Monday, May 25, 2009

Holy Traffic Jam, Batman!

Tuesdays in Kaloor can be an adventure, requiring extra thought and planning if you are heading out of the neighbourhood. Up on the main road for about 5 blocks or so, traffic crawls to an almost-stand-still as motorcycles and auto rickshaws jockey for position between the big red buses, all trying to get past the hordes of the faithful. This is the flock at St Antony's and they swarm the church on Tuesdays. We haven't yet figured out why Tuesdays are special but every Tuesday, rain or shine, hundreds of people flood the outside of the church, adorned with a 2 foot high neon sign that says "St Antony Pray for Us", many buying candles and incense to light in prayer, and blocking the traffic for hours on end. We have come to refer to this as the Holy Traffic Jam and we do our best to avoid the area on Tuesdays. But that is not always possible. Last Tuesday we were picked up and taken to Chitra's catering kitchen to do the last day of filming on the epic sadhya shoot. It took an extra half hour to make our way through the 5 block snag of devotees, beggars missing limbs, and candle vendors, but Chitra was all prepped and waiting for us when we did arrive. We had four dishes to do that day: olan, kaalan, kichadi and pachadi, all coconut rich dishes that highlight the main ingredients in Keralan cuisine. The cooking of the kaalan needed to be spread over more than one day but otherwise we were able to pull off the shoot successfully despite the delay. Thank Shiva (obviously St Antony is far too busy on Tuesdays to be looking after us)!

The last four dishes for the sadhya have very similar ingredients but the method used to cook and the slight variations in ingredients make each of these dishes distinct. 

Olan has a very watery "gravy", making it a lot like a soup but it is not served in a bowl or a cup but is treated like all the other curries that make up the sadhya - a spoonful on the banana leaf to mix with your rice. It has little brown beans called cowpeas in English and thin slices of pumpkin and winter melon floating in a coconut milk broth. It is gently flavoured with green chillies and reminded me a lot of a Thai soup like Tom Ka Gai. Fragrant, a little sweet, and soothing. 

Kaalan is a time-hog, taking 4 hours to reduce to the proper consistency, but oh, is it worth it! A curd (yogurt) base with turmeric, green chillies, yams, plantain, fresh ground coconut and finished with coconut oil, mustard seeds, dried red chillies and curry leaves. It is tangy, creamy, rich and spicy all at once. Apparently kaalan is rarely made at home these days, not surprising considering the attention it requires, and is usually purchased for the special feast meal at Onam (Kerala's harvest festival and the annual occasion for the sadhya).

Kichadi can be made with different vegetables (cucumber, beets, tomato, okra) but for this version Chitra deep-fried rings of bitter gourd (pavakka), that knobbly pale green cucumber-like vegetable you can find in various Asian grocery stores. Rob and I have not had a lot of luck with bitter gourd. We've had some very good dishes in restaurants, so we know that we like it when it's prepared well, but have had no success using it ourselves, it always turns out too bitter. So armed with new tips and tricks from Chitra, we are hoping to turn our luck around. Apparently one looks for the palest, least green, bitter gourd when out shopping (who knew?) for bitter gourds. After frying the bitter gourd rings, a sauce is made of fresh grated coconut, cumin seed, mustard seeds, green chillies and curd and then the dish is tempered with coconut oil, more mustard seeds, dried red chillies and curry leaves.

The most interesting dish was the pachadi. Pachadi is like a main course and dessert rolled into one - sweet, spicy, fruity and creamy. Maybe that doesn't sound very appetizing but, trust me, pachadi is as tasty as it is unusual. 

Pachadi (Fruit and Yogurt Curry)

2 ripe bananas, peeled and diced
1 whole pineapple, peeled and diced
11/2 c blanched peeled, chopped tomatoes
1-11/2 c water
1 t turmeric
2 t salt
1 1/2 t chilli powder
2 sprigs of curry leaves, stem removed
3 T jaggery (palm sugar, or substitute dark brown sugar)
1/2 fresh coconut, grated
1 t cumin seeds
4 fresh green chillies
3 T of water
1/2 c plain yogurt (not skim)
1 sprig curry leaves, stem removed
1 c whole grapes, stems removed

for tempering:
2 T coconut oil
1 t mustard seed
4 dried red chillies, broken into halves
1 sprig curry leaves, stem removed

Put bananas, pineapple and tomatoes in a large pot over medium high heat. Add 1c of water, turmeric, salt, chilli powder and curry leaves. Cover and simmer til soft, about 10 minutes. Add jaggery and stir to melt.

Grind the meat of 1/2 a fresh coconut with cumin seeds, green chillies and about 3T of water in a blender or food processor to a smooth paste. Add the coconut paste to the pineapple mixture, stir, turn heat up and check for salt. Let simmer for a few minutes until the mixture is hot again. Turn the heat to low and add yogurt. Add the leaves of another sprig of curry leaves and take off the heat. Stir in grapes.

To temper the pachadi, in another small pan, heat 2T coconut oil until hot. Add mustard seeds and wait for them to pop. When the seeds are popping, add the dried red chillies and the curry leaves. Take off heat immediately and pour over pineapple mixture. Serve with rice and other, less sweet curries as a part of an South Indian meal.

But, enough cooking, let's get back to the 'hood. St Antony's gives the neighbourhood colour. Churches here are different from the staid and quiet churches back home, they have a lot more in common with Hindu temples than Canadian churches - colourful, loud, smokey with incense and jasmine-blossom scented.

