Sunday, July 19, 2009

Easy Bake Oven

We're baaaaaack!  Sorry for the delay but the trip home took two weeks, followed by two weeks of trying to get back in the swing of things Pacific island style, and we're just now getting it all together.  We do plan to continue blogging, maybe not quite as frequently as before, but we will be posting more about food in general, less about specifically Indian and Keralan food and life. With that out of the way, let me bring up a subject near and dear to my heart - the Joy of Baking (and I don't mean the kind that starts with rolling papers).

Right before we moved to Bowen Island 8 years ago, we sourced appliances for our dream kitchen, should we ever be able to afford it.  We priced the perfect gas stove - four burners with a griddle in the middle, the perfect fridge with the freezer drawer on the bottom and built-in stacking ovens.  When we walked into the kitchen of the house that we were yet to buy, we saw all of those items already there: a Wolf range, Miele ovens and the stainless fridge with freezer drawer below.  That, combined with the garden and stunning view made us purchase the property - it was meant for us!  We haven't looked back since.

Of course, several years have passed and we've learned the hiccoughs of the place; the Miele ovens are tres Euro, meaning that they are a good two inches narrower than any North American model and many, many baking dishes won't fit, even on the diagonal.  That said, I LOVE my ovens.  I cannot imagine living with only one oven (well, yes, I can, since in India we didn't have an oven at all!), we regularly have both in use.

I am a baker at heart.  I like to cook and I'm pretty good at it (although I think Rob is a better cook, he has the passion for it) but I LOVE to bake.  Since we've been back, the oven has produced Rosemary Cornmeal Epi, Kalamata Olive Bread and Multigrain Honey Granola (just to name a few).  My baking obsession started early in life.  My mother, the nutritionist, rarely had treats and desserts around the house.  We were a green pepper, powdered milk and fruit family (not necessarily all together), not a cookies, ice cream and cake family.  But my mother was all for encouraging her children in the kitchen so if I announced that I wanted to make cookies, she wouldn't have dreamed of stopping me. And, believe me, if the only way a sweet tooth like me was going to get cookies was to bake them myself, I'd happily memorize the dog-eared copy of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook and grease up the pan.

Back in the 70s my folks hired a photographer to follow us kids around for a day or two.  My parents didn't want posed, stiff photos, they wanted slice of life stuff captured in black and white for all eternity.  The photographer was a lovely woman but I was nervous.  She suggested that I go about my life and maybe do some of the things I enjoyed the most.  I was 7 years old and I guess I could have dug up the garden or made some clothes for my dolls but I decided to bake a cake instead. It was a chocolate cake made in a bundt pan.   Southern Georgia Chocolate Pound Cake, to be exact.  We have these great grainy black and white photos of me, hair in two braids, a wispy tendril escaping confinement, paisley smock top mixing up the batter.  The photos are great, as was the cake, despite the fact that I was so nervous I left out the eggs.  You know, despite its reputation as an exacting science, sometimes baking CAN be forgiving. But I'm not giving you the recipe for the pound cake - that's a closely guarded secret - but you DO get the granola recipe. So turn on your oven and make some granola -  go ahead, bring out your inner hippy.  I dare ya'.

Multigrain Honey Granola

8 c of flakes (your choice of rolled oats, barley, rye, tritcale etc)
1 1/2 c chopped nuts (our first choice is pecans, almonds are second)
1 c dessicated unsweetened coconut
1 c hulled pumpkin seeds
2 t ground cinnamon

1/4 c oil (sunflower or other light oil)
1/2 c local honey
2 t pure vanilla extract

1 1/2 c dried fruit (raisins, craisins, chopped apricots. figs etc)

Preheat oven to 150C (300F). Mix all the dry ingredients (except the fruit) together in a large bowl.  Mix wet ingredients together and pour over the dry ingredients.  Mix thoroughly so that all of the dry ingredients are moistened.

Spread the mixture over two or three baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone mats.  You want to cover the sheet but the mixture shouldn't be thick.  Place baking sheets in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, turning every 10 minutes so that it browns evenly and doesn't burn.  Take out of the oven when golden, add dried fruit and cool completely.  Store in air-tight containers.  

