Friday, March 6, 2009

Shtanley's Shtoo

Enough Larium induced piffle. Time to get back to basics.

First off, we want to thank all the people that took time out to write comments or send us a private email in response to our plea from a couple of posts back. In retrospect, it was obviously a cry for help. Nevertheless, our staunch friends came through with much appreciated notes from the home front. We are now reassured that we have not slipped into some odd curry flavoured parallel universe, never to be seen or heard from again. Your comments ranged from "Keep it up. The pictures and recipes are nice. We're very much enjoying this", to "You bastards. How dare you complain when you're sitting amongst the palm trees enjoying 90+ straight days of sunshine. I'm freezing my soggy ass off here". No matter. It was great to hear from friends old and new. Thanks. Ahhhhhhh.......

This week we filmed a great segment with Gigi, our landlord Stanley's wife. As some of you may recall, we were invited to their house for a Christmas lunch. Well, some might call it lunch. It was more an epic two and a half hour festival of gluttony. Knowing what I do now, it must have taken the better part of two days to prepare. The first course, which was brought out shortly after Stanley literally stuffed a big piece of pineapple cake directly into my gaping maw, was a delicious vegetable and coconut concoction served with appam, the light and lacy rice and coconut pancake. Incredibly balanced and nuanced, this dish had a complexity that belied its simple ingredient list. We had never had anything like it before in any Indian restaurant. "What IS this?", I asked, between enthusiastic mouthfuls. "It's fantastic". "Ishtoo", replied Stanley, looking very pleased that I was pleased. I was tempted to reply "gesundheit", but fought the urge. The puzzled look on my face made Stanley repeat it. "Ishtoo". Suddenly it was clear to Laurel and me. Stew! Yes, that's it! Vegetable stew. The name of this dish is a Malayalam mutation of the English word, much like "milk-uh" and "curd-uh". Despite their propensity for appending extra syllables, they make-uh some-uh good-uh ishtoo. Almost Italian, really.

So yes, ishtoo is not a personal electronics device made by Apple-uh. It's a very tasty combination of potatoes, beans, carrots, onions, and coconut milk. It's seasoned with fresh green chili, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and whole black pepper. Finally, the whole mixture is tempered with dried red chili, mustard seeds, and crispy shallots. First, Gigi showed us how to make appam. I've made appam a couple of times here, but always from a prefab mix. As you might expect, mine were pale imitations of the ones that Gigi makes. A quantity of rice is soaked overnight, then drained. This gets ground up in the mixie with some watery coconut milk and some cooked rice. Salt and yeast are added, and the mixture sits for a couple of hours. The yeast makes the whole mixture rise, and the bubbly batter doubles in volume. Next, Gigi heated up a special non-stick pan called a "tava" (pronounced "Ta-wha"), which is slightly parabolic in shape. Once heated, she ladled a scoop of the batter into the pan, and gently swirled around the center, which left a little island of batter in the the deepest part of the pan. In a couple of minutes, the edges turn crispy brown, and the finished appam gets slid out of the tava in all its lacy majesty. This she repeated until all the batter was gone. She must have made a few dozen of these.

For the iShtoo, she simply put all the vegetables in a large pot, along with the spices, salt, and a couple of cups of thin coconut milk. Then she covered it, and let it simmer for fifteen minutes. That's it. She removed it from the heat, and stirred in some "thick" milk (first extraction). This is done off the heat so that the coconut milk does not curdle. Finally, she heated up some coconut oil (1/2 cup?) for tempering, that all important process of finishing a curry. When the oil was hot, she put in the mustard seeds, red chili, and curry leaves When the seed sputtered a bit, she put in a load of sliced shallots and fried them until they were crispy golden brown. This she placed immediately into the iShtoo, yielding a satisfying and fragrant sizzle. A couple of stirs, and the dish was ready to serve.

Appam is the ideal accompaniment to many South Indian dishes. Their lacy texture is perfect for absorbing every last drop of gravy, as well as for grasping the yummy little bits lurking in the sauce. Emma and the boys were summoned away from their schoolwork being done at our house next door, and we all sat down to a stunning lunch. Laurel and I both marveled at how such a simple ingredient list could yield something as interesting and complicated in taste. Then again, it should come as no surprise that quality ingredients combined with good technique should make something incredibly tasty.

Good ingredients.. Good technique. Can't go wrong with the basics!

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