One day we were returning to our house from Fort Cochin in an autorickshaw. The driver of the auto was a particularly kamikaze driver - we were all holding on tightly as he swerved around buses into oncoming traffic, honked at cars that were slowing him down and yelled at motorcyclists (and the family of 5 hanging off the motorcycle) that were unfortunate enough to be anywhere near us. Suddenly, without any warning, the driver swerved over to the curb, came to an abrupt halt out front of St Antony's, jumped out of the rickshaw, and in about 20 seconds had purchased a candle, lit it, placed it on the alter outside with a quick prayer - leapt back in the rickshaw and carried us on our way. We all felt so much better (not!) as he plunged us back into the thick of oncoming traffic. We did, however, make it home safely, so buddy obviously had his priorities in order. This has to be the first time in history that an Indian rickshaw driver said a prayer while driving, it is usually the passengers in the back doing the praying!

"I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield, Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station, And the preacher said 'You know, you always have the Lord by your side', And I was so pleased to be informed of this, That I ran 20 red lights in His honor, Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord!"

This is our 100th blog post! Can we yak, or what?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

My neighbour is a dick.

That's the Bad. Seriously. I've been a good polite Canadian for 6 months, but I've had just about enough of my neighbour, who sees fit to blast his crapbox CD player at full volume as early as 6:45 in the morning. Every morning. The cheesy speakers, unable to deal with his feverish demands for greater volume, simply collapse under the strain and distort apathetically. It is painful. This has been going on since the first day we moved here, and shows no sign of letting up. To make matters worse, he appears to be the proud owner of only one CD, and therefore has no qualms about playing the same damn thing over and over and over again. It is pop music at its most insipid, and the lack of any redeeming musical merit annoys me just about as much as the volume. If he woke us up every morning with some Miles Davis, or Bach, it might not be so bad. Once he's sure that we're all awake, say around 8:30 or 9 AM, the music stops until evening, when his crapbox black and white TV plays Malayalam soap operas at similar volume levels with doors and windows open, broadcasting the inanity throughout the neighborhood for all to hear. I've come to believe that he must think he's actually performing a public service. I'm amazed that someone can have such profound disregard for his neighbours. At home, I would have had the police on speed dial and made a ritual out of calling to complain on a daily basis. But somehow, although I have actually briefly contemplated murder, I haven't. And I don't know why.

Oowee oowee ooooo.... wah wah wahhh...

Here's the Ugly. I have been pushed to the brink of madness with this. Earplugs don't help, as our bedroom window is within 10 feet of this Devil's Own PA System. I have worked up some elaborate revenge fantasies. Perhaps renting a PA system and pumping Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" at 3 AM would have an impact. Some Nine Inch Nails perhaps. One particularly bad night, I sat seething on the front deck, unsure as to how to manage my anger. The previous night, a couple of coconuts had fallen to the ground from our tree in the yard. I should point out here that my neighbour is a poor man. His house is ramshackle, and the tiled roof is like a patchwork quilt of blue pieces of tarp, badly patched cement, and pieces of wood and salvaged plexiglass designed to keep most of the rain out for one or two more seasons before the whole thing collapses in complete decay. There I was with coconut actually in hand, and contemplating lobbing it across the fence and onto his roof. In my mind, I imagined it shattering the roof tiles and plunging through the roof and making a direct hit onto the television set, causing the picture tube to implode right in front of him. At which point I would casually walk out of the gate, walk past the open door, wave, and say something like "Jeez, I guess the wind really caught that one, eh?". I casually passed the coconut from hand to hand as I tried to estimate which tile I would have to break in order to inflict maximum damage. After a couple of minutes, I put the coconut down. I just couldn't do it. I satisfied myself by hurling a small pebble onto the roof, sort of like warning shot across the bow. It rattled off a couple of tiles and then onto the ground. He never even heard it, and I didn't feel any better.

Shrinking back from the edge of this emotional abyss, I began to see things a little differently. This guy is poor. Dirt poor. He gets up at 5 AM because it's normal for him to do a few chores in the coolest part of the day. His CD player, TV, and one CD are possibly the only luxury items he will ever be able to afford. Why should he not be proud of that? I was going to return home to my vast collection of electronic convenience items, but he was going to still be here with his one CD and TV, trying to squeeze some sweet enjoyment from the massive lemon that life had handed him. It dawned on me that the ugliness was in my own brain. It was not a proud moment.

Oowee oowee ooooo.... wah wah wahhh...

And now the Good. This week Gee made good on his promise to show us the recipe for his famous Crab Roast and Scampi Fry. Earlier in the day, Gee had bought a bunch of smaller female crabs and several of what he calls "scampi", which are a like a cross between a very large (7-8 inches) prawn, and a langoustine. They have long, spidery claws that can double their overall length. It was the beginning of the rainy season, and this is the time where the crabs and prawns are at their sweetest, we are told. These are creatures of the brackish Kerala backwaters, and are quite different from the Dungeness crab and Pacific Spot Prawns that we are used to getting. Without cooking them at all, Gee popped off the shells of the crabs, and after making sure that all the yummy roe from the female crabs had been scraped out into the pot, the shells and the small legs were discarded. He then cleaned off the gills and cut the bodies in half. Each crab yielded 4 pieces: two body halves and two large claws. The claws were then cracked with the dull side of a knife blade so that the masala could mingle with the meat. Into a large pot they all went, along with as much of the juices from the crabs as could be salvaged. Next stop was the mixie, where Gee combined about 4 tablespoons of fresh ground black pepper, nearly 20 green chilis, a good chunk of ginger, and 4 or 5 small red onions into a coarse paste. Once the masala paste was made, Gee took half of it and used his hands to mix it in well with the crab in the pot. Then the pot was covered and placed over a flame or just long enough to cause a little steam to escape before the crab was removed from the heat. The other half of the masala was then fried in a large pot until it started to darken and get quite fragrant. Then the rest of the crab/masala was added, along with some salt. The whole thing is continually stirred and fried until the masala that coats the crab is quite dark, and the mixture starts to get a little dry. Mmmmmmmmm....

