Monday, March 30, 2009

May Contain Nuts...

Okay, without a doubt, this is unabashed filler.

We have a good excuse. We have been so busy filming and collecting recipes in the last week and a half, that there has been no time at all to write about what's been going on! I guess that's a good thing. However, with over 10,000 loyal readers (okay, it was mostly us checking back to see if anyone was looking at the blog at all...), we feel an obligation, nay, a duty, to post up something for entertainment value. Hence, this dollop of filler.

In the last week and half, we've been to more spice farms, more kitchens, and visited the neighbouring state in an effort to confirm or deny the claims of Cochin natives who say that Kerala food rules, and everything else kind of blows. Curiously, when we travelled to Tamil Nadu, they said the same thing, only in reverse. We've seen cinnammon being peeled off trees, tapioca roots being plucked from the soil, curry leaves in the wild, and tamarind pods fresher than you can imagine. Rest assured that all those adventures will be posted up, complete with photos as soon as we catch our breath, which even now, is strongly scented with garlic and chillies.

In the meantime, I'm going to leave you with some pictures that we have taken of amusing signs. This was originally going to be part of a larger post with more pictures, but bugger it. I'm inherently lazy, it's 6PM, and the gin in the freezer is calling my name too loudly to ignore. So here they are in no particular order...

Seamen Drinks - The name says it all. Avoid the milkshakes.

Boney Dresses - Perhaps the only store in the world that caters to "minus" sized ladies.

PMS Agencies - The company that asks the philosophical question "If a tree falls in the forest, and a man is not there to hear it, is he still wrong?".

Let us catch our breath, and I promise that there will be some actual content in the next post...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Squid Pro Quo

A lot of people find squid daunting and I guess that's not too surprising. They don't have a very recognizable anatomy - unless you're into cephalopods - they don't look like mammals, fish or crustaceans. And really, what other food has tentacles?

But sometimes life's finer things require just a little research and a slightly larger leap of faith to reap amazing results. So for those of you out there in your cyber-kitchens thinking that you just might be ready to take the plunge and start cooking with marine mollusks (a much more daunting one can be found here), follow me into the wonderful wriggly world of Squid 101.

Whether you call it squid, kalamari or ika, it's just plain yummy. I grew up in a neighbourhood in Vancouver that used to be predominantly Greek. Fried squid and squid or octopus braised in a tomato sauce were common dishes in the local restaurants and homes. Most countries with coastal areas have some form of squid in their diet and for good reason. High in protein, low in fat and relatively inexpensive. What's not to love? The only thing you need to remember if you want to cook with cephalopods is that they need to be cooked either quickly (1 or 2 minutes) or for a very long time (braised for an hour or more). Raw is another tasty option but I'll leave the details of cephalopod sashimi to someone else for now.

Cochin, being on the coast of Kerala and the beautiful Arabian Sea has an amazing selection of seafood. A few days ago we were at the main Ernakulam market taking some still photos and looking for some dinner. Our local Kaloor market has a good stock of seafood (as well as fruit, veg and fresher-than-you-can-conceive-of meats) but the Ernakulam main market takes edible consumerism to a whole new level. To a theme song of "Yes, Madam", "One picture please" , "Coming from...?" and vendors sucking air between their teeth, we moved through the labyrinthine streets and buildings that comprise the market and found ourselves standing in front of some absolutely stunning squid. There were cockles and crabs and the biggest kingfish we've seen to date but it was the glistening pinky-purple squid that called out to us for dinner. How to purchase squid? Fresh squid should not be fishy smelling just smelling faintly of briny sea water. Most of the tentacles should be intact and the bodies should not look wilted or dried out. Squid is best kept on ice.

So we bought 1.5 kg (which turned out to be two meals worth) of this slippery goodness, picked up a few more supplies and headed home with kalamari on the brain. Speaking of brains, time for a squid anatomy lesson and the art of cleaning squid. When you look at a squid it looks like it has two sections, a long tube-like piece which is the body and a squidgily tentacle/eye piece that appears to be barely connected to the tube. Step number one in cleaning a squid is to separate the two pieces. Grab the tube end with one hand and the tentacle end with the other and gently pull apart. Put down the tube for a moment and with the other piece cut off anything north of the tentacles: meaning the eyes, the beak (which is nestled where the tentacles come together and is a hard pyramid shaped thingy) and the tentacle-like gooeyness that had been attached to the tube. Set the tentacles aside, discard the other stuff and pick up the tube piece. Have a look in the open end of the tube and you will see what looks like a translucent bit of plastic on one side, this is the quill. Pull it out and discard it. Then, starting at the sealed end of the tube, pinch your fingers and run them up the squid body as if you were trying to get that last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. Do this over the sink or a plate because gooey stuff will squish out. Discard the gooey stuff. Ink may also come out at this point, if it does, just give the squid a rinse under the tap. If the squid has a purplish coloured membrane on it , then the tube needs to be peeled. Run your thumb along the surface of the tube and you should notice the coloured membrane roll off under your thumb. If it doesn't start to roll, apply a little more pressure or try to run your thumb in a different direction along the tube. All the coloured purply-pink stuff just rolls off easily once you get it started. Discard the membrane. You can run the squid under the tap, or not, depending on your comfort level. Rob thinks the squid taste better if you don't run water over them. I haven't noticed a difference and it's easier to work with if you rinse them. You may find as you are cleaning your squid that you discover whole little fishies in the bodies - we found two on this batch - that the squid didn't have time to eat before getting scooped up in a net. We discarded the fish but I suppose you could fry them up with your squid and eat them whole.

