Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Unusual Snax

"More mongoose please, Dad!"

These are words I never thought would emanate from my son's mouth. And mongoose is something I never thought would go in his. Or mine.

We spent a morning on Vypeen Island in an attempt to track down the largest mud crab known to man. I believe that we came dangerously close with the purchase of a 1.2 kilo monster. Our friend Rajeesh, a local lawyer and herbal aphrodisiac entrepreneur who also happens to be our neighbour, took us all out to Vypeen Island in our quest for crustaceans. It really helps to have someone who reads and writes Malayalam (an interesting palindrome) taking you around. Unbeknownst to us, crab was being advertised all around in a variety of little stalls. Just not in English! We ended up buying three in total from two different shops. The 1.2 kilo specimen had the biggest claws I've ever seen, aside from a massive lobster I once saw in the airport in Halifax. The taste was pretty good, but I must say that our native Dungeness crabs are pretty hard to beat.

After making the grab for crab, we stopped the car near a roadside vendor who was making and selling freshly pressed sugar cane juice. He had one of those little presses that sort of vaguely resembles a wringer from an old washing machine, except his was way more uptown. It was powered by a little diesel motor, as opposed to most, which are hand-driven with a large wheel. A large length of sugar cane, maybe three or four feet long is repeatedly run through the wringer until all the juice is extracted and collected. This guy's trick was to squeeze a lime in with it. It should be noted that limes here are sweeter than the varieties we get at home, and it really added a nice edge to the drink. Great thing on a hot day!

Rajeesh was determined to show us some of the best treats Cochin has to offer, so our next stop was at a funky little North Indian restaurant that he liked to frequent. Here, they had only aloo parotha on offer. "Aloo" means potato, and a parotta, also known as parantha in the North is a kind of flatbread that is grilled. The "aloo" variation means that you get a grilled piece of flatbread, stuffed with a spicy potato mixture, which is then lovingly brushed with ghee and served up with a side dish of yoghurt. A big dish of fresh green chilis sat on the table as an accompaniment. "Potato and grilled bread?", you might ask. "Big deal". Not here, folks. These were the best ones that Laurel and I had ever eaten, and we've had few in our time. They were so good, we ended up ordering seconds. All the while our noisy chewing, punctuated only by the occasional "Mmmmmmmmm..." was being observed by a young man at the next table who was slicing about 10 pounds of potent green chili on an old wooden block, without the benefit of protective gloves. I remember thinking to myself "I hope he doesn't have to pee soon".

Our warmup snack completed, we drove to the outskirts of Cochin. Our destination was a toddy shop of some reknown. Toddy is a beer-like beverage derived from tapping a palm tree. It's a whitish, cloudy, unfiltered, and a decidedly coarse kind of mildly alcoholic beverage. Real working man's swill. It's served in a large clear jug, and comes with its own hand-held strainer. Never a good sign in a beverage. It's kind of sour tasting, vaguely reminiscent of "chang", which is a Tibetan beer-like concoction. There's also a similarity to "pulque", a cactus derived drink from Mexico that occupies a similar socio-economic niche. Laurel and I sampled chang at a Tibetan wedding in 2000. It was poured from a battered old aluminum pot, the spout of which was greased with a liberal dollop of yak butter. This apparently made it taste better. Toddy, on the other hand could have maybe used a little yak butter. It tasted vaguely coconutty, but was not the kind of bevvy that would make this gastronaut line up for seconds. Rajeesh had no such misgivings, and downed at least three full glasses of the stuff. He was driving.

Rajeesh ordered the food for us in a burst of rapid fire Malayalam. There were enough rrrrrrrrolled "r"'s interspersed with blurry vowel sounds to make him sound a bit like a methedrined Ricky Ricardo telling Lucy she could not come down to the club under any circumstances. Soon, a couple of plates appeared. They were chunks of something done up in the Keralan Black Pepper Fry style. "Now what is this?", I asked innocently. "This is mongoose, and the other one is the daily special, how do you say... crane". Crane was actually the white egret that we often see keeping a cow company in the grass. Kind of like a heron, but without the appetite for the goldfish in your pond. We were unclear as to the provenance of the mongoose. Was it the recent loser in a battle with a cobra? Road kill? Where does one shop for quality mongoose? We all looked at each other across the table, each trying to gauge the reaction of the other. He might as well have said "Burrowing Owl in a delightful whale sperm sauce. The sperm is ethically harvested...". The boys did not bat an eye, and happily munched whatever chunks of endangered species were placed on their plates. It was pretty spicy to be sure, but despite our adult misgivings, we all dug in fearlesly. Miles really liked it. "The mongoose is really good, dad!", he exclaimed. To be fair, it wasn't that bad at all. Bony. A little thin on meat. Mongoosey. Mind you, a pair of Adidas would taste pretty good in that sauce.

Next came a plate of tapioca root, and a plate of shrimp pepper fry. This was followed by 4 big plates of karimeen, the local specialty fish, swimming in a fiery chili sauce, which was fantastic. After that came a plate of duck. All that sauce was mopped up with plates of appam, those little pancake-like flatbreads, and puttu, the coconut log thing. We actually cancelled the last plate of deep fried karimeen due to the imminent danger of bursting. Again. We drove back to our house in a satiated state of disbelief. We had eaten the mongoose and lived to tell the tale. Surely the cobra population was now on the upswing.

No rest for me, though. I had three and a half pounds of crab to cook for dinner!


neelima said...

i found your blog by accident i love the way you narrate the incidents.I love cooking and food!. I am from kerala but living in Australia now. All those dishes make me drool in this far away land! keep it going..good luck

Rob Bailey said...


Thanks for the kind words. After eating our way around Kerala, I can understand why you might feel a bit homesick! How did you find us by accident?

Best regards/Rob

neelima said...

Yes! i found you while searching for something else about kerala. I am planning to come for my vacation in feb, so i was in search of some places in cochin and i stumbled upon your blog. Loved the colorful pictures and the narration. All the very best Rob