The scampi were left with their bodies still attached to the heads (the tastiest part!), and only the shell of the tail section was removed. Gee blended up shallots, garlic, ginger, and curry leaves in the mixie, and then added some salt, red chili powder, and turmeric. He carefully folded this into the bowl with the scampi and massaged the masala into the scampi, being careful not to be too vigorous, lest the heads become separated from the bodies. He heated up some coconut oil (2 cups or so), and when it was hot enough to sizzle, he gently placed the scampi into the oil to fry. It's hard to describe the wonderful smells that we were experiencing in that kitchen, but it was a seafood lover's dream. After listening for the telltale "pop" sound, Gee flipped them over to evenly cook. When he finally pulled them out of the pan, they were perfect. The masala coating them was crispy, salty, and coconutty, but the prawns were tender and perfectly cooked. The heads revealed another treasure trove of sweetness to boot. The were so good that Laurel and I unashamedly were picking bits of crispy masala off the serving dish long after the prawns had disappeared. The crab was equally marvelous. Black pepper is a most underrated spice, and the combination of a large amount of fresh black pepper with green chili made for a complex taste that seemed to go on forever. Even Gee's wife Chitra, the staunchest of vegetarians, admitted that the kitchen smelled so good, that for the first time in her life she was actually considering having a taste of seafood! The Good was really Good.

Oowee oowee ooooo.... wah wah wahhh...

My neighbour is still a dick. But I understand...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sadya Couldn't Be Here

On the plate, it doesn't seem like such a big deal.

A fresh green banana leaf was placed before me, as I creaked and groaned and somehow managed to fold my aging carcass into a cross-legged sitting position on the woven mat. Chitra, our wonderful chef friend who had spent the better part of the last week and a half preparing for this meal, carefully served up her creations one by one onto the banana leaf. A total of twenty four items go into the traditional Sadya meal, and Chitra had patiently walked Laurel and me through the creation of every dish. First, she placed payasam (a sweet cardamom-infused thin pudding much revered here) onto the leaf. Then a little salt. Then a flurry of traditional vegetarian dishes, along with several types of pickle, papad, and banana chips. A huge mound of the Keralan "chubby rice" topped with a healthy, and I do mean healthy, ladle of sambar. Then finally, a dollop of pure ghee. My expression was one of pure glee.

The order of appearance of all the items on the banana leaf is dictated by tradition, based on the principles of Ayurveda, the ancient "life-science" of India. The guiding principles are certainly beyond the scope of this humble blog post, so I'll just stick to the food. As I mentioned in a previous post, in a proper Sadya meal, there must be a full spectrum of tastes, ranging from salty, sweet, hot and spicy, bland, crunchy, and bitter. Every dish is prepared without any onions or garlic, which is unusual, but based on the Brahmin idea that members of the onion family tend to distract the mind away from focus on cosmic oneness, and instead shift the focus to thoughts about how hot your wife looks in her new outfit. Despite the absence of the garlic and onions I love, the dishes in this meal were anything but devoid of flavour. They were, in fact, spectacular. And my wife still looked good.

We had started the meal preparation the previous week with a trip to visit the lady who makes the papads by hand. Then, the next afternoon, we went to visit a Brahmin catering crew who were kind enough to show us the preparation of Payasam, which is the traditional dessert. It was shocking to see how much effort actually goes into this one dish. First, they make a kind of noodle called "ada" by making a thin paste from broken brown rice flour, oil, and water. This paste is then spread out on banana leaves and the leaves are rolled up and tied with a bit of fiber from the leaf. The finished items, which look like rolled up diplomas from Banana University, are then tossed into a large cauldron to boil for a long time. We were told to return in the morning, to see the transformation from diploma to noodle, and sure enough, at 5 AM, our faithful friend Gee pulled up in front of the house. It was still very dark, and Muslim prayers murmured somewhere off in the distance as this sleepy trio drove back to the banquet hall with camera and sound equipment.

The catering crew was still going strong, as they had actually worked through the night to ensure that their feast would be ready on time. The crew, composed of barefoot and shirtless mostly older men with some pretty questionable dental work, were all clad in orange lungis as they scurried about the fluorescent lit kitchen. We were led out back, where the "ada" was unrolled from the banana leaves, and then pressed through some wire mesh on a frame to create the noodles that would later be mixed with the payasam. It was all over by 5:30 AM, so we packed up our gear and headed back home to bed. The things we do to get the proper film footage...