Once you have the cleaned tube and the de-beaked and de-eyed the tentacles, you're ready to start cutting. The squid we had were fairly small so we didn't bother to cut the tentacles at all, but you can if you like. When making Chinese food we often slit the tubes open and cut a cross-hatched pattern onto the flattened tube which makes them curl up and the extra surface area allows them to catch all sorts of yummy flavours in a stir-fry. You can go Mediterranean and stuff the bodies with grains, breadcrumbs, herbs, spices and little bits of nuts or bacon. But we were opting for Greek style fried squid so we sliced the tubes into rings and dredged the rings and tentacles in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper and a bit of chili powder. Once lightly coated with the flour, shake off any excess and carefully fry the squid in small batches in a couple of inches of oil. Fry for about one minute, then using a slotted spoon, scoop the fried squid onto a paper-lined plate to absorb the excess oil and sprinkle with a bit of salt while still hot. Serve with sliced red onion, lemon or lime wedges and tzatziki (yogurt, grated cucumber, chopped mint, minced garlic, salt and black pepper) for dipping. What a feast!

A note on the oil: Rob decided to fry in coconut oil since that is the main oil we use here. At home we would probably use peanut or canola oil. What a surprise to discover that squid fried in coconut oil taste astonishingly similar to bacon! A bit smoky, a bit porky and a lot tasty. We were all so surprised - and pleased - we haven't had any pork in over 4 months and Rob's home-cured bacon is a Bailey family favourite!

So, how hard was that? Next time you see a glistening pile of fresh squid at your local market or fishmongers, don't skip over them! Squid just want to be loved. Is that so wrong?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Courier Sauce

I don't understand my son.

I love him dearly, but I don't understand him. Miles will be 8 in a couple of weeks, and for the last few months he has become increasingly obsessed with Pokemon. It all started innocently enough. A few trading cards at school. Then a growing collection of Pokemon cards at home, with which he would have epic "Pokemon battles" with his younger brother Isaac, who was too little to fully comprehend why he would always get whooped in these strange bouts of ritualized childhood combat. Don't kids play marbles anymore? Then came Christmas, and Santa, in his infinite wisdom, decided to bestow upon the boys a pair of Nintendo DS handheld gaming systems. Miles, much to his delight, received a deluxe Pokemon game cartridge to go with it. I believe that psychotherapists refer to this behaviour as "enabling".

Both Laurel and I could really give a rat's patooty about Pokemon. If you had asked me last year what a Pokemon was, I would have been certain that you were referring to a Jamaican proctologist. Now it's different. Our son bursts into our room several times a day like a hurricane to announce that "My Dialga has just evolved into a Frenobulax!!!!", or some other equally incomprehensible phrase that obviously brings great joy to him, but leaves us wondering about each other's contribution to his DNA. Is this boy the brilliant product of years of evolution, or was our offspring scraped from the mold growing in the shallow end of the gene pool?

Mind you, his achievements in the domain of Pokemon are actually quite impressive. He has methodically created a stunningly detailed mental map of every Pokemon character, and there are dozens, if not hundreds of the little bastards. He knows all their names, their origins, their habits and attributes, and the ability or inability of each one to evolve into other Pokemon types, along with the conditions that must exist to allow for such metamorphosis. In short, he has become a Pokemon bore of the highest order, in much the same way that he was a Harry Potter bore last year. Harry Potter was sooooooo last year.

So when asked what he wanted for his birthday this year, he didn't skip a beat. "Pokemon Ranger: Shadows Of Almia". He said this with a speed that seemed to indicate that he had been thinking of nothing else for months. Laurel and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. But hey, I was 8 years old once, and my ability to endlessly obsess over a particular toy is more than merely dimly remembered. A glance inside my studio would reveal that it has actually been parlayed into something resembling a career. So out of solidarity, I set to work tracking down this elusive Pokemon game. Nobody on eBay in North America seems to want to ship games to Asia, so I created an account on eBay India, and went searching there. I found but one copy of the sacred game in Singapore, and lo and behold the vendor would ship to India. Actually, Laurel, the Queen of Google Search found it, but for the purposes of this narrative, let's pretend that I did everything. I then created an account with "PaisaPay", which is the Indian equivalent to "PayPal", clicked on the "Buy It Now" button, