The doorbell rang. "Stanley's here!", I yelled out to the girls. The ladies were not exactly dressed in a way that would have made for acceptable viewing by our next door neighbour. They scurried about and locked themselves in the kitchen, the nearest point of refuge. I thought I may have heard a muffled four letter word or two, but I'm not sure.

I opened the door to Stanley, and the first thing he said as he pointed to the gate was "Where is lock?". I had forgotten to re-lock the front gate with the big silver padlock when we returned from our outing the previous evening. A most embarrassing gaffe for a fledgeling tenant. I located the errant padlock on the front deck and made a motion to pick it up, but was waved off by Stanley. Gruffly, he said "Come!", and walked around the side of the house. I followed, figuring that he was going to show me some new light switch or water tap that might require my attention in the future. Stanley is a detail guy. I was very surprised to see his smiling wife Gee Gee standing at the fence. To my even greater surprise, she began to pass dishes of food to Stanley over the fence! A big covered bowl of steamed idli, those little fermented rice cakes so common here for breakfast. A big bowl of amazing sambar, and finally a freshly made batch of coconut chutney with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and red chili.

This was a traditional South Indian breakfast, and a fabulous homemade one at that. Together, a smiling Stanley and I carried this treasure carefully into the house. The girls still had not had time to get dressed, and were still trapped in the kitchen! But there was no stopping Stanley. He told the boys in no uncertain terms that hey needed to sit down at the table. I went into the kitchen to get some plates, and a ferocious round of sign language ensued between Laurel and me. Something to the effect of "There's a strange man with a big mustache out there, and I'm not wearing any pants!". I countered with "I know! I'm getting plates because he brought us breakfast! Stay here!!" I returned to the dining room with plates, and Stanley took immense pleasure in serving Isaac an idli, and then gently spooning some of the sambar on top for him. Same with Miles. He now insists that the boys call him "Uncle", which pleases him greatly. He's just the nicest man, and we can't believe how lucky we are to have crossed paths with him and his lovely wife. Gee Gee, as I have said before is an amazing cook.

Through a brief exchange of pidgin English and sign language, I was able to make Stanley understand that the reason my wife was not out here greeting him and thanking him for the breakfast was because she was trapped in the kitchen without her pants. Emma too. After thanking him profusely, he ambled out the door. Laurel and Emma emerged, and we tucked into a truly wonderful breakfast. My goal is to learn to make sambar and chutney as good as Gee Gee's. She's promised to teach us, and let us film it to boot. Can't wait!

Later, we went to meet John and Mary Ann at the boat dock. We caught one of the ferries to Fort Cochin and poked around the bazaar street. I finally took out my video camera for some preliminary outdoor filming experience, and was later rewarded with some great footage when I reviewed it last night. We were a little late going, so we missed the rice meal at the local diner, and were forced to resort to a very posh restaurant instead. Here, the inviolable Law of Inverse Expectations was in full evidence. There was cutlery. Always a bad sign. I'm not exaggerating when I say that each dish had an extra zero after it, compared to the similar offering in more humble surroundings down the street. We all kept waiting for the flavour to happen, but it was just flat... Sort of like ordering a pepperoni pizza and getting a plain rice cake instead. Literally ten times the price, and one tenth as good.

Later, we left Jewtown and went into Fort Cochin to find the fish market. This was pretty cool, as we watched boat after boat land on the beach, only to pull out some very large fish which were placed on the walkway within seconds of landing. Instantly, a crowd of about 20 men surrounded the fish, and inside of 3 minutes, the auction was over and the fish were packed in ice and loaded onto trucks. We managed to by a giant cuttlefish that was still twitching a bit and changing colour, vainly trying to blend into the surroundings in hopes of not being noticed, We took the cuttlefish to a nearby restaurant, which grilled it for us for a small fee. No way we could complain about the freshness there!

We lay in bed last night, and listened to the fireworks going off in the neighbourhood at midnight. At least I hope they were fireworks... Tomorrow, we're blowing a months rent on a houseboat cruise through the backwaters. We're told that it is indeed extravagant, but worth every rupee. Its a deluxe three bedroom floating air conditioned palace. We get all our meals and drinks, and we may even be able to fish too! Stay tuned for that one.

In the meantime, we wish all our friends and family, a very happy new year!


Murray A said...

And a VERY happy new year to you, Laurel, the boys and Emma. Enjoy your cruise!

goldengenius said...

Hi Guys,
Murray Atherton, one of our neighbours on Eaglecliff sent us your blog connection - I have been SO enjoying it as I look out at piles of snow and fog towards our Queen of Capilano - where is she?! Just back from India myself - and all you are saying rings so true.

This is the first blog I have really been interested in, maybe it is a generational thing? or maybe they were not that interesting. We too are foodies and are going to try a couple of your recommendations in Vancouver. Do you know Meeru and Vikram Vij? If you do, you will know they are great foodies. They are wonderful people and have two great restaurants. Keep writing it's great fun ........Goldengenius!

Rob Bailey said...

Hi GoldenGenius!

Thanks very much for the kind words. As you know, Murray is a great supporter or all things Bowen, and we're very glad that he passed on the link to you. Where were you in India?

Nice to meet some fellow food freaks. You'll really enjoy the Cafe D'Lite place, but unfortunately our friends at Orchid Delight had to close down in order to deal with some personal issues ion Singapore. They will be back at some point, but they couldn't leave the reatuarant idle for 6 months when they were away.

I don't know Meeru and Vikram, but I would love to meet them. I'm a big fan of Vij's, as is Laurel. We would like to persuade him to do a guest shot on our little TV project if we could!

I suspect a dinner with you, Murray, spouses, and us is in order when we return!

goldengenius said...

Hi Rob
Send me a real email and I will forward it to Meeru and Vikram. I can also tell you a little about my last India Oh India trip. Are you on Facebook? I have posted a new photo album there under my real name! We were going to go to one of your Vancouver restaurants last night, however it was such an awful night, more snow and slush, we decide not to go that far. Instead we went to one of our favourite restaurants, Tapestree on Robson - yummy for a nice bottle of wine and some tapas. Mike and Nicole have been doing a wonderful job there now for 11 plus years. They are going to open a lunch time place on Denman just around the corner! Golden Genius

Rob Bailey said...

Hi GoldenGenius!

Yes, I am on facebook. Robert Bailey. Should be able to search and send a friend request. That may be the only way to exchange proper email addresses. I'll be glad to send you one when I get your proper address. I don't really want to publish mine up here.
I think I met Nicole with James West at the Hotel Vancouver bar a few months ago. She was very nice. It would be lovely to get a proper introduction to Vikram and Meera, and thanks for offering. I'd love to check out the details from your trip, too!

All the best/Rob