Over the next week or so, our friend Chitra worked very hard to gather all the ingredients and the recipes for the remaining items in the Sadya meal that she was going to demonstrate for us. It took us five days of shooting, and on each day covered about four dishes. The pickles and papad were done, so we focused on the parade of other dishes. The first day, we made Sambar and Rasam (pepper water), which actually benefit from aging a bit in the fridge. Then I started to get dizzy as Chitra, seemingly without effort, managed to pull off over a period of days things like green bean thoran with coconut, fruit curry, cabbage thoran, olan, kootu curry, and masala curry. The list was actually much more comprehensive than that, but there were so many things that I could not film it all and make notes at the same time! It was marvelous to watch this woman work. At no time did she consult a recipe or look at a cookbook. It just flowed out of her in the most natural way, and everything was absolutely delicious. It's interesting to note that while Chitra is obviously an accomplished cook, she says that her mother thinks that she can't cook at all, and that her sister is the one with the cooking talent. Normally, being a polite Canadian, I tend to defer to my elders, but in this case, it must be stated publicly that Chitra's mom is sadly misinformed. Girl can cook!

On the final day of filming, we all gathered together at Chitra's kitchen to consume this work of art. Chitra and Gee's three kids, our two boys, and Emma were all invited to sample this celebration feast. Chitra proudly dished out her creations onto the fresh banana leaves in the prescribed order. She was beaming as she related that this was actually the one year anniversary of her husband Gee's new business, and that having a Sadya meal on this day was a happy coincidence, and most auspicious. I was not about to argue. The kids ate all theirs completely, with Miles taking a second helping of rice. He's only 8, but I swear he already eats more than I do. I'm living in fear of our teenage food budget. After they were done, Gee, Chitra, Laurel, Rajesh, and me all sat down to eat this labour of love. It was amazing, and a real privilege to both eat, and also witness the making of.

Looking at my plate, I knew it was a big deal... Thanks Chitra.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Idol Thoughts

It was time to get stoned.

Really stoned. Not the kind of exploding-seed-mexican-weed-out-back-of-the-high-school-dance kind of stoned, but the kind of stoned that can only come with... actual granite. While definitely harder to keep lit than it's illicit counterpart, granite offers many benefits, the most notable of which is its legality. Granite really is the only way to safely get stoned in India. I should backtrack a little... A few months back, Laurel and I went shopping in Fort Cochin, which is on an island in close proximity to Ernakulam, where we are firmly ensconced en famille. It can be reached by bridge or ferry, and we always opt to take the ferry. It's a 3 rupee, 15 minute ride on a dilapidated diesel-powered tub. One of those ocean-going disasters-in-waiting that always makes you grateful when you see the destination dock appear, as this means that there is less of a likelihood of your demise being touted in one of those headlines you always see: "Overloaded Ferry Capsizes, Hundreds Missing".

Fort Cochin is an odd little place. It's heavily geared towards the tourist trade, and flower-shirted, fanny-packed, sunburned travelers in various stages of morbid obesity are routinely disgorged from the cruise ships in order that the local merchants may prey upon them like so many oily-haired silk-shirted Venus fly traps. "Come into my shop sir! Special price!!" Here, it is not uncommon to see plastic being passed off as precious stones, and metal purported to be silver that will turn your skin green before you even leave the shop. You see a lot of white people here, more so than in Ernakulam across the bay. There is a lot of yoga tourism that happens here, and the streets are crawling with drawstring-panted, tank top-wearing European backpackers hoping to achieve some form of enlightenment on their 2 weeks away from their Dusseldorf cubicles. Turning left from the ferry dock, it's a couple of kilometers to the unfortunately named "Jewtown", home of India's oldest synagogue, where merchants lie in wait for prospective targets as the tourists run the gauntlet of cheese, dodging prodigious piles of goat poo along the way . Historically, this was a center for spice trading, and a lot of trade still goes on here. However, the vast majority of shops cater to the needs of the tourist. Carved elephants, bronze bells, silk scarves, and bad jewelry are the norm. Anything that is capable of collecting dust and proving to the neighbours that one has actually travelled to India is for sale here.

One of our missions on this trip was to collect some art, and the unfortunate reality is that Fort Cochin is actually the best place to go to shop for certain items. There are some antique stores in Jewtown that are actually quite amazing. Room after room of old (and in many cases, not so old...) carvings, boats, and even portions of entire buildings are on display. All items are fixed price, thus denying us the pleasure of haggling. On one trip we bought a few pieces and arranged to have them shipped home, and on that trip we spotted a cool looking Shiva lingam, which is a carved stone item used in ritual worship. They come in various sizes, and the one that caught our eye was about 20 inches tall, and weighed several hundred pounds. When we asked about the price, the sales person looked at the sticker attached to it. The sticker does not actually show the price. There is a hieroglyphic written on it that indicates the price only to the staff, and not to mere mortals like us, despite having read "The Da Vinci Code". She clicked her calculator a bit and calmly told us "575 US Dollars. Shipping extra". We liked it alright. Just not at that price....

A few days later, we told our friend Gee about this (are you starting to discern a pattern here?), and he said that he had a friend who was an architect, and that this friend would know where these carvings are produced locally. A week or so later, armed with suitable information, we drove out of town a few kilometers and then pulled over at the side of the road where a small carving business was set up. A corrugated tin shack served as an office, and there was a ragged blue tarp that tried its best to keep the sun off the couple of dusty shirtless men who were engaged in chipping away at some granite. Gee had some words with the boss in Malayalam, and the long and the short of it is that we commissioned this fellow to custom build the Shiva lingam for us for less than half the price they were asking in the "antique" store, with a nicer finish to boot. Emboldened, we also ordered up a great relief carving of Ganesh, a 4 tier butter lamp with base, and a stone kitchen grinder like the one we had seen in use in the notorious goat biryani episode. It would all be ready in two weeks. We were so excited, we naturally had to go and have beers with all the money we saved.

