Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Rare Sighting

If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it. It has long been considered extinct by experts, yet there was the evidence before me. Irrefutable.

It lives.

I should backtrack a little. Yesterday, we were invited to film our friend Chitra participating in a local cooking competition. Chitra was going to make her favourite duck dish, and having previously sampled its ducky majesty, I was convinced that her triumphant victory was a given, the recording of which was a mere formality. The scene was very interesting. At least 50 women were gathered in a large room in a local Christian center to battle it out. At stake were prizes valued at around 5000 Rs, but I suspect that although it was never said out loud, bragging rights played a significant role in the participation of these ladies. "Yo! That's MY dosa! Eat it. EAT IT!!!. You in my house now!".

The contest was sponsored by a local radio station, the promotion manager of which granted Laurel and me permission to film the whole thing, even the super-secret judging. Over 50 tables were laid out in this big crumbly fluorescent-lit room. Every table was covered in an identical gingham tablecloth that looked like something that had been recently peeled off of Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. (She was much hotter than Ginger, but I digress...) All the women had about an hour and a half to assemble their goodies, which had been pre-cooked at home. There were marks to be awarded for both taste and presentation, and judging from some of the elaborate presentations, deep within the mysterious folds of many of the saris beat the heart of a budding structural engineer.

A wide range of dishes were presented, ranging from faithful takes on Kerala classics to interesting hybrid "fusion" efforts, in which existing classics are deconstructed, reworked, and rebuilt from the ground up, often with mixed results. After the ladies had assembled their creations, they were whisked out out of the hall, and the judging began in earnest. The team consisted of an executive chef from a prominent hotel, and a delightfully imperious lady whom I believe was an esteemed food critic/author. Rounding out the team was the winner of last year's contest. I followed the three judges around as they moved from table to table. They probed, prodded, sniffed, and tasted, and made copious notes on nearly 55 items.

Chitra's dish was first off. A fabulous spicy coconutty duck gravy served with pidi, which is a really tasty coconut and rice flour dumpling thing that kind of resembles gnocchi. They have a great taste on their own, but they are an ideal counterpoint to a spicy gravy dish. It's good. Real good. A town without pidi is not a place I want to live.

On the judges went, bravely munching their way through offering after offering with complete poker faces. If they had any bias, it was pretty hard to detect. Then suddenly.... I saw it. I had seen only grainy black and white pictures of it in history books, and I had to look twice to make sure that what I was seeing was no illusion, but there it was, right in front of me. Without a doubt, it had up and migrated the Aleutian Land Bridge during the last Ice Age and evolved into the specimen before me.

The dreaded church potluck hard boiled eggs.

Black olives of questionable pedigree, only recently liberated from lengthy confinement in a can, are carefully placed atop sliced hard boiled eggs, one olive per slice, and these slices in turn are placed on a bed of what appeared to be macaroni slathered in a whitish concoction of unknown origin. A true weapon of ass destruction. No doubt the fine folks at Monsanto had some hand in the ingredient list. If had been carrying a geiger counter, the readings would have been off the charts. The accompanying sign, which was in no way meant to be ironic, said "Special Salad". This was undoubtedly the low point of the competition. The judges remained stoic. If they were appalled at this entry, they were professional enough not to show it.

The other entries were quite varied, and there were some truly stunning examples of home cookery. Everything from simple but good idli and sambar, to ornately sculptured creations filled with prawns, chicken, and other bits of yumminess. It was agonizing following the judges around with a camera, constantly watching them eat bits of all this amazing stuff while fighting the urge to say "Uuuuhhhh... can I try that?". Interestingly, when the judges encountered something that was "fusiony", they did not appear to be as happy as they were when they were presented with something more in the realm of "classic". At around table 45, the judging slowed down considerably, and one of them confided to me "I'm so stuffed!". I could have sworn that one of the judges just looked at the very last entry, waved her hand, and went "Meh...".

With the judging done, the women filed back into the hall to see how they had fared. It was really a beautiful gathering. A vibrant mix of Hindu and Muslim women, all smiling at each other with genuine affection, and seeming to get real pleasure out of both an opportunity to shine outside of the house, and getting some recognition for their artistry and the hard work that they do. For us, it was a huge opportunity to gauge what kind of food was being made in the homes of Kerala. The winners were announced to a smattering of golf applause, and then the real business of eating got underway. The noise level ramped up considerably as the contestants roved from table to table, happily sampling each other's wares. Laurel and I sat in plastic deck chairs as enthusiastic cooks brought us little tastes of the things that they had made. I passed on the hard boiled eggs, but the coconut chutney sculpted into a Pokemon character was one of my faves... All in all, a great day of filming, and it reinforced our suspicion that the best food in India comes from home kitchens, and not from restaurants.

Chitra's entry should have won, and frankly, I think that the judges may have been bribed by the Special Salad lady. I have no evidence.

1 comment:

Sam said...

you are the funny man mr robert, thank you, thank you for your sharing. Big love to you all - loved the Monsanto reference - devilled eggs me thought... guess who the two geniuses who invented astro-turf worked for in 67 or thereabouts??? The big M.