Thursday, January 29, 2009

Paradise re-Found

You know how a smell or a taste can trigger a memory? I smell eucalyptus trees and I am instantly transported to Berkeley, California, circa 1976. I recently had a taste-memory flash that shot through years of foggy memories and landed me right back to 1983 (insert groovy, wavy dream-sequence shot here)...

I am 19, home from Boulder for the summer and working in a crappy restaurant as a waitress. Also working at said crappy restaurant is a fellow named Bob. He is a drifter/traveller/musician type. He works at a restaurant for a few months, makes enough money to travel to somewhere new, and heads back out - to Thailand, hitching though the US, to India and more. He has patches all over his army-surplus jacket and stickers on his guitar case from all the places he's been. Bob's a nice guy, but more importantly, Bob is about 5 years older than me and treats me as an equal. Bob is a no-strings-attached kinda guy but he's cool and has some interesting friends.

After a shift at the crappy restaurant, Bob asks if I want to go hang out with some friends of his. Silly question, of course I wanted to go! Bob's friends are even older then he is, maybe even 30. Two men and a woman living in a small basement suite somewhere in east Van. One of the guys is Indian from the West Indies and he's just back from a recent trip to visit his family in Trinidad (over 40% of Trinidad is Indo-Trinidadian). The suite is decorated with a driftwood coffee table, Indian cotton bedspreads tacked to the wall and remnants of incense sticks in wooden burners shaped like elephants. Joni Mitchell is on the stereo.

Bob has a pipe. Not the kind your grandpa smoked, if you catch my drift. Did I say that Bob was older? Anyway, out comes some of Bob's favourite brand of herbal comfort. Bob is also generous and the pipe gets passed around, once, twice, maybe even thrice. As the world gets dimmer and the paisley on the bedspread starts to blur, Bob's West Indian buddy decides to nip the munchies in the bud (pun intended) and starts cooking. Within minutes, the most amazing smells start wafting through the little apartment. A plate is handed to me - a smoosh of red, a few bits of green, a puddle of warm reddish gold on the sides and a warm chapatti to scoop up the yumminess. And it was yummy. Exquisite, in fact. Now it may have been the herbs talking but this red stuff was just about the best food I had EVER tasted. Seriously. What could I identify? Tomatoes, yep, that was the red. Sliced I think. I tasted chillies, that was the green but red chilli powder too. Onions, sliced thin. Was that cumin? Hmmm, I think so. Fried up into a delectable mess of melty goodness on the plate. The chapatti was pretty good too. I asked Bob's friend what we were eating. He shrugged and said, "Curry".

Fast forward a couple of years (insert sound effect of a zipper here): I am living in my own basement apartment. My first solo living arrangement and I'm liking it a lot. I start cooking dishes I had made at home, dishes I remember my mother making, a few she would never have cooked (there was one bad attempt at the 1980s ubiquitous deep fried zucchini, but the less said about that, the better). I try several times to recreate Bob's friend's "curry", to no avail. I try adding various "curry" powders, I try browning the onions. I try oil and I try butter. Something was always missing. And it wasn't the pipe. The recipe just couldn't be as simple as it seemed at the time - could it?

Many years went by and I forgot all about the red nectar of the gods, caught up in other culinary trifles and foodie distractions. Fast forward (zipper, sound again, but much longer this time) to 2009. Posted along Ponoth Road in our area of Kaloor are signs for "Real Food Court" on Azad Road. Apparently they do delivery - not something one expects to see in Cochin. We passed these signs many times before venturing over to Azad Road to check it out. The term "Food Court" would have me sprinting in the opposite direction back home, but after our time in SIngapore, where the best food in the city is offered up in "Food Courts", I was feeling a little more open-minded. Real Food is a spic-and-span mid-sized restaurant that serves up South Indian and Chinees (sic) food. 'Chinese' food is pretty popular here. In fact, it is the only kind of non-Indian cuisine that you will find in every part of India. Indian 'Chinese' food, like Canadian 'Chinese' food, bears little resemblance to the real deal but it certainly can still be tasty. Rob, Emma, the boys and I are all sitting down pondering the menu - what is "Chicken 65"? Or a "sharjah shake"? We pass on these mysteries and order up Chilly Gobi, Egg Roast, Tomato Fry (pronounced the British way, of course) and a pile of flaky, chewy-tender porotta. The food comes, I serve some up for the boys and put some on my plate. The porotta are great. A good porotta is a thing of majesty and I am working on my technique so I will be able to recreate these beauties when we return to Bowen. I tear off a piece of porotta and use it to scoop up some of the Tomato Fry and pop it in my mouth. I am instantly transported thousands of miles and 25 years into the past. Could it be? Have I found the Holy Grail? As the luscious redness flecked with green chillies and curry leaves slides down my throat I know it to be true. I have found the sublime, yet simple, "Curry". (fade to black)

Here is a pretty close version. The recipe doesn't make a lot (but could easily be doubled or tripled) since it is usually served with several other dishes, breads and rice.

Tomato Fry

1t mustard seeds

6-8 curry leaves

2 whole green chillies (make a slit from the mid point to the ends, or slice on the diagonal if you want a hotter dish)

2T coconut oil or ghee (but coconut adds a lot of flavour)

1 small onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2" ginger, peeled and minced

1t turmeric powder

1-2t chilli powder

1t cumin seeds

3 ripe roma tomatoes, cut in wedges

a bit of water

salt, to taste

Heat oil til quite hot, add mustard seeds, curry leaves, whole green chillies and cook over high heat until mustard seeds pop. Add the sliced onion, turn down the heat a bit and saute until translucent. Add garlic, ginger, turmeric, chill powder and cumin and stir for a few minutes so the spices don't burn. Then add tomato wedges, turn the heat back up, and cook until they soften but don't completely lose their shape (you may add a bit of water, as necessary, to keep it from sticking but you want it fairly thick). The key to this recipe is fairly high heat, you don't want to stew or steam the tomatoes. Finish with salt, to taste. Can been eaten hot or, as is more common here (where people eat with their hands), warm-to-room-temperature.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Behold, The Coconut

Ahhhh... the coconut.

Is there a more mystical plant than cocus nucifera, the venerable coconut palm? It's very appearance and structure is a metaphor for life itself. It's three layers map to the three planes of existence outlined in yogic literature. There is the grossly physical outer shell, a thick husk which must be removed before anything useful can be done. The astral inner shell contained within the husk, as hard to penetrate as the yogic literature itself, and finally, the causal portion of the nut, containing the blissful essence of coconut, the sweet meat and refreshing juice. Much as the yogis endeavour to reach the incalculable inner bliss of the causal plane, cooks all over Southern India perform time-honoured rituals to reach the inner part of the coconut.

Is there a more useful thing in Southern India than a coconut tree? This one tree gives so much, and asks so little. From it we get the obvious, which is yummy fresh shredded coconut, a mainstay in Keralan cooking, but it also provides cool and refreshing coconut water when the coconuts are green, coir fiber to weave mats with, leaves to fashion roofing with, vinegar and oil to cook with, toddy to numb the brain, and most importantly, shade on a hot day. There are many layers of nuance to the use of the coconut that I never even dreamed of before I came here. I have learned that the white meat inside the nut is actually a jelly for the first few months of its life as a nut, and eating that jelly is said to be calming to the stomach. You can buy these green ones on the street or on the beach, and after you drink the nice refreshing water inside, the vendor will split the nut open, and cut a piece of the exterior off to use as a spoon so that you can scoop out the jelly. The jelly starts to turn to firm white meat after about 6 months, and a true connoisseur will monitor the growth of the nuts on his tree and select the ones that are 11 or 12 months old in order to make the sweetest curries.

The less said about the toddy, the better.