One week after that, Gee drove us out to the even more remote quarry where the work was being done. The Shiva lingam was too big to be done at the roadside workshop, so we made the trek about 30 km out of town. Several men, again under ragged blue tarps, toiled in the midday sun carving bits of temple, columns, custom stone stairwells, and of course, our lingam. It was an eye opener, to say the least. These guys work hard. It's dusty, hot, and I'm not sure what kind of medical plan is in place for the repetitive stress injuries that must certainly come with the job of whacking stone for at least 8 hours a day, every day. Satisfied that the stone work was well underway, we turned and headed back to Cochin, excited about the prospect of having fabulous hand carved stone art in our garden. It really made me think twice about my own work, which, even though it usually involves not much more than lengthy lunches and the occasional mouse click, still somehow gives me cause to complain vociferously. Note to self: get real...

Now all we have to do is get it home. Will a granite Shiva lingam fit in the overhead carry-on bin?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Currying Flavour

English is a funny language.  Not only does it break all of its own rules, it also has multiple meanings for the same word.  Take, for example, the word "curry".  As a verb, curry can mean: to groom a horse, to beat or thrash, to attempt to ingratiate through flattery and fawning, or to rebuke or criticize. As a noun, curry is a blend of spices (curry powder or what is called a masala here), a dish made with that blend, or an entirely different herb - the curry leaf (Murraya koenigii). There is also a "curry plant" (Helichrysum italicum) that smells like the aforementioned spice mix but that is not edible!

Curry Leaf, or karivepallai, is an integral part of South Indian cuisine, particularly to the food of Kerala, but does not taste anything like curry powder.  There are very few dishes made here that do not incorporate the curry leaf, luckily we all love them! Something magical happens when a fresh curry leaf hits hot oil.  The oil sputters from the moisture in the leaf and then the leaf gives off a fabulous aroma and gets crisp and more-ish. Not surprisingly then, the main way that curry leaves are used is in the "tempering" process.  Tempering is a technique to finish many of the drier "curries", those that don't have a lot of sauce.  Near the end of the cooking a mix of vegetables or meat, a separate kadai (little wok or frying pan) is heated and oil is added to it.  In Kerala is is usually coconut oil.  When the oil is very hot, black mustard seeds are added.  When the seeds start to pop like popcorn, dried red chilies are tossed in and quickly fried in the oil to change colour.  Then the leaves are pulled off of a few curry sprigs and added to the oil.  The whole spluttering thing is tossed together and then the heat is turned off. All of this takes maybe 5 minutes.  The resulting spiced oil is poured over the finished dish.  A dish that has not been tempered is lacking a certain je ne sais quoi.  Sometimes a teaspoon of methi seeds, cumin seeds or urad dal are added to the tempering to contribute to the overall flavour, texture and healthiness of the dish.

Curry leaves are fairly fibrous and so are not eaten fresh off the stalk. Because Keralan cuisine uses a lot of ground fresh coconut, the grinding process is another good time to add curry leaves.  Pop the leaves of a few sprigs into the mixie (see Rob's post about majesty of the mixie here) with some grated fresh coconut and blend away.  Sometimes this blended concoction is added to a dish that is cooking, other times it is the base for a coconut chutney.  

When making a wetter curry, with what they call "gravy" here, whole curry leaves can be added early on in the cooking process, sort of like bay leaves.  The liquid in the dish and the longer cooking time makes the leaf more palatable and digestible. It is a personal preference whether you eat the curry leaves in the final dish or whether you push them to the side of your plate as most people do with the whole dried red chilies.

In Vancouver we are lucky enough to have several stores that carry fresh curry leaves (our favourite is Asia Market on Hastings Street near Main but there are several grocery stores in Little India that also carry the leaves). Curry leaves don't have a long life once picked - a few days in the fridge, maybe a week, is about all they can handle.  You can freeze or dry the leaves but the dried leaves, like dried parsley, really lack the bright flavour and essence of the leaf, frozen is preferably if you really can't get fresh.  In the markets here in Cochin, vendors often throw a handful of curry leaves into your bag free of charge. But many people here have curry trees in their gardens and can pick the leaves fresh as needed.  Since Murraya koenigii is a tropical plant, I'm looking into the possibility of growing a curry leaf tree as a houseplant when we get home. How cool would that be?

But back to the English language. Don't even get me started on the many definitions of "temper" or 'tempering"! As a former ESL teacher, I feel for any one who needs to learn English as a second language; it can be tricky enough for native speakers to use correctly!  Spelling (anyone familiar with ghoti?)!  Grammar! Idiom! Of course, it is also a joy.  Its flexibility allows for playful dialogue that apparently some languages cannot accommodate.  So what I am trying to say is that I don't really mean to curry, rather to curry favour with our readers out in the blogsphere and remind them, all currying aside, that voting for the Spice of Life on the Blogger Awards page only takes a minute of their time...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pickle In My Pocket

I really love pickles.

One of my favourite Far Side cartoons is the one where two gorillas are in a zoo cage, poised in front of a bunch of bananas. One says to the other (I'm paraphrasing here) "Y'know Phil, I really LOVE bananas. I mean, heck, we ALL do. But for me, it goes beyond that". That's kind of how I feel about pickles. I've been known to call out a cook from the kitchen in a restaurant and berate him mercilessly for not having the foresight to serve a proper dill pickle with a burger. I mean, really. It's just not done. You need something salty and acidic to balance out the sublime fatty juices from that grass-fed, hormone free, happy beef patty.

I've had strong picklish leanings ever since I was a boy. My mother, despite her shortcomings as a cook, actually made pretty good dill pickles for many years before she lost interest in making anything besides reservations. My favourite after school snack as a kid was one of them big salty and garlicky dills, along with a slice of nondescript orange cheddar cheese. I've tried to make dill pickles, but have never been able to duplicate her recipe. She passed away 3 years ago this week, and I suppose that my chances of having the recipe relayed to me are admittedly slim. Bugger...

The first time I visited New York was in 1991. I was a dreadlocked leather-jacketed keyboard player, recording an album ("Hey Stoopid") with Alice Cooper at Bearsville Studio in upstate Woodstock NY for several weeks. The guitar player in the band, one Stef Burns, and I decided to take a train into NYC for a day's adventure in the big city. We walked out of Grand Central Station, and the first thing I saw was a car driving past with its undercarriage emitting flames. When the car stopped at the light, a pedestrian tried to tell the driver that his car was on fire. The driver, still apparently unaware that he had perhaps minutes to vacate the car before being engulfed in flames, not only ignored the warning, but took the opportunity to yell a few choice words out the window and flip the pedestrian the finger. The flaming car took off when the light turned green for parts and fates unknown. Nobody else seemed to notice. Welcome To New Yawk.. Stef took me almost immediately to the Broadway Deli, where we ordered massive pastrami sandwiches. Waiting for the sandwiches to come, I tucked into the plate of pickles that was on the table. Half-sours! Sours! Pickled green tomatoes! A whole brave new world of pickles opened up for me right then and there. These weren't Mom's pickles at all. They were.....God's own pickles. Yahweh's own, to be more precise. Oi, such pickles.

Now I find myself quite a ways from New York City. Believe me, after 6 months here, a pastrami on rye with a little mustard would certainly go down a treat right about now. I'm in India, and while pastrami is scarce, pickles are indeed plentiful, although the pickles in India bear little resemblance to the cucumber-based Euro-pickle that we are accustomed to in North America. Pickles play a huge part in the cuisine of India, and the variations in their ingredients and preparation are as vast as the country itself. After documenting the preparation of pappadam for the traditional Sadya meal, the next thing we dove into was the creation of four different types of pickle that are used. Once again, our good friend and dedicated chef Chitra hosted us in her catering kitchen to show us how to prepare a few items. For her version of the Sadya, she made Ginger Pickle, Green Mango Pickle, Grapefruit Pickle, and Lime Pickle.

In a Sadya meal, it's important to have a variety of tastes and textures, and tradition dictates that the food items be consumed in a particular order in order to obtain maximum benefit from the meal. It is a complex mix, and sweet, sour, spicy hot, bland, cooling, and bitter items all have their prescribed place, and they all have equal importance. I use the word "prescribed" intentionally, as a proper Sadya meal is effectively an Ayurvedic prescription for well-being. The pickles play an important part. The Ginger Pickle has some heat from the ginger, but also is balanced by sweetness from the jaggery, or palm sugar. It's fantastic with rice, and frankly, this is one that I could eat right from the jar by the spoonful. The Grapefruit and Lime Pickles have a decidedly bitter taste. They are not so much meant to be eaten on their own, but as a complement to other foods. The Green Mango Pickle lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Redolent of chili and hing, also known as asafetida, this great pickle leans more towards the savory side of things. Although the Sadya is a pure vegetarian meal, the Mango Pickle goes great with fried fish. It's Chitra's mother's recipe, although she has tweaked it a bit.

After prepping all the ingredients, Chitra whipped through the assembly of all four pickles in short order. These things are not at all difficult to make, and once done, will sit in a jar in your fridge for weeks or months. A little salt goes a long way to preserve things. The exact recipes will once again follow in future posts once we review the tapes, but the general idea is incredibly simple: just to heat up the ingredients in a pan and put them in a jar once they are cool. It's very simple and also very rewarding. In the meantime, please enjoy the pictures we took of Chitra's masterpieces. I can't wait to get back into my own kitchen and make my own versions of these, especially the ginger and green mango. I really love pickles.... I mean, heck, we ALL do.

But for me, it goes beyond that...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

My Pappadam Told Me...

Well, how hard could it be, really.

Those who know us know that we've never been ones to shy away from a challenge. In just over 9 years of marriage, we've had two children, renovated houses, built recording studios, started a couple of businesses, opened a bed and breakfast, opened a retail store, and most recently, moved to India to study the food and culture. So when our friends Chitra and Gee casually suggested that we document the making of a Sadya, or Keralan traditional feast meal, we barely flinched. It's just a dinner, right? Pffffft.....Then we had a production meeting with Chitra to plan the filming, and it was then that the true scope of the endeavour was revealed. When I looked at my Excel spreadsheet of dishes and planned shooting days at the end of our two hour discussion, it became apparent that this was going to be anything but casual.

A Sadya, the Malayalam word for "feast", is a traditional Keralan vegetarian meal served up for special occasions only. It's a very fussy and involved meal to prepare, and there are some fairly strict rules and customs for it's correct preparation. A full-on Sadya meal has 24 separate dishes in it, and the order on which they appear on the banana leaf plate, and the order in which they are consumed are strictly observed. There are Ayurvedic principles involved, and therefore many do's and don'ts that may seem a little bizarre to the uninitiated. For example, onions and garlic are typically not used in the preparation of dishes for a Sadya, as they are said to "arouse the passions", and therefore interfere with a properly meditative mindset. This explains my fervent love of onions and garlic, and therefore my personal tendency to dwell in the lowest states of consciousness. Woof!