Eat with fresh fruit and yogurt or milk. Braid your hair and feel at one with the cosmos.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ode To The Junior Wife

During the time we've been here, we've often speculated as to what the locals must think of our strange little family. Rob and I are obviously too old, by Indian standards, to have a 5 year old, and who is the willowy 20-something who accompanies us everywhere? Some have thought that Emma (said willowy person) was our daughter and that Miles and Isaac are both her sons. Although, if you do the math, she would have had Miles at 13 and I'm not ready to be relegated to granny status yet (although I think that would be a lot less work)! And, if she is the mother - where is the father? This is a very traditional culture. Imaging what the locals might think of us, we have dubbed ourselves the Happy Polygamist Family. Lucky Rob has had to contend with both the senior and junior wives ganging up on him. Poor bunny.

But I couldn't have asked for a better co-wife! Emma has made our trip so much more than we could have hoped for. She slid seamlessly into our family and brought her humour and poetry with her. I'm used to being surrounded by an all-male family and it has been an absolute joy and delight to have Emma's decidedly feminine energy in the house. We brought her with us as nanny and governess for our boys and she has excelled in those areas - teaching Miles how to properly research and write a report, and also patiently teaching Isaac to read before he is even in kindergarten.

Because of Emma, Rob and I have been able to go out and film, knowing that the boys were more than well looked after. We have been able to go away overnight and know that the boys were happy, content and well-fed because Emma was there with them. But Emma has become more than a glorified babysitter and teacher. She has become family: our daughter and our friend. A fraughter? Thank you so much Emma for all that you have given to us and to our boys!

Bailey 4 life, yo!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Where's The Beef?

The last thing one expects to do on a visit to India is to eat beef.

But there it is on the menu, as clear as day. Black Pepper Beef. Beef Fry. Beef Biryani. Human Beef. Actually, that one was a misprint on the menu. It was supposed to be "Hunan Beef", but apparently the menu proof-reader failed to catch that error, along with other gems such as "Om-let", "Green Peace Curry", and "Sweat and Scour Soup". Much to my surprise, people in Kerala actually eat a fair bit of beef. This I found a bit contrary to my previous ideas about India. After all, was this not the country where the cow is held sacred? They were supposed to wander the streets with painted horns like they do in the tourism posters, blissfully going from snack to snack provided by legions of Hindu devotees. These bovine behemoths pretty much have the sweet life nailed, right? In other parts of India, perhaps. In Kerala, not so much. Here, the cows appear outright skittish, as they flit nervously from tree to tree in full camouflage gear, desperately trying to avoid the legions of lunghi-clad beef aficionados desperate to plunge a fork into their bony carcasses.

There are valid historical reasons for this anomaly. Nearly 20 percent of Kerala is Christian, and Christians by and large are dedicated omnivores. If it grows, or does not move fast enough, there is a good chance it will end up on the Christian menu. Muslims, who also make up a good chunk of the population here are also dedicated beef-o-philes. Most curious of all, according to many I have talked to here, there is even a large part of the Hindu population that is fond of a wee nibble 'o' beef. All in all, faced with this carnivorous onslaught, it's a miracle that the cows of Kerala have not banded together into armed groups to defend themselves.

Our landlady Gigi offered to let us film her making puttu, which is a common food item here. It's a cylindrical concoction of coconut and rice flour, which is steamed for a few minutes. By itself, puttu is rather bland, but much like tapioca or appam, it makes a great counterpoint to something spicy, like an egg roast or chana masala. Gigi thought that it would go very well with a spicy beef fry, and not being one to argue about such things, we went ahead with that plan. Once one makes the decision to eat beef here, the next step is to procure it, and this is the step where the faint of heart might be stopped cold in their tracks. In North America, most folks are used to buying their bits of cow in large air conditioned emporiums, pushing a cart around while soothing music plays in the background. Reaching into a spotless and sterile stainless steel bin, one selects a delightfully shrink-wrapped chunk of red-dyed, feedlot-finished, hormone-injected meat charmingly nestled on a styrofoam tray. Chances are with beef like this, the cow's last thought as it saw the approaching nail gun was "Oh, thank God.... this hell is over".

In India, we do it a little bit differently. Early each morning in the local markets, the Piaggio micro flatbed trucks arrive with entire carcasses of freshly slaughtered animals, which are then carried into the marketplace on a pole by at least two men. Then the butchers go to work. Entire quarters, complete with long tails, are hung up on ancient metal hooks in front of the market stalls. Next to them hang the recently eviscerated liver, kidneys, tripe, and intestines. A severed head, freshly divested of all its skin but with horns, tongue, and eyeballs still firmly attached, is often placed in front of the stall, so that there is no doubt as to the identifying provenance of the hapless creature hanging from its hooks. There is no refrigeration of any kind. Although it appears disgusting and distasteful to some, for me, as someone who likes to hunt game for food, I can somehow relate more to this way of buying meat than the supermarket approach, where every effort is made to shield the consumer from the reality of what is being consumed. The consumer is also shielded from the multitude of sins incurred by the processes and practices of industrial meat production.