The first challenge when you get a coconut, is how to open the darn thing. It's bloody difficult to do. That is, of course, unless you know "the trick". My friend Gee showed me the trick this week after a visit to his house for a breakfast of roast duck curry (with liver!), vegetable curry, puttu, and string hoppers. Gee's family has a farm outside of Cochin, and his family makes regular runs to it to get vegetables, bananas, and coconuts. Gee gave Laurel and me a big bag of coconuts and another of bananas to take home. We were grateful, of course, but I lamented my lack of industrial power tools that assumed would be necessary to open the coconuts. Gee said "No, there's a little trick to it. It's very easy". Then he proceeded to demonstrate. Well, almost. He described the procedure but didn't actually open a nut before our eyes. "You see the three eyes at the end of the nut?", he said. "There are two that look the same, and one that looks different". I looked. There was. "Hold the nut in your hand. Make sure that the eye that looks different is facing up. Then hit it with anything around the equator, and it will crack easily". Sounded simple enough. Too simple. I was dubious.

Once back at our house, I resolved to put the theory to the test. Laurel had bought a little wooden roller for making parotta and other flatbreads, and I thought it might be a little light, but I'll try it. In my left hand, I held the nut so that the 3 eyes were close to my thumb. If you think of the eyes as being the North Pole, you flip the poles so that they line east -> west, instead of north -> south. Following Gee's instruction, I ensured that the odd eye was topmost. I tapped the coconut with the small rolling pin at the equator, and to my great surprise, the nut cracked and the water within cascaded out. This informed me that the next time I do this, I should stand over the sink... I was amazed at the ease of it. As an experiment, I got another coconut and held it differently. No amount of whacking it would make it budge! But hit it around the equator with that odd eye facing up, and it works every time. This is one cool trick. It ranks up there with spinning an egg on its side to determine if its been hard boiled or not. Hard boiled eggs stop immediately when you try to stop them, fresh eggs want to keep spinning. This is real mystical kitchen lore. Try it at home. Amaze your friends.

Next on the task list was how to get the meat out of the coconut and into some food. The solution is delightfully low tech, yet incredibly efficient. The shredder is a little piece of wood with a curved piece of metal bolted onto it. At the business end of the piece of metal is something that looks like a jagged tin leaf. You simply rub the coconut meat against the jagged leaf, and in a very short time, you can remove all the meat from half a coconut and have it prepped for cooking or extracting coconut milk. Here' a good simple one to try. If you can't get your hands on a fresh nut and a shredder, substitute a cup of dried unsweetened coconut. A better solution is to get thee to an Asian market (our favourite standby is Asia Market on Hastings street in Vancouver) and see if they have any fresh coconut in the freezer. At any rate, try this one. The version here is with cabbage, but it works just as well with shredded beets, beans, or any other vegetable.

1/2 large green cabbage, finely shredded
1 cup or so of shredded fresh coconut (the meat from about half a coconut)
2- 3 tbsp coconut oil, or ghee
1 cup minced onions or shallots.
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp black mustard seeds
8-10 fresh curry leaves
3 whole green chilis, slit
1 tsp chili powder
3 cloves garlic
1/2 inch of fresh ginger
salt to taste

mince the garlic and ginger to a paste, adding a little water if needed
Heat the oils in a large wok, and when its hot add the mustard seeds.
In a few moments, they should sputter, add the curry leaves, and the whole green chilis.
quickly add the onions, and continue stirring until they are translucent.
add the garlic, & ginger, turmeric and chili powder, and keep stirring until the spices smell cooked
add the cabbage, and stir the mixture until the cabbage cooks through. I like it when it starts to dry out a little and brown.
add the coconut and continue stirring until everything is well mixed and a little drier.
add salt to taste (1 tsp?), stir, and place in a serving bowl.
Serve at room temperature as part of a curry dinner!

So that's it. The universe explained. In a nutshell.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

My Secret Love

I have an embarrassing secret to share. In the last week, I have begun a clandestine love affair. With a fish.

As with any affair freshly begun, we can scarcely get enough of each other. Stolen moments in a biryani shop. Lusty thoughts in a market as the long and lean torso is teasingly displayed before me in all its delectable silvery nakedness. Sorry...

It all began innocently enough. I went up to our local market to purchase a fish in order to make a fish biryani. I've bought several fish from the market this way, and I started off my fishy forays with a few snapper, which are kind of similar to our local rockfish, those spiny, scaly, butt ugly, and incredibly tasty fish we see swimming around in salt water tanks in the Vancouver's Chinatown. On this day, tiring of the monotony of snapper, I instead opted for a little tuna. These little guys are smaller than the albacore tuna we see in the Pacific Northwest, and they showed promise. After the fishmonger had it eviscerated and cut up into little chunks, I took it home, fried it up, and put it into my biryani. In a highly uncharacteristic display of selflessness, I put some in a pot and decided to take it next door as a gift for our landlords Stanley and Gee Gee, who are in the habit of routinely inundating us with food items at all hours of the day and night. When I arrived and rang the bell at their house, Stanley opened it, looking a little surprised to see me. I handed him the pot, puffed out my chest, and proudly announced "Fish Biryani! Made with fresh tuna!" He looked crestfallen, and did that clicking sound/sucking air thing I've described a few times. Shaking his head, and with as much tact as his limited English would allow, he said "Tuna no good. Kingfish better". The wind was definitely out of my sails, but to his credit, he didn't slam the door, and instead, graciously accepted the pot. He returned the pot the next day, filled with spicy pork curry and tapioca root. Again, he felt compelled to reiterate "Kingfish better". It was a thin line. I'm pretty sure he was trying to be helpful, and steer me towards a better quality fish experience. On the other hand, maybe he was just being a dink.

So... kingfish, eh... I had to know more. I went back to the market and chatted up my fishmonger friend. I discovered that kingfish is sometimes called "sailfish" here, which is ironic due to the fact that it really has no dorsal fin to speak of, much less a sail. I also made the discovery that kingfish is about three to four times the cost of most other fish, costing about 300 Rs/kilo. It is one of the few food-related instances in India where the Bailey Law Of Inverse Expectations does not apply. In this case, you truly get what you pay for. Immediately, I was seduced by this fish. Long and lean, these silver beauties can reach 3 or 4 feet long, and weigh close to thirty pounds. It seems as they are built to swim fast and eat, and little else, as their torpedo-like bodies are basically one big slab of firm, buttery tasting flesh. Imagine a four foot sausage made of serrano ham that knew how to swim. It has hardly any bone, beyond its spine, so the body is just meat, meat, and more meat. I could not wait to get this baby back to my place, put on some music and my sexiest lunghi, and have my way with it.

There is a great method of preparing fish in Kerala that I have tried my best to duplicate here. It involves cutting the fish up into chunks, and marinating it in a spicy, garlicky, and sour masala. After bathing in this majestic marinade for a period of time, each piece is fried in coconut oil until just cooked through. Dust with a little salt, and voila... ready to be eaten as is, with maybe a little cucumber and onion salad on the side, or included as a layer in a fish biryani. This fish is so good that we've had it 4 out of the last 5 nights. I'm going to make a fish curry with it tonight. If you want to try to strike up an affair of your own with this exotic beauty, you may have some difficulty. You might be able to find this fish frozen in slices in an Asian or Punjabi market, but you're really better off using fresh halibut, or even mahi mahi. Salmon won't work as well, and red snapper or cod is perhaps too flaky of a texture. So here's the deal.

750 grams of kingfish, halibut, mahi mahi, or any other firm fleshed white fish.
3 tbsp of ground black pepper
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp chili powder
approx 1 tbsp coconut vinegar, or apple cider vinegar, just enough to make a paste with all the dry ingredients
6 cloves of garlic
1 inch of fresh ginger root
salt to taste

In a mortar and pestle, mash the ginger, garlic, and salt together to form a paste
mix this in a bowl with the dry ingredients, adding the coconut vinegar get a paste that is not too runny.
Add the fish chunks to the large bowl containing the paste, and mix it all up with your hands, making sure that all the fish is covered with a coating of marinade.
clover the bowl, and let it sit in the fridge for at least an hour. Overnight is best.