So the next few posts will be concerned with the preparation of the Sadya. Chitra, our talented chef friend, generously volunteered to prepare this feast for us over a period of several days. Our work needed to be spread out over time, because even with a large catering team, the sheer amount of work involved in preparation can take at least a couple of days. We've actually been able to film a couple of these large teams at work, and it's a pretty amazing sight to see at least a dozen people pull an all-day and then all-night shift in order to prepare these dishes, some of which are incredibly involved, for groups of people that can number as high as six or seven hundred hungry diners.

We decided to start with the thing that keeps the longest: pappadam. Pappadam are those crunchy crisp circular crackers either made from urad dal, or tapioca flour, water and salt. Some are made by mixing in black pepper, or cumin, or green chili, but the ones for Sadya are intentionally left plain. The flat, dried crackers are then fried very briefly in oil, and served at room temperature. Of course, for a special feast, we don't just trundle off to the grocery store or market and pick up something pre-made off the shelf now, do we? That would be the cultural equivalent of serving Kraft Dinner at your wedding dinner (hi Uncle Cletus...). It's just not done. So once again, we relied on a contact of Chitra's to get the real inside poop on how these vitally important snacks are made by hand.

Chitra and Gee picked us up in their delightfully air-conditioned Honda CR-V, and drove us and all of our camera and audio gear to a nice house, much like the one we have been renting, in another part of Kaloor. It was only a few miles away, but navigating through the labyrinthine streets and finding the proper address was a challenge, even for Gee. We were welcomed into the home by Chitra's lady friend and her son. After unpacking the camera, strapping on the audio mixer, and affixing the microphones to Chitra and Laurel, all of us were led upstairs to an essentially empty room where the pappadams were made. The floor was comprised of spotlessly clean 2 foot square marble (or vitrified ceramic) tiles. There was only a stainless steel bowl with a large lump of batter in it, and a 4x6 foot plastic sheet. We all got down on the floor with her, and watched as she repeatedly grabbed a small lump of batter and placed it on a semi-stiff piece of plastic that had been lightly oiled. Then another piece of plastic was placed on top of that. Next, she deftly tapped the top piece of plastic with a circular stone to press the batter out into a perfect circle. A quick peel of the top layer of plastic, and she then moved the fresh disc over the large plastic sheet by her side, inverted it, and peeled away the last bit of plastic.

The window was open, and the sounds of drums and horns from the temple festival going on a couple of doors away drifted in. Oblivious to the nearby costumed elephants and feverish drummers, she repeated this batter ballet with practiced ease. Her constant smile told us of the obvious pride that she took in what she was doing. Soon, the large plastic sheet was filled with fresh pappadam. The freshly laden sheet was then moved out into the hot sun to dry. Chitra told us that she makes about 250 of these pappadam a day, every day. She only stops when the rainy season comes, and it becomes impossible to dry them outside. It was her only source of income. Laurel tried her hand at making one, and it soon became obvious that doing it quickly and correctly took a certain amount of practice!

After this, we were led back downstairs for some coffee and a few samples of her handiwork. The pappadam were quickly fried in oil, and served up piping hot. They were so delicious, that we bought several bundles to take home with us. So part one of the Sadya meal was pretty much in the bag. As we climbed back in the Honda for the drive back home, I could not help but marvel at this woman's work. The sheer industriousness of it struck me. It was so very impressive for us to see her making her living in such an ingenious, dignified, and self-sufficient way. I could not help but wonder. Faced with the need to support ourselves and our families alone, how many of us would rise to the challenge as she had done?

How hard would it be?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cardamom Pods And Kinky Insex

I never dreamed that a rhinoceros beetle could be so... horny. I'll get to that.

When I explained to my friend Gee that we wanted to film some background info on spices, he quickly piped up, "Chitra has a friend who has a place that we can visit for cardamom". Of course there is a friend. Chitra and Gee have many friends, and they seem to pop up the most unlikely places. Ever since we had the pleasure of meeting them both, we have been constantly amazed at the densely woven fabric of their social connections. I swear that we could be making a seemingly impossible right turn across 9 lanes of traffic, when out of nowhere a uniformed policeman would leap out, stop all traffic except our car, and guide us through the intersection neatly, perhaps dusting off the tail lights with his handkerchief as we passed. When queried, Gee might invariably say something like "Oh, I went to school with his brother", "His father and my father were at college", or "I saved his cat from drowning when I was a child". Okay, I'm exaggerating a little. But not much. In this case, Chitra remembered that an old teaching colleague of hers had recently taken possession of a massive spice plantation in the previous year. So it goes...

So as a result, a couple of weeks back I found myself sitting on the covered deck of a rambling raj-era house perched atop a 150 acre estate 5 hours from Cochin with Gee, and the owner of the estate, Rajindran. Evening was falling, and as we were perched up on a hilltop at least a thousand feet above Cochin, it was thankfully cooler than the steamy evenings that we were used to. The ladies had retired, and as the day turned to night, we enjoyed the pleasure of each other's company as we watched the mist roll by the front of the deck. Gee and I had a cocktail or three, and although Rajindran abstains from demon rum, he was very happy to join us in a lengthy, and as the beverages flowed, increasingly loud and far-ranging conversation. Rajindran, who is submitting his PhD law thesis in June, and Gee, who is a structural engineer by trade, but has an informed opinion on just about everything, both proved to be exceptional conversational partners. We covered everything from the massive economic shift from the US to India, to gold conspiracy theories, to the proper way to cook certain vegetables. In short, as the drinks flowed, we came pretty darn close to solving all the problems of the world. Now if only our delegated staff can execute the plan...