Stanley, our erstwhile landlord, pulled up on his motorcycle at 9:30 to drive me the 1 kilometer up Ponoth Road to the main market. He advised me that we were not in fact getting beef for this dish, but water buffalo. As he explained, "Beef... more taste. Some people... hurt stomach. Buffalo good...everyone". So off we zoomed up the road. The last time we went to the market, Stanley gave me a crash course in cultural acclimatization when he insisted on holding hands with me as we walked through the market. It was cool, as this is the ultimate expression of friendship for South Indian men, but I was laughing at myself about how self conscious I felt walking around in a public place, wearing what amounted to a dress, and holding my landlord's hand. With this in mind, as I'm riding on the back of his motorbike, for some reason the old song from the 50's, "The Leader Of The Pack" started to echo in my brain. At least it wasn't "My Boyfriend's Back". Fortunately, there were hand grips on the back of the bike, so I wasn't forced to wrap my arms around his waist....

At the market, Stanley quickly negotiated the proper cuts of buffalo, and our butcher went to work carving off a couple of kilos from a hanging haunch, and reducing it to smaller pieces on an ancient wooden block. He worked with incredible speed, and I was somewhat relieved to find that there was not an errant finger included in the package when we returned home. We soon were set up in Gigi's kitchen with all our camera and sound gear. The recipe for beef (buffalo) fry is actually pretty simple. A kilo of cubed meat is pressure cooked with nothing but a little salt for about a half an hour until very tender. At this point, she made us laugh out loud, because as she put the pressure cooker on the stove, she reached over for a second pressure cooker that she had started earlier which contained completely cooked buffalo! She has done so many shoots with us now, that she is thinking like a pro.

A few tablespoons of coconut oil are heated, and then two sliced onions are sauteed until golden. A few slit green chilis and some curry leaves are tossed in. Next comes the garlic and ginger, which gets stirred around for a minute. The drained pressure cooked kilo of buffalo is then added, along with a couple of tablespoons each of coriander powder and chili powder. A tablespoon of turmeric and at least a tablespoon of black pepper. One heaping tablespoon of Garam Masala, which Gigi always grinds herself from a mix of cinnammon, clove, star anise, fennel, and cardamom. While this is being stirred about, the liquid from the pressure cooker is boiled and reduced down substantially, almost to a syrup. This gets added to the buffalo mixture and stirred some more until the mixture is fairly dry. A little salt to taste, and there it is!

Gigi set out a plate for Laurel and me with a log of freshly made puttu, and a mound of the buffalo fry. It was quite fantastic. Even Laurel, the former staunch vegetarian, had to admit that it was pretty darn tasty. Addictive, in fact. Afterwards, we were more than a little saddened when we realized that this was the last shoot that we would be doing with Gigi before we left. She has been very generous with her time and her knowledge, and we really owe her a huge thank you. She made up another plate of buffalo and puttu, and Laurel, Stanley, and I walked next door to our house to feed the boys. A few hours later, Stanley rang the doorbell with a plate of tapioca and buffalo. It was like bovine crack. Must..... stop.... eating....

I fully expect to see a Burger King outlet on my next visit. They already have Domino's Pizza...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Journey Continues...

"I'm so glad we had this time together. Just to have a laugh or sing a song."

Those were the days. Early 1970. Rainy night. Homework done. Dishwasher humming after a meal of moosemeat, boiled vegetables, and an iceberg lettuce salad with Kraft Italian dressing. The whole family, except the one who called dibs on the hideous green reclining chair, would nestle into the neo-psychedelic floral patterned Simpsons Sears polyester sofa, complete with its liberal coating of Scotch Guard. The spanking new Zenith colour TV would finally warm up to the point where the snow would mostly disappear from the screen, and the opening theme from "The Carol Burnett Show" would drift out of the speaker in glorious mono. "These Zeniths are good", my dad would proudly say. "Way better than that Japanese crap. It has Chromacolour, you know...".

We loved this show, and it always used to bring my mom to tears of laughter, occasionally causing her to spit out her Ovaltine through her teeth in a fine stream back into her mug when Tim Conway would crack up Harvey Korman, who would gamely attempt to make it through the scene whilst trying his professional best to suppress a belly laugh. Our dog, a mangy poodle that my brother did his absolute best to torture at every opportunity, would often lay half buried in a harvest gold sea of shag carpet so thick that younger visitors to the house were known to get lost for days at a time. He would sit there motionless for hours, shedding fleas, hair, and bodily secretions deep into the shag carpet, exposing only his nose and eyes above the carpet like some mutant French crocodile.