Put a couple or three inches of coconut oil in wok, and heat it up.
Fry the fish a couple of pieces at a time, turning as needed.
Drain each piece against the side of the wok to remove excess oil, and place on a plate covered with paper towel.
Dust immediately with some good non- iodized salt.
Repeat as necessary

Dim the lights. Make sensual yummy sounds. Soon you will be as hopelessly head over heels in love as we all are. The trick is in trying to keep this clandestine affair from spiralling out of control and taking over your life. But Stanley was right...

"Kingfish better".

Friday, January 23, 2009

Gone Native

Everyone has had that dream. You know the one. You have a big important speech to make in front of a large crowd, and when you get up to make it, a wave of laughter ripples through the crowd. You look down, and only then you realize that you're not wearing pants.

The day started off well. For a few weeks now, I have been trying to master the art of wearing a lunghi. The lunghi is what most men in Southern India wear instead of pants. It's basically a sheet of cloth, and it covers a gent from the waist down. It can be worn in either the long form, where the cloth border grazes your toes, or the short form, where the fold is above the knee. It's the South Indian form of shorts.

When I first got here, I must confess it was a bit disconcerting to see men walking down the street together holding hands, and sporting these long flowing dresses. Then I got to thinking that they thought I was the strange one for sticking, and I do mean sticking, to the Eddie Bauer canvas shorts and Joe Boxer briefs. My way of thinking began to change a little. Then, on a warm and romantic evening, my landlord, Stanley, clasped my hand and held it for much much longer than a Canadian guy is normally comfortable with. If I had a predilection for steam baths and Judy Garland, perhaps it would be different. Laurel was on Stanley's roof with us, and she caught my discomfort immediately. She smiled a smile that said "don't you dare offend this man by letting go of his hand". She who must be obeyed. So I went with it. It was much the same feeling as the first time I ate sushi 25 years ago. A real battle between intellectual curiosity and years of conditioning. I fought the impulse to withdraw my hand, fake a yawn, and make an excuse to leave immediately. Stanley eventually let go of my hand, and when he failed to ask me to spend the summer with him on a Greek island, I realized that this was actually kind of cool. I'm good with this.

So next comes the lunghi. I bought two of them. Then I had to figure out how to tie one. This was no easy task. Thank god for YouTube. I found out that Christians and Hindus wear theirs with the seam to the right side, and Muslims wear it to the left. I'm living in a mostly Christian neighbourhood, so I dressed right. I practiced for a while and started to wear one around the house. After a few days of this, I felt a little more comfy. I must admit that on a hot day, there's nothing like the feeling of some fresh air circulating around the old twig and berries. I got bolder. I decided to wear one outside and go shopping. To the strains of "Thus Spake Zarathustra", I opened the gate and walked out into the street. It was pretty hard to shake the feeling of self consciousness. I was convinced that I was wearing it wrong, and that every passing person was staring and quietly clucking and sucking air through their teeth. The men here make it look so easy. For all I knew there was this secret subtle code in the way the thing was tied or folded, the infinite variations of which indicated your caste, sexual orientation, IQ, and yearly income. For all I knew, my lunghi boldly announced to the world that I was a retarded asexual with very little money in the bank. At least one of those statements is true. Still, I soldiered on in a mix of blissful ignorance and abject fear. I made it home with groceries and a beer, and it had not fallen off. Life was good.

Yesterday, I had a breakthrough in folding the damn thing. I found a way to do it that let the lunghi stay on for the entire day without having to be re-tied every 15 minutes. My confidence rose, and my inner soundtrack went from "Thus Spake" to "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly". I positively swaggered down the street, feeling fairly invincible with my new tying technique. I was a baddass in a strip of cloth. I had been invited down to the office of Rajesh and Gee in the afternoon, and when I arrived, there were high fives and "looking good man!" comments. I listened hard for that hint of mocking, but there was was none. Then I sat in one of the office chairs and nearly did a pretty spot on Sharon Stone impersonation. However, it would seem that I had gotten over the barrier. I was comfy in a lunghi. Then we went out for dinner.

The whole family returned to the North Indian place off Broadway for more of the Aloo Parotta. The proprietor was thrilled that the boys were capable of eating chilis, and treated them both to a complimentary lassi. We ate and ate and ate. Then, as I got up to wash my hands, I felt the lunghi give around the waist. Horrified, I sat back down to contemplate just how I was going to re-tie this thing in a crowded restaurant. While still seated, I ended up accidentally tying one bottom corner to the waist, and I became hopeless tangled. Gandhi in a homespun mobius strip. Eventually, I got it sorted, but not before turning several shades of red in the process. We paid the bill and left, and in the privacy of a darkened narrow lane, I readjusted for the rickshaw ride home.

No matter. I had fought the lunghi... and won.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser...

The car pulled up exactly on time.

Our smiling driver helped Laurel and me load our many cases of camera and sound gear into the deluxe Toyota SUV for our trip to Haritha Farms. Our new friend Gee had volunteered his car and chauffeur to drive us the 75k to this organic spice farm/homestay/cooking school. Gee is a partner with Rajeesh (aka Mango Man, Crab Dude, and He of the Swarthy Parotta) in their burgeoning herbal aphrodisiac business, a business that is perhaps the only one in which success relies on the competition not being stiff.

These two have been extraordinarily generous towards us with their time and vehicles, and we really owe them a debt of gratitude. Gee's wife Chitra is an extraordinary cook, and we plan on documenting her culinary adventures next month, after we return from Coimbatore and filming our friend Krishnagopal's Guru's 60th birthday party on the 31st and 1st. Our calendar is getting really full!

The drive to Haritha took about an hour and a half, and we were greeted by our host's mother, Mrs. Mathew, who ushered us into a cool enclave and presented us with two glasses of fresh pineapple juice. We settled into our deluxe room, which featured perhaps the nicest bathrooms I have seen yet in India, and soon our host arrived to greet us. Jacob Matthew is an extremely affable middle aged gent, whose intelligence and sophistication belie the fact that he has never really travelled outside of Kerala. He runs the operation with a keen eye towards creating an environment of quiet comfort, but in a sustainable and eco-friendly way.

After setting up my shoulder harness field pack consisting of a battery powered audio mixer, two wireless mic pack receivers, Sony headphones, extra batteries, cables, and lens tissue, I set up Laurel and Jacob with their wireless lapel mics and we headed off to the local market to do the shopping for the cooking class he was going to hold that evening. He was simply amazing. He effortlessly navigated through the busy market, seeking only the freshest of produce. All the while he was conversing with Laurel and tossing off more nuggets of information per minute than we imagined possible. There was so much good stuff I ran out of tape. Actually this was a relief, because hoisting a heavy camera while wearing a 15 pound pack in the Indian mid-day sun was not exactly relaxing.

When we returned to the farm, we were treated to a nice lunch of masala dosa with coconut chutney. He flashed a nice smile and said "If you could give me your passports and visa information now, we will get that detail out of the way". In a now familiar routine, Laurel and I looked at each other in panic. We had become so comfortable living here, that we no longer carried our passports around in our money belts anymore. They were at home. Bugger. Now it was Jacob's turn to be panicked. The new security regulations meant that if he were caught with us there staying overnight on the premises without proper documentation, he could actually face jail time. This was not exactly the note we wanted to get started on. Without boring anyone with the details, let's just say that we found a mutually agreeable way to work around our error that ensured our host would not go to prison.