There was a large fluorescent light bulb just above the door to the house, and as it got darker, the bulb served as a beacon for every insect in the vicinity. First small bugs. The odd mosquito perhaps. Then came an insect sound unlike any I had heard before. It sounded like a small prop plane coming in for a landing. Then another. And another. We were soon inundated with dozens of 2 to 3 inch long rhinoceros beetles, zooming over our heads and thumping and bouncing off the light bulb and the walls with a mad choreography that could only have been conceived of in a tiny insect brain. Occasionally, a tired and shagged out beetle would fall to the ground, only to lay helplessly on its back, wiggling its legs in a vain attempt to regain an upright posture. After a short time, at least 20 of the hapless bugs had assumed this posture. They would remain this way for hours and on into the next day, wiggling sporadically, and waiting for either a good samaritan to turn them upright, or eventual death, whichever came first. This was a curious thing. I had never seen these insects before, and I marveled at how the species could survive, given such a fundamental design flaw. The rhinoceros beetle is an equally unconvincing argument for both evolution and intelligent design.

At one point, a large winged creature with about a 3 inch turquoise body, of which there were also many, tired of buzzing around the light, wisely decided to fly between Gee's back and the back of the chair he was in. As Gee leaned back after making a particularly emphatic point, the creature was trapped momentarily. It actually let out a scream. A tiny scream, yes, but an actual audible scream with a discernible note of fear. It was as if the actor who played "Mini-Me" just got the word from his agent that he was being re-cast in the sequel to "The Love Guru". That would be enough to frighten any man. Gee leaned forward a bit, and the critter flew out from behind him, free for the moment.

There was a large post to the right of the chair I was in, and when I happened to turn my head, I was stunned and amazed by what I saw a scant few inches from my face. A large male rhinoceros beetle, replete with horned facial accoutrement, was mounted atop a submissive female specimen and, well, doing its best to perpetuate the species. He was doing a heck of a job, as the tired and occasionally twitching remains of a few other females lay at the base of the pole would seem to indicate. Unlike the screaming insect moments before, there was no sound that I could discern. With the stamina of a Cuban porn star, this 6 legged Lothario kept at his relentless procreative activity for as long as I sat there, undaunted, and perhaps even encouraged, by the human voyeurs in the immediate vicinity. Remember that old black and white science fiction movie, "The Fly"? Instead of "Heeeeelllp meeee.", it was "Whooooo's your daddy?".

We were not at the lush estate of Rajindran and his lovely wife Suma, however, to watch the horniest beetle since John Lennon have its way with the ladies. We were here to see how cardamom grew. This was a research trip, after all! Cardamom is a very important spice in Indian cuisine, and it is second only to saffron as the most expensive spice in the world. This amazing plantation produces over 35 tons of the little green pods each year, and at peak times there are over 200 people working the estate. Cardamom will only grow at a certain elevation, and can be fairly fussy to grow on a large scale. The production is incredibly labour intensive, as each pod has to be picked by hand, collected and transported to the drying house, where the pods are washed, cleaned, and dried on large racks with a heater that is fed with wood recycled from the property. The building is kept under lock and key at all times, even in this remote location. This stuff is green gold.

Rajindran took us out for a tour of the estate in a jeep. We got to film the cardamom pods being picked, cleaned and dried. It was a real privilege to get to see this operation up close. Suma, meanwhile, supervised her kitchen staff of three ladies in the non-stop preparation of amazing food for more than a dozen people. Snacks materialized seemingly every 20 minutes. Cooked chunks of tapioca with chili chutney. Fresh fruit. Elaborate meals of 8 or 9 pure vegetarian dishes were laid out on the massive table inside the 100 year old house. For breakfast, we were served idli and sambar. The idli batter was prepared the day before using the traditional stone wet grinder instead of a machine, and the difference in texture was like the difference between hand-made and machine-made pasta. The idli were light and ethereal. The best we've had.

The kitchen itself was amazing, as it was left original Kerala style. The stove was carved from a massive slab of granite, and decorated with symbols of Shiva. There were 4 "burners" that pots of various sizes were perched on, each fed by a wood fire. I swear it all adds to the final taste! Watching this crew of women work in tight quarters, communicating nearly wordlessly as they put out dish after sumptuous dish was like watching some form of gastro-ballet. We got to film the preparation of a dish called "avial", which is a traditional concoction of many types of vegetables and shredded coconut. Simply inspirational stuff. As we were leaving, the following day, Suma appeared and generously presented us with a large bag of the estate-grown cardamom and a large bag of black pepper. We were thrilled! I know that we have prattled on about the magnitude of Indian hospitality, but to have Gee and Chitra drive us up to the plantation, and to have Rajindran and Suma open up their home to us in such a spectacular fashion was truly humbling. A simple "thank-you" seemed grossly inadequate, but that's about all we could muster as we waved goodbye and headed back to Cochin. What an amazing weekend.

I will never listen to a Beatles song in quite the same way again...