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...

1 comment:

~Carole said...

"Who's your Daddy?" ROFLMAO! I really, really enjoy reading your posts.

Kinky Insex - how do you come up with this stuff? :-)