The cooking demo that night was great. Jacob is a natural performer, and a pretty good cook to boot! I filmed the whole thing as he directed Laurel and three other ladies from Switzerland in the creation of 5 dishes. Sort of a fusion cuisine, and not exactly pure Keralan. Of course, the power went out in the middle of the lesson. Undaunted, we soldiered on with candles and flashlights. When the power returned, we were ready to eat! We sat down to a really nice dinner with Jacob and the Swiss ladies. Dinner conversation was an interesting hybrid of fractured English and our miserable attempts at French. Somehow, we understood each other!

Next morning, at Jacob's invitation, we got up early and were on the road a little before 7:30. He took us through fields of pineapple, stands of rubber trees that slowly dripped raw latex into little cups, soaring pepper vines, curry leaf bushes, nutmeg and mace groves, and most unusual of all, cashew trees. If you've ever wondered why cashews are expensive, its because only one nut grows at the end of a pear-like fruit. Each nut casing has to be individually separated from the fruit, and then pried out of it's casing. I think that if there are two hundred fruit on a mature tree at a given time, that would be optimistic. It's just a huge amount of labour required to get a kilo of cashews!

By this time, we were both exhausted from the constant filming and barrage of new information. Jacob actually drove us back to our house, and we had a hard time staying awake on the trip. We reviewed the footage last night, and boy, was the trip ever worth it! Needless to say, Haritha Farms is definitely a prime destination if you are ever planning a trip to Kerala.

Thank you Jacob!

Unusual Snax

"More mongoose please, Dad!"

These are words I never thought would emanate from my son's mouth. And mongoose is something I never thought would go in his. Or mine.

We spent a morning on Vypeen Island in an attempt to track down the largest mud crab known to man. I believe that we came dangerously close with the purchase of a 1.2 kilo monster. Our friend Rajeesh, a local lawyer and herbal aphrodisiac entrepreneur who also happens to be our neighbour, took us all out to Vypeen Island in our quest for crustaceans. It really helps to have someone who reads and writes Malayalam (an interesting palindrome) taking you around. Unbeknownst to us, crab was being advertised all around in a variety of little stalls. Just not in English! We ended up buying three in total from two different shops. The 1.2 kilo specimen had the biggest claws I've ever seen, aside from a massive lobster I once saw in the airport in Halifax. The taste was pretty good, but I must say that our native Dungeness crabs are pretty hard to beat.

After making the grab for crab, we stopped the car near a roadside vendor who was making and selling freshly pressed sugar cane juice. He had one of those little presses that sort of vaguely resembles a wringer from an old washing machine, except his was way more uptown. It was powered by a little diesel motor, as opposed to most, which are hand-driven with a large wheel. A large length of sugar cane, maybe three or four feet long is repeatedly run through the wringer until all the juice is extracted and collected. This guy's trick was to squeeze a lime in with it. It should be noted that limes here are sweeter than the varieties we get at home, and it really added a nice edge to the drink. Great thing on a hot day!

Rajeesh was determined to show us some of the best treats Cochin has to offer, so our next stop was at a funky little North Indian restaurant that he liked to frequent. Here, they had only aloo parotha on offer. "Aloo" means potato, and a parotta, also known as parantha in the North is a kind of flatbread that is grilled. The "aloo" variation means that you get a grilled piece of flatbread, stuffed with a spicy potato mixture, which is then lovingly brushed with ghee and served up with a side dish of yoghurt. A big dish of fresh green chilis sat on the table as an accompaniment. "Potato and grilled bread?", you might ask. "Big deal". Not here, folks. These were the best ones that Laurel and I had ever eaten, and we've had few in our time. They were so good, we ended up ordering seconds. All the while our noisy chewing, punctuated only by the occasional "Mmmmmmmmm..." was being observed by a young man at the next table who was slicing about 10 pounds of potent green chili on an old wooden block, without the benefit of protective gloves. I remember thinking to myself "I hope he doesn't have to pee soon".

Our warmup snack completed, we drove to the outskirts of Cochin. Our destination was a toddy shop of some reknown. Toddy is a beer-like beverage derived from tapping a palm tree. It's a whitish, cloudy, unfiltered, and a decidedly coarse kind of mildly alcoholic beverage. Real working man's swill. It's served in a large clear jug, and comes with its own hand-held strainer. Never a good sign in a beverage. It's kind of sour tasting, vaguely reminiscent of "chang", which is a Tibetan beer-like concoction. There's also a similarity to "pulque", a cactus derived drink from Mexico that occupies a similar socio-economic niche. Laurel and I sampled chang at a Tibetan wedding in 2000. It was poured from a battered old aluminum pot, the spout of which was greased with a liberal dollop of yak butter. This apparently made it taste better. Toddy, on the other hand could have maybe used a little yak butter. It tasted vaguely coconutty, but was not the kind of bevvy that would make this gastronaut line up for seconds. Rajeesh had no such misgivings, and downed at least three full glasses of the stuff. He was driving.

Rajeesh ordered the food for us in a burst of rapid fire Malayalam. There were enough rrrrrrrrolled "r"'s interspersed with blurry vowel sounds to make him sound a bit like a methedrined Ricky Ricardo telling Lucy she could not come down to the club under any circumstances. Soon, a couple of plates appeared. They were chunks of something done up in the Keralan Black Pepper Fry style. "Now what is this?", I asked innocently. "This is mongoose, and the other one is the daily special, how do you say... crane". Crane was actually the white egret that we often see keeping a cow company in the grass. Kind of like a heron, but without the appetite for the goldfish in your pond. We were unclear as to the provenance of the mongoose. Was it the recent loser in a battle with a cobra? Road kill? Where does one shop for quality mongoose? We all looked at each other across the table, each trying to gauge the reaction of the other. He might as well have said "Burrowing Owl in a delightful whale sperm sauce. The sperm is ethically harvested...". The boys did not bat an eye, and happily munched whatever chunks of endangered species were placed on their plates. It was pretty spicy to be sure, but despite our adult misgivings, we all dug in fearlesly. Miles really liked it. "The mongoose is really good, dad!", he exclaimed. To be fair, it wasn't that bad at all. Bony. A little thin on meat. Mongoosey. Mind you, a pair of Adidas would taste pretty good in that sauce.

Next came a plate of tapioca root, and a plate of shrimp pepper fry. This was followed by 4 big plates of karimeen, the local specialty fish, swimming in a fiery chili sauce, which was fantastic. After that came a plate of duck. All that sauce was mopped up with plates of appam, those little pancake-like flatbreads, and puttu, the coconut log thing. We actually cancelled the last plate of deep fried karimeen due to the imminent danger of bursting. Again. We drove back to our house in a satiated state of disbelief. We had eaten the mongoose and lived to tell the tale. Surely the cobra population was now on the upswing.

No rest for me, though. I had three and a half pounds of crab to cook for dinner!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sari about that!

Okay. So I have notes in my travel journal from 9 years ago and I make good notes. And then I googled it - don't cha just love Google? I found a few sites with step-by-step instructions. It can't be that hard, just a tuck here, a wrap there, a pleat or 5 and we're on our way, right? Piece a cake! (Or so I told Emma, our fabulous 20 year old nanny).

Not. Let me explain. I have worn a sari exactly six times in my life. Three of those times I had women who wear saris almost every day helping me to dress. The other three times I was in Canada where I can pull off the almost-but-not-quite- properly-wrapped-sari thing as long as I walk with my head held high and avoid Little India. I like wearing saris. They are stunning on pretty much every figure - tall, short, chunky, or boney, all women look graceful in a sari. Peasant women wear them one way (you need to be able to squat whilst making bricks by hand), fashionable Calcuttans another. Some are made of the thinnest of cottons, others are of heavy silk with gilded borders. The sari comes in three parts: an ankle-length underskirt that has a drawstring waist, a short blouse that has been tailored to you and is always very snug and 5 to 7 metres of fabric. One end of the swath of fabric is usually differentiated from the rest by a change in pattern, colour or design. It is called the pallav and is about a metre in length. This is the bit that hangs over the shoulder and down the back. Apparently they make something now called an "automatic sari" that you pull on like a skirt with the pleats sewn in place in front and on the shoulder piece of the pallav. But that's cheating. And we don't cheat.

So when we were invited by Venu to his sister's wedding, Emma and I decided that we needed to purchase saris. I own two already from our last trip here - I was married in a sari! - but I cunningly didn't bother to bring them. I mean, really, who BRINGS a sari to India? Off we went to Mahatma Gandhi Road, to one of the many fabric emporia in search of the perfect sari fabric.

Emma and I have very similar taste in both colour and design of fabric and neither of us likes anything too busy, too blue or too bright. The women here look stunning in fuschia and neon turquoise with sequins but Emma and I look washed out. We were first shown into the silk room. Here saris cost between Rs 1000 and Rs 4000 ($25-$100). We were shown to little stools in front of long counters in AC comfort. Behind the counters rainbow-walls of stacks and stacks of saris in almost every colour and combination you can imagine (and then some! Emma and I have often commented that the most unlikely colour combinations are put together here and, yet, they somehow work.). The shop assistants started pulling the stacks down and flinging the lengths of fabric onto the counter in front of us Emma and I sat, shaking our heads. Too busy. Too pink. This one would be beautiful if the border wasn't orange. Do you have anything in green? What about black? Emma and I started chanting our mantra, that apparently went unheard: "simple, simple. too fancy". More neon colours and intricate patterns in sequins came out. And as the 50th sari was being piled on top and the assistants were beginning to look exasperated, Emma and I got up, somewhat sheepishly, and decided to try the other room. The room where there are no seats, no AC and saris start at Rs 200.

We did end up finding fabric that we were both happy with. Emma bought a beautiful red and gold silk sari that makes her look like a princess and I bought a black cotton sari with gold and ochre borders. We each spent less than $30. Next we hopped in an autorickshaw and whizzed back to our neighbourhood to visit our tailor. Yes. We have a tailor. His name is Sunil. Emma and I have been dropping off our clothing that wasn't quite fitting right - a little too loose in the waist, a little too tight in the arms - with Sunil for almost a month now. His little shop up on KK Road does good alterations for as little as Rs 40 ($1). A couple of weeks ago I had a salwar kameez (tunic and pants) made for me. The 5.5 metres of fabric cost me about $6, the labour was half that. Sunil is handsome and has a spectacular smile. He strikes me as a bit of a charmer, which in his line of work, dealing mostly with women, is probably advantageous. But his English is limited, and our Malayalam is less than that, and this language barrier makes him a little shy with us. After taking measurements and consulting about necklines and sleeve lengths, Sunil assured us that our sari blouses would be ready for us to pick up the day before our departure.

So once our blouses were made and we tried them on to make sure they fit (barely! Gosh they make them snug), we piled them into our suitcases for the trip to Kannur. Venu had 2 wonderful friends, Sanju and Siraj, who had come in from out of town as well and who hung out with us at the wedding. Siraj is from Andhra Pradesh where they speak Telugu, not Malayalam so, like us, he communicated mostly in English. Sanju is Keralan and, like Venu, works in a Call Centre so his English is excellent. He was so good with the boys, making paper boats and airplanes for them and taking them for walks through the village. All the young men were interested in talking with Emma - no surprise there! I believe Emma has been compared (favourably) to at least 4 different Bollywood stars.

Siraj is a teaser. The kind of boy who pulls a girl's pigtails because he likes her. He spent most of the day before the wedding, when Emma and I were attired in the easy-to-wear salwar kameez, teasing Emma that she wouldn't be able to pull off a sari. People here take pride in the sari's difficulties. A woman who can wear a sari is a force to be reckoned with. Of course he also teased her a great deal about her "lack of appetite". Anyone who knows Emma knows that she eats just fine! Even when she has to eat 2 lunches in a row as we did on the wedding day. Siraj was starting to grate on the nerves, just a bit.

The day of the wedding, Emma and I gave ourselves an hour to figure out the whole sari thing. I had neglected to bring safety pins with me so we had to run out to a "fancy shop" to purchase some. I pleated and wrapped Emma first. After a few adjustments, I thought she looked pretty good - although the pallav wasn't as long as I would have liked and she didn't feel entirely "secure". Then I dressed myself. My pallav was about the right length but I felt bulky near the waist - and no woman wants a bulky waist! Oh well. We slapped bindis on our foreheads and we figured we were ready to go.

Venu arrived in the lobby to pick us up and we all filed out of our room to go down to meet him. As Emma and I walked by the cleaning lady she hissed at us. No, hiss isn't the right word. In Kerala when people want to get your attention they create a sound that is something in between a hiss and a sharp intake of air between their teeth. And there is none of the negative connotation that a hiss has attached to it. So the cleaning lady hissed at Emma and me. Then she shook her head and started adjusting Emma's sari. I told Rob to go ahead and take the boys downstairs with him, we'd be along in a moment. The cleaning lady motioned for us to follow her back into our room.

Once in the room, she completely unwrapped Emma and, starting from the beginning, started to make perfect pleats. It took about 20 minutes for us both to be entirely re-wrapped and adjusted. Rob sent Miles up to see what was taking so long. We kicked him out using the time-honoured expression: " We'll be ready when we're ready". We returned our attention to the cleaning lady. She turned us and tucked. She held out a hand for a safety pin, and then another (one for the waist pleats, one on the pallav pleats). She tugged and flipped. She knelt and tugged to make sure the saris were the right length. When she had finely determined that we were up to snuff, she wiggled her head and opened the door. Not a word had been spoken. I pressed a tip in her hand. She handed it back. I pressed a little more forcefully. She smiled a bashful, shy smile and wouldn't meet my eyes but did accept the tip. We thanked her (one of our few non-food words in Malayalam - "nani") and headed downstairs.

The boys were a little irritated at being kept waiting but when Emma and I walked out onto that street, we had a wow moment. People stopped talking, the vendors and wallahs nodded appreciatively and Siraj didn't say a word. Not one. Boy, can Emma wear a sari.

We Nearly Explode

Remember those old Timex torture test commercials?

You know, where they strap a cheap wristwatch onto some buff guy who then waterskis through a pool of piranha, only to smile soggily for the camera and proudly display his watch, which is still ticking, but always set to 10 minutes to 2? Well, if there was a torture test for stomachs, I think we've just been put through it. We survived. Barely.

Venu, along with four of his friends, came to pick us up in a spiffy hired SUV. We were supposed to leave around ten, but he arrived 15 minutes late. The boys and I were well tarted up in our brand new Indian dress clothes, so we headed downstairs from our room to meet the gang. The girls, dressed in their shiny new custom saris, were right behind us. Or so I thought. 5 minutes went by. Then 10. Venu began to nervously look at his watch and make that clicking sound, followed by a quick inhalation of air that is peculiar to South Indian men. He didn't want to miss his sister's wedding, and was starting to get stressed. We sent Miles back up to the room to fetch our recalcitrant duo, but he came back empty handed. More watch gazing and air sucking. Finally, our two lovelies made their appearance, looking resplendent in their perfectly turned out saris. They poured themselves into the SUV, and only after we had departed for the temple did the truth emerge.

Being a gentleman, I will leave it to my lovely wife to explain the sound reasoning for her tardiness. It is not for me to say. It was worth it though, because the girls looked really great.

After about a 40 minute drive, we arrived at the temple moments before the wedding was about to happen. I got some great shots as the priest worked his way through a somewhat abbreviated version of the Hindu ceremony, which normally can take in excess of 6 hours I am told. It was fun for us to watch the couple stumble over various points of protocol, as we remembered not having a clue what we were supposed to do when we got married in a similar ceremony 9 years ago. It was somewhat reassuring that it was difficult for these two! As I mentioned in my previous post, the bride's demeanor changed from the happy smiling girl of the previous evening to that of a ghost, and a somewhat nauseous ghost at that. At the end of the ceremony everyone was pleased it seemed, and many of the aunties we met at the party the previous day came by squeeze Laurel and Emma's hands to express their happy approval of their saris.

Next, we were all herded into a massive hall for lunch. Huzzah! Rows and rows of tables were laid out with newspaper. We were shown to our seats, where a big banana leaf was then placed before us. Men came by carrying little vats of pickle, rice, chutney, curd, and a few different curries, which were then piled onto our banana leaf plate. As with all South Indian rice meals, they only stopped serving food to you when you either fold over your banana leaf and concede defeat, or pass out face first into your food remnants. We opted for the former, though we came dangerously close to the latter. Then we were all herded outside for group photos. It seemed everyone wanted to get a picture with the Foreign Family That Wore Indian Clothes. Did I mention that there were a few hundred people there? "One more picture please, Mr. Robert". "Miss Emma, can we get some photos of you with my cousins?". We posed nonstop for about 40 minutes, and it really got to be a bit much. However, being Canadian, the last thing we wanted to do was be rude, so he happily complied with every request. Laurel and I were imagining the happy couple reminiscing over their wedding photos 20 years from now and thinking "Who the **** are these people, and why are they in all our photos?"

By now we were stuffed and tired, but we weren't' done yet. It was time to waddle to the groom's house for the traditional post wedding visit. The walk was only about 500 yards, but after a huge meal in the heat of the afternoon, it was a challenge to move at all. Some cool lime drinks were served at the house, and we politely said hello to some of the people we had met the day before. After hanging around for an hour exchanging pleasantries, it seemed that there a momentum to leave. We were stopped on the way out, and shown to a couple of tables. A kindly gentleman explained that "it is our custom that when a person visits a house for the first time, they cannot leave until they are served a meal". Laurel and I shot a look of panic at each other, but we knew that resistance was futile. We had to suck it up and take one for the team, which meant eating our second full meal within the hour. So down came the platefuls of chicken biryani, raita, and pappadam, and slowly but surely, the food disappeared from the plates. I caught the attention of the gent who explained this custom to me, and as he leaned over, I good-naturedly said "This isn't a custom, this is punishment!" He smiled, leaned a little closer and whispered conspiratorially in my ear. "Marriage is punishment". I laughed so hard that a chicken bone nearly shot out of my nose. "Don't tell the groom", I said.

Groaning under the extra load, and silently giving thanks for the miracle that is the draw string belt, we were ushered into the house for a quick tour, and... more photos! After finally exhausting all the combinatorial permutations of Foreigner and Family Members, we finally were able to express our thanks for being invited and oozed off into the sunset, narrowly avoiding leaving a trail like a slug. The boys slept most of the way home, while Laurel and I worked hard not to have our eyeballs roll back in their sockets.

Needless to say, we passed on dinner that night.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Night Of The Living Wed

I'll never forget the look on her face.

If I'm not mistaken, it was a cross between surprise and abject fear. The bride, who only the day before looked so happy and and excited, now wore an ashen mask that was markedly different from her previous countenance. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

We left for the wedding early on Tuesday morning. Real early. We had the use of our new lawyer friend's car and driver, and the driver was almost unnaturally cheerful when he picked us up at 5:45 for the 10 minute drive to the railway station. It was dark, and the air was filled with insects and softly mumbled Muslim prayers. We said goodbye and thanks, and then moved through the main hall of the station. Past the patchwork quilt of entire families sleeping on the dusty stone floor, and past the large and disorderly queues of people trying to get a "reservation cum journey" ticket. We already had our tickets, so we headed directly for the platform, where a large LCD screen was playing a Bollywood movie very loudly to the semi-interested semi-circle gathered around it. An altar for the new age.

It was still dark when we climbed on the train. We were in a "Second Class A/C Chair Car". and we all had assigned seats, except for Isaac, who was too young to get his own chair for the whole trip. Through some miracle we were not only in the right seats, but also in the right coach, and conductor checked our tickets without incident. We had a nice 6 hour trip to Kannur, where we met up with our friend Venu shortly after getting off the train. Kannur is well off the beaten track, and does not figure prominently on a tourist's agenda. Venu took us on a short walk down the main drag to the Omaar's Hotel, which boasted both A/C and Non A/C rooms. We had the non-A/C rooms, which were spartan, sheetless, and towelless, but otherwise quite fine. Fairly clean, with a tolerable level of insect life. Thank goodness for the fans....

After a dinner at the restaurant downstairs, we went to the local beach with Venu, and then retired early. We got up around 7:30 and all headed out blindly to find a place for breakfast. Most all the shops were shuttered up tight, but after a few blocks we stumbled on the local vegetable market getting set up for the day. Trucks full of pineapples, watermelons, and bananas were offloading in the relative cool of the morning. All these workers have to eat, and sure enough, right in the heart of the activity, we found a little hole in the wall that was serving up a working man's breakfast. We had the choice of "puttu" or appam to go with the round of egg masala, which is basically a hardboiled egg in a zippy tomato curry. We chose the puttu, which is a steamed log of rice flour and shredded coconut. Quite bland by themselves, they come alive when dipped in the egg masala. A couple of cups of chai to dust off the last of the cobwebs, and we were good to go. Under 100 rupees for five of us!

Venu came to collect us just after 10 AM, and we all piled into one of those old Rambler Ambassadors that are ubiquitous in India for the sightseeing trip to a local temple and a snake park. The boys really dug the snake park, and I have to admit, a king cobra is a very formidable serpent! After a break, we piled in again for the trip to Venu's village, the site of his family home. This little village was even more off the beaten track than than Kannur, and we were informed once again that we were indeed the first foreigners ever to visit! Here, the family was busy preparing a wedding feast for nearly 600 guests. And what preparations! I now have a rough idea how to make chicken biryani for a serious crowd. There were at least 4 huge pots that would have been right at home in a cheap Hollywood cannibal movie (actually, I was never able to reconcile that primitive cannibal tribe/advanced metallurgy pot making thing...), each perched atop a metal frame so that it could be heated with a dense fire of coconut husk. They cooked the chicken first, and put it aside for later. And its worth noting that these birds, actually had flavour! The complete antithesis of factory battery chicken raising techniques, where the birds are bred to grow huge and tasteless breasts, going from hatching chick to market size in a little over 36 hours. These Kannur birds are a little leaner, and a little chewier than the factory birds, but I'll be darned if they didn't lend new meaning to the time honoured phrase, "tastes like chicken!" When I get home, I'm going to source an ethical free range chicken farmer in the Valley and buy birds like this 20 at a time for the freezer. Boycott Safeway!!

Several sacks of basmati rice were washed in a huge blue plastic drum, drained through cheesecloth, and then added to the boiling cauldrons. The flames leapt, smoke spewed, and the rice boiled. Then they add the onions, ghee, rosewater, raisins, cashews, saffron, and mint, and voila! Massive vats of biryani. Several dozen cucumbers were peeled, seeded, and chopped, along with the venerable shallot and green chili. These were combined with some salt in another vat of yogurt to make a nice cooling raita. Several tables and a few dozen plastic chairs were set up under plastic tarps, and wave after wave of people were seated and fed until they could eat no more. And the people kept coming. And coming.... By 10 PM, pretty much the whole village had popped by for a snack. The PA system barked out Indian pop tunes that everyone but us seemed to know the words to. This is where it got a little weird. Nice weird. But weird.

It turns out that we were not just invited guests, but indeed the guests of honour. We got the distinct impression that we were the first white people a lot of these nice people had seen up close. A bunch of the women and children gathered in a clutch about fifteen feet away and just kind of stared at us. If we waved, or made any kind of gesture of friendliness, they kind of did an embarrassed giggle and retreated like frightened deer, only to regroup again moments later. A few bold boys came up and extended their hands in greeting. They would fire off the 7 English words that they knew at high volume, and then retreat. This went on all evening, and culminated in us being hauled up to the place where the PA system was set up, where we were introduced as "Mr Robert, Mrs Laura, and Hemma". We were then treated to a stunning a cappella rendition of "My Love Will Go On", from the movie "Titanic", courtesy of a local singer. The PA was distorted, pushed way past its practical limits. The echo effect was on loud ("Mr. Robert obert... obert... obert...."), and the crowd loved it. I was asked to give my rendition of "Hotel California", a song that apparently every foreigner is supposed to know by heart, but in the interest of everyone keeping their biryani down, I graciously declined, citing health reasons and complex union regulations.

A terrifying ride home in a friends SUV, and we were back at the hotel by 11 PM. A family of cows with a fresh calf ambled down the street. A family of beggars with a fresh baby lay down on the sidewalk in front of the hotel for their night's sleep. Once again, the contrasts of India hit me square in the jaw. If you dwell on it, you'll go mad. Laying on the bed later, naked under a whirling fan, I couldn't help but think about what was going through the minds of the bride and groom, for this was an arranged marriage, as opposed to the increasingly fashionable "love match". Excitement? Terror? Remorse? At any rate, it was a heck of a party.

And that was just the first day...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Venu, Vidi, Vici

It is time to tell the world about our friend Venu.

As some of you may recall, Venu is the young man who came to our rescue at the Internet stall last month, and I mentioned him in passing in the "Vonage Saved My Life" post. Over the last month, he has really gone out of his way to make sure that we are all okay and to help us out in any way he can. In many ways, he personifies the warmth and graciousness that is so typical of this place. After first coming to our rescue in the Internet stall, where he was able to translate to a startled looking staff that we merely needed to make an urgent phone call to Canada with our Vonage phone, as opposed to rewiring their facility on the spot in order to achieve our nefarious terror-based goals. We exchanged email addresses after our call, and if I'm not mistaken, he was very pleasantly surprised to receive an email from me the following day that thanked him for his efforts.

Venu is a young guy in his early twenties. He comes from a very small village about 6 hours away from Cochin by train, and another hour by ox-cart. He works night shift in a call-center, and makes about 10,000 rupees a month. In India there is a saying, which roughly translated, says "The guest is God". Venu really lives this maxim, and it brings him a lot of joy to be helpful to others. Surely a quality worthy of emulation. In the first week of our acquaintance, Venu helped to steer my through the labyrinthine process of securing a mobile phone. We hopped a bus and went downtown, where he and his friend took me to a few stores to buy the phone, and then to another store to activate it. At the activation place, it seemed that a passport photo was needed, so we trooped down the street, took a cel-phone camera picture against a blue wall, and had a fellow print up 5 copies in passport size. Then we went back to the store to finish the activation process. As we were packing up the phone to take away, his friend was trying in vain to put the newly activated phone back in its original packing box for me. He was experiencing some difficulty. Venu realized how silly that this was, as nobody carries their mobile phone around in its original box! He took the phone out and as he handed it to me he said "Sometimes, you must think outside the box". I laughed mightily. He looked at me questioningly and said "You are thinking that my use of idiom is correct?". I assured him that it was the best joke I had heard since I landed. Then they took me out for dosa before hopping the bus to come back to Kaloor.

He and his friend must have had a good time, because the next day I received an email saying that he had something very serious to ask Laurel and me. When we met in person, he said "I am asking this most sincerely, from the bottom of my heart. Would you attend the wedding of my sister next month in Kannur?" I was a little taken aback at the intimacy of the gesture, given our relatively fresh association. I said I would talk to Laurel about it and get back to him. Laurel and I talked it over and thought "Yeah!". When I called him back on my new mobile phone (which I think surprised him even more than the email...) to answer in the affirmative, I got the distinct impression that he was a little shocked that we said yes. Who were these people?!?!

He then got down to business and forwarded me all the train information. We've been wanting to take the boys on an Indian train trip, and this was one of the factors in our decision to go. Its about a 5 1/2 hour train trip. Last week, we went to the train station to buy our tickets in person, as we were once again unable to use the India Rail website, which seems to exist for the sole purpose of frustrating it's customers. Venu was even more surprised that we had actually gone out to purchase tickets! I must confess here that we have an ulterior motive for going to this Hindu wedding. It's a 3 day long party, and there will be over 500 guests. Venu talked to his family and we have complete permission to film all aspects of the food preparation!

Venu recently called me to tell me that he is moving to Bangalore at the end of January. He has taken another job at a call-center for Capital One, and his salary has been doubled. He is excited, to say the least. In an email a couple of days ago, he let it slip that we were the first foreigners ever to visit his village, and apparently the whole village is quite excited about this prospect. Actually, excited may be the wrong word. Let's just say that apparently we are the topic of much discussion. That really helped me put this into perspective for Venu. Here's a young guy from a small remote village. He moves to the big city to try and make something of himself. He gets a good job, and then another for twice the cash. Laurel and I both suspect that he will be swelling with pride when he returns to his village with news of his employment and a contingent of new foreign friends.

So we're off tomorrow for Kannur with all our camera gear. Up and out of here at 5 AM to make the train at 6:30. It will be radio silence for a few days while the five of us go off for a bit of real adventure. Then when we return we will be filming Mrs. Roy making a Kerala Fish Curry dish and a Bitter Gourd dish on Sunday in Fort Cochin. Monday the 19th sees us heading to Haritha Farms, which is an organic spice farm/cooking school about an hour and a half out of town. Haritha Farms ( has generously donated their time and facility to Laurel and me in exchange for a mention in our credits. Things are going to be very busy and exciting for the next several days!

But first, let's go to a wedding!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Advent of Fang, And Other Tales

It had to happen.

"My tooth is getting REALLY wiggly, and I can push it out almost horizontal with my tongue!", said Miles. We have been getting running updates as to his dental status for the last week. Once in a while, I would threaten to remove it with pliers and his mouth would snap shut instantly, not sure if I was joking or not. Finally, after the horizontal tooth proclamation, I could stand it no more. I asked Miles to open his mouth to let me see it, and perhaps have a wiggle for myself. Avid readers at this point will note the definite distinction between a tooth wiggle and a head wiggle. I grabbed the little tooth, and gave it a little wiggle. Miles seemed kind of surprised when I didn't let go, and his eyes bugged out a little as I solidified my grip. A deft little "thwip", and the little tooth was out in my hand. "Mom!!!" It's out!!!" he yelled, and at that particular moment, the power went out, leaving me holding a bloody little tooth in complete darkness. Fortunately, we have little headlamps for just such an emergency, and I took this great shot of Miles using only the light from a teeny LED headlight. Of course, Miles already has one adult upper tooth in the front, so we now refer to him as "Fang".

Afterwards, there was much discussion about the tooth fairy, GPS, Google Maps, and exchange rates. It was determined that the Tooth Fairy had no jurisdiction here, and that India was in fact presided over by the Tooth Guru. The 20 rupees Miles found under his pillow the following morning was testament to the mighty Tooth Guru's benevolence. Kids are pretty adaptable.

We did another journey to Fort Cochin for a production meeting with Mrs Leelu Roy, who runs a homestay cum cooking school there. On the walk from the ferry to her house, Laurel and I came across a decrepit old transport truck that was in danger of being reclaimed by some pretty aggressive vegetation. We love these colorful hand painted works of mobile art. Each is unique, and they look great even in decay.

We also noticed some new poster signage and graffiti that had been put up since we were last in Fort Cochin. In the wake of the latest round of Israeli/Palestinian conflict, some fresh consciousness-raising materials had been posted. What fascinates me is the perspective, and how it differs from the slant we get in North American media. It's pure Chomsky, and makes for fascinating study. We saw posters proclaiming Israel to be the "Number 1 Terrorist Country In The World", and also "Israel : Terror 24/7". On a wall just outside the ferry terminal, there were a few new collage pieces, consisting of a painted red circle encompassing some bloodied children's clothing tacked to the wall. It's pretty gripping stuff, and hard to ignore. Obviously, local sympathies in this democratically elected Communist state lie very much with the plight of the Palestinian people. A very different point of view from "Hamas Terrorists Attack Israeli Settlement", and other such headlines that have appeared in the NY Times, and the papers of other Western nations more closely aligned with Israel. It does make me wonder. What is the difference between a "terrorist" and a "freedom fighter"? I suppose it depends on who is reporting the news, and who is buying the advertising that supports the broadcast. Ultimately, it boils down to who is buying the message.

As chance would have it, we met an Israeli traveller at lunch. A very nice chap, who didn't seem to harbour any ill will towards anyone. He did, however, have a very cruel streak when it came to crustaceans. He was most excited about having scooped some very fresh live prawns from the local fishers only minutes before, and now he was dead set on taking advantage of the restaurant's "you catch, we cook" policy. We chatted for a while about food and travel. Then the waiter appeared proudly displaying our new friend's prawns. Bereft of life, they wiggled no more. They did look damned tasty, though. So much so that I lunged toward his table with my camera in hand. "You don't mind if I take a picture of your lunch, do you?", I asked. I didn't bother to wait for a reply, as I pushed his paratha out of the shot and snapped this quick picture before he could offer a word of protest. Thankfully, there was no international incident, and we paid our bill, said our goodbyes, and quickly left. Sometimes you just have to push manners aside in order to get the shot. I left thinking of headlines in tomorrow's paper. "Israeli Terrorist Kills And Eats 12 In Restaurant Melee".

The use of English, as I've said here before, can be very puzzling. We had a very funny thing happen to us yesterday at lunch. We walked into a pretty standard Pure Veg restaurant just off MG Road, and proceeded to order 5 plates of masala dosa. The waiter mimed the act of drinking, to which I replied, "No thanks, just water with the dosa". The waiter looked puzzled and left. Time passed. No water appeared. Finally, we got another waiter to bring a big jug of cold mineral water. Then our dosas arrived, and on each plate, there was a little savoury fried donut item in addition to the dosa. Now this was unusual, as every dosa we've ever ordered came with sambar and cocount chutney. Then it dawned on us. These little donuts were called "vada", and they're really very good when dipped in a quality sambar. Instantly we knew why the waiter had looked so puzzled. He heard me order "No thanks, just vada with the dosa"! This costly blunder added another 6 rupees to each plate. The last photo shows some of the great English language signage that we're nearly numb to right now. Buses going to the "Navel Station". Signs advertising "English Tooter". You get the idea. This one was just way too much fun.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hygiene Hijinx

You know you've been in India for a while when you can tell the difference between a one day and a two day old dead rat.

We do the 700 meter walk up Ponoth Road to the main strip, KK Road maybe two or three times a day. Invariably, we see at least one new rodent that has paid the ultimate price for getting a little sloppy about defence. If we spy a fresh one on the way up to the market, the crows have invariably made a substantial dent in the carcass by the time we walk back to the house. After a while, it's inevitable that an auto-rickshaw, car, or motorcycle has also left a tire tread or two on it. Finally, these flattened half-dried rodents appear to be the favourite chew-toy of the many wild (at least I think they are) dogs that roam the neighbourhood. We're getting to be experts in rodent road-kill. So now when we spot one on our walk, our little game is to guess its age. "That's a two hour rat". "That's a one day rat". "That's an 8 hour rat". It's important to note that in an ecosystem this unforgiving, there no such thing as a four day rat.

Last time we were in India, we stayed in a hotel in Amritsar called "Hotel Samrat". There was a battered wooden sandwich board sign on the sidewalk, which, in crudely painted letters, proudly touted the hotel as being "Nearly as good as a three star hotel". Whenever we checked into another dodgy backpacker's hotel, our running joke for the rest of the trip was "Samrat. Not many".

It is not surprising, given the hygienic challenges being faced on a day to day basis, that sooner or later one of us was going to get crabs. Tenacious crabs. Small, feisty, and incredibly sweet and delicious crabs.

We made our daily trip to the market yesterday, and just after we had picked out a nice fish for a curry, we were approached by a couple toting a big bucket. In this bucket were a dozen or so little crabs, bigger than the blue-tinged ones we see by the basketful in Chinatown, but smaller than our old friend the Dungeness. Each one was bundled up in a little length of very coarse jute twine to harness the claws and stop them from fleeing. They were moving around pretty well, so freshness was a given. I bought 7 or 8 of them, and it came to a whopping 100 rupees, or about $2.50. There is a great dish here in Kerala that is done with shrimp or crab, and it's called "shrimp fry" or "crab fry". It's very simple and quick, and incredibly tasty. It makes good use of the black pepper that grows here so abundantly, and there's puhlenty of garlic to boot!. This is the kind of dish that you can screw up and it will still taste pretty good. The coconut is optional, but if you can include it, you'll be greatly rewarded, as it acts like a sponge for garlic! I'll do my best to pass on the recipe here:

1 Dungeness crab, about 1.5 pounds
3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
3 big shallots, sliced thinly
12 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2 fresh green chilis, cut into thirds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
3 tablespoons of fresh ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1/2 teaspoon chili powder (cayenne)
10 or 12 curry leaves.
8 or ten strips of fresh coconut, cut no more than 1/8 inch thick (optional)
2 roma tomatoes, cut into 6 or 8 wedges each
kosher salt to taste

Boil the crab for 7-10 minutes in very well salted water. Sea water is best, or try to achieve that degree of salinity. Let the crab cool a bit
Carefully remove the main shell, being careful to keep as much of the contents of the head as possible. Place upside down and reserve.
From the now-exposed body, remove the grayish rows of gills, also called "dead mans fingers", and discard.
Remove claws
Cut the body in half down the middle, and using a sharp heavy knife, cut each leg off, leaving a section of body attached.
Heat the ghee in a large wok, and when hot, add the mustard seeds.
When they start to pop, add the curry leaves, and then shallots. Cook until the shallots start to brown and crisp up a bit. Don't blacken them! This makes a bitter and terrible taste.
Add the garlic, turmeric, black pepper, coconut, and fresh and powdered chili. Stir for a moment to combine
Add the crab, including the contents of the head, and fry for a few minutes, stirring constantly to coat with the spice.
Add salt to taste
When it starts to dry a little, add the tomato and stir fry for one more minute.

Turn onto a serving dish, and garnish with fresh cilantro

You can get fresh curry leaves at a lot of the Indian groceries on Main St in Vancouver, or at our favourite one stop shop, Asia Market on Hastings St, one block east of Main. I often buy live crab at the seafood store near the corner of Keefer and Gore, which is only a short walk from Asia Market. I apologize for not being able to give specific directions to outlets in other cities. However, there is this great new web site, called "Google". I'm not sure if it will catch on, though.

We're definitely having fun now. Filming opportunities are starting to pop out of the woodwork. Everyone is healthy. People are starting to recognize us in the neighbourhood and wave or smile. We feel so lucky to have landed where we have. Today, Laurel and I are going out shopping for appropriate clothing to wear to a Hindu wedding in Kannur on the 13th. We have been given permission to film the food preparation that will feed 500+ guests! That should be interesting, to say the least. This will be our first Hindu wedding in almost 9 years. The last one we attended was ours!