Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bark, Bites, and Bozo...

I have a big mouth.

Not a big mouth in the physical sense. I could never give Mick Jagger or Julia Roberts a run for their money. Actually, I wish I had their money. I mean a big mouth in the sense that for most of my teen and adult life, I could almost always be counted on to say the wrong thing at the most inappropriate time. "So aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, how did you enjoy the parade?". Where gaffes and epic lapses of taste once sprang from the youthful desire to be a smart ass, age has brought on a brand new root cause for foot-in-mouth disease: plain stupidity.

A short time ago, we told our good friend Gee that there were still lots of spices that we wished to capture on film in their native habitat, and so he introduced us to his friend Anwar, a local businessman. Anwar is an extremely affable gentleman who, despite having only just met us, was more than happy to show us his farm on the outskirts of Cochin. Gee set up a visit for Friday afternoon, and drove us out to the farm in his new white Honda CR-V. This was a good thing, because if we had been left to our own devices, we would never have found the farm. For almost a half hour, we snaked through labyrinthine unmarked country lanes. Gee had spent about ten years living in the area, so he knew it like the back of his hand. On the way, Gee told us a bit more about Anwar. They were old friends. Anwar was doing very well for himself and owned several properties. Gee also mentioned in passing that he was a Muslim. I should have paid more attention.

We arrived at Anwar's very comfortable country place and were ushered inside to get out of the midday heat. Wireless mics and transmitters were quickly affixed to Laurel, Gee, and Anwar. I set up my camera gear, strapped on my field pack containing the audio mixer, wireless receivers, cables, and headphones, and followed Anwar out into his garden, which was steaming in 43C heat. Anwar had many amazing things to show us. A large curry leaf bush was growing just outside his door. This leaf is absolutely mandatory in many South Indian dishes, and there is no effective substitute. The plant was in it's dormant stage, and we were told that in the rainy season it would grow much larger and more lush.

Next to that was a tree that he called "allspice". It wasn't the allspice berry producing plant, but rather a tree whose leaves embodied the aromas of 7 different herbs and spices. More than halfway to KFC. They said it was sometimes used in curries. We had never even heard of this before. We crumbled a dried leaf and sure enough, there was traces of cinnamon, clove, and a host of other scents, all coming from one leaf!

Next we saw a neem tree, whose bitter leaves have great medicinal value. Next to that was a very unusual tree bearing clusters of what looked like oversized oblong grapes. It's called "bilimbi", or "prawn tamarind". The fruits are slightly sour, and go very well with prawns. As if on cue, Anwar's wife appeared with a tray of glasses of cold bilimbi and lime juice. Gee told us that it was an extremely healthy drink, and he was right. It was extremely refreshing, if only for about 30 seconds. It was hot outside!

Adjacent to the bilimbi were a couple of large tamarind trees. Some of the tamarind pods were ripe, and had fallen on the ground. Tamarind is essential for providing the necessary "souring" in a well balanced curry, and it's used not only in South Indian cooking, but in other Asian cuisines as well, such as Thai and Vietnamese. Moving on through the property, we came to the cinnamon tree, and Anwar's farmhand peeled off several strips of incredibly aromatic cinnamon bark for us with his machete. We have since dried it, and used some for cooking. It's nice to know where your food comes from! Next was a soursop tree, which yielded a large thorny tangy fleshed fruit like a football. Jackfruit. Mangoes. Guava. Several kinds of chillis. We were in heaven!

On a nearby piece of property he also owned, Anwar showed us his tapioca plantation, where Laurel and the farmhand pulled up a massive cluster of this tuberous staple. Tapioca, also called cassava, is a very common starch round much of the world, but largely unknown in North America. A fast growing thin stalk hides a cluster of large sweet potato like growths just under the soil. It's bland, but a perfect vehicle for sauce. We took some back to Anwar's kitchen, peeled it, and pressure cooked it until it was tender. Anwar's wife, who is another great cook and a truly gracious hostess, made an awesome chutney from back yard chillis, shallot, ginger, salt, coconut oil, and yet another kind of tamarind, the smoky "fish tamarind".

Before we knew it a sumptuous meal was placed before us in Anwar's beautiful dining room. Two kinds of fish curry. A beef curry. A prawn dish. A plate of tapioca with chutney. Then beers magically appeared, and subsequently began to flow. Anwar sat down, all sweaty and somewhat chuffed at his first foray before the cameras, and surprised us by producing a bottle of whiskey, which he used to fortify his glass of beer. More beer. More whiskey. We began to talk of food. He surprised us again with his familiarity with Nigella Lawson, the British TV presenter famed nearly as much for her prodigious foundation garments as she is for her food. At the mention of her name, I outlined a large hourglass shape with my hands and mimed two large mounds on my chest. Anwar laughed and nearly spat a prawn through his nose. More beer. More whiskey...

The conversation moved to the importance of maintaining old ways of doing things relating to food. Somewhat emboldened by the 6 gallons of cold Foster's I had ingested at this point, I ventured off on a monologue about the glories of pork. "Sometimes I get a whole pig, and butcher it myself. We get it all ground up and make our own sausages and everything! ". My enthusiasm ramped up. "We even cure and smoke our own bacon, use the feet for soup stock, and eat the kidneys!!! We use everything but the squeal! Yup, God has never created a more perfect creature than the pig!". Not content with that graphic description of butchery, I sipped my beer and went on to describe our annual pig roast barbeque. "We stick that bad boy on the spit at dawn, and slow roast it all day. About a hundred people show up, and inside of an hour and half, the whole pig is pretty much gone! God, we love pork!!!!"

It was only on the ride home, bathed in a beery glow and grinning a satisfied grin from the day's shooting, that the epic scale of my cultural insensitivity struck me. I had just been hosted by a Muslim family for the day, and been invited into their home to share copious food and drink with them at their table. Naturally, any reasonable person would see this as a golden opportunity to launch into a half-hour long lecture on the glories of pork. It was later agreed by all that entirely new levels of stupidity had been reached by yours truly.

A dubious honour, but after a lifetime of this kind of thing, I was used it. Like I said. I have a big mouth...


Tapas and Dim Sum said...

Wow, this post was even funnier the second time around when I read your faux pas to Jesee!

I've just been informed that there's a jamón hanging in our closet. Just hope it's not next to my good suits...may be hard to explain my scent at the next meeting, especially since we have a fragrance-free policy at the office.

Looking forward to our return to the land of the Holy Ham. Finding it increasingly difficult to control the cravings for jamóns, chorizos, salchichóns, sobrasadas and butifarras. *slurp*

Hey folks, here's an about joining us in Spain and filming the porky pig for your next production?

Miss Mara said...

Hi kids, how's the weather? Everytime I post here it disappears but "try and try again" my ballet teacher taught me.
Did Miles get his Birthday greeting from Adin?
Well, this will disappear in a moment so I won't waste too much time here.
Love you all!

Miss Mara said...

Oh my god, it's there! I feel silly now so being so lame and negative.
I still love you all.

Miss Mara said...

OOOOh, one could get hooked on this...

Anonymous said...

Mara, you made it! Yippeee! You can also "subscribe" so that you always know if there is a new post rather than having to check in regularly - not that we mind you checking in!

Miles is delinquent in his email reply and birthday thank yous but he did get Adin's email and was thrilled.