More than once, as we were sitting drinking our malty beverage and snacking on Peak Freen's biscuits, enraptured by the comedic genius piped into our home by the brand new miracle of cablevision (no more antenna on the roof for us!), a disturbed look would come over my father's face, and he would wrinkle up his nose in disgust. In an accusing voice, he'd turn to my mother on the couch and pointedly ask "Was that you?". A noxious effluvium of evil hung motionless in the air, as if placed there as punishment by Satan himself. Embarrassed by the sudden negative attention, Mom would invariably say "Oh heavens no, Kenneth. It was the dog". We all knew better, but it somehow seemed acceptable to not call her on it and let Mom have her fantasy moment. She brought new meaning to the term "silent, but deadly". Mom's gone now, and I feel it is safe to tell the world. It was not the dog. It was never the dog.

At the end of the Carol Burnett show, Carol always sang a little song, thanked the cast, and gave an affectionate little tug on her left ear, which I learned many years later was a secret signal to her grandmother. Well now we're coming to the end of our little show, and it's time to thank the cast before we sing our little song. After living in India for 6 months, we find ourselves nearly at the end of our sub-continental sojourn, and as the final days here count down, I must confess that we're all a little stunned. Stunned that 6 months has gone by so fast. Stunned that we've actually done what we set out to do, namely collect real recipes from real people in real kitchens. Stunned that what has become the norm over the last several months will be but a memory in less than two weeks. We've been doing all our shopping at markets where you can get your dinner killed on demand. We've bunked in overnight trains with strangers. We've angrily haggled over 10 rupees with usurious rickshaw drivers. We've become adept at crossing 6 lanes of chaotic traffic as a unit, and somehow reaching the other side of the street with the same number we started off with. We've changed, and we've done it as a family.

Yes, we have a couple more things lined up to shoot, but it all seems rather bittersweet. Our brains are already half focused on the next part of the adventure: Singapore, Beijing, and Tokyo. Home, and all the chores and garden work that we've put off for half a year, is looming large in our collective consciousness. But we must really take a moment now and thank the people here that have made a difference during our stay here. Firstly, our landlords Stanley and his wickedly good cook of a wife Gigi. Thanks for taking a chance on a bunch of scruffy Canadians, and allowing us to rent your house. Thanks for being so welcoming and having us into your home not only for Christmas dinner, but for many other fantastic meals as well. We're not sure why you decided to make the extra effort of renting to foreigners, but we're really glad that you did. Isaac is really going to miss playing video games at your house while Gigi feeds him appams with sugar!

Rajesh, our good friend and neighbour, completely changed our lives when he offered us a ride to the main road early on in our stay. Thanks to Rajesh, I have discovered the joys of riding on the back of a motorcycle to go and play football at 6:30 morning. You turned us on to the Toddy Shop, the Punjab House, and virtually every secret location to buy crabs on the island of Vypeen. We've often thought about just how different our trip would have been if we had not met you.

Chitra, our dear friend and chief culinary guide during our stay, has been an incredible source of knowledge, recipes, and good humour. Thank you for being such a great cook and for tirelessly giving of your time and energy to help us plumb the mysterious depths of this cuisine that seems to flow out of you with no effort at all.

And finally, thanks to Gee. Gee has an amazing talent for making the impossible possible. More times than we can count, Laurel and I have been overwhelmed by your generosity, hospitality, and superb problem-solving abilities. You're a pretty good cook, too!

All of you have shown us a totally different side of India than we saw last time we were here, and we're humbled by how you've welcomed us into your homes and your lives. You've succeeded in redefining hospitality for us, and I think it is safe to say that without your connections and logistical support, our filming efforts would have been far more challenging and far less successful. Thank you.

Also thanks to Venu, Gopal & Usha in Coimbatore, Jacob at Haritha Farms, Alok, Varghese, Anwar & Sajna, Rajindran & Suma, and the multitudes that have somehow contributed in ways both large and small to this strange, and in retrospect, presumptuous endeavor. We were pretty naive to think that we could just parachute in and learn everything there is to know about Indian food in 6 months. All of you have made for a pretty soft landing for the Bailey family. This is far from our last blog post, and there will be many more before we reach home. We really wanted to take a moment to offer some proper thanks to people who have really made a difference while our brains were still functioning!

"Seems we just get started and before you know it... Comes the time we have to say so long..."

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?