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?


Murray A said...

I thought you guys were incognito for a few days celebrating your birthday at some luxury resort by the seaside!

Anonymous said...

Two gorgeous days on the beach in Alleppey but we had to leave you with a new post before we buggered off. The Arabian Sea was a little too tumultuous for swimming this time of year (monsoon season) but the beach was spectacular, the little house quite comfortable and the food delivered 3x a day was tasty too. Couldn't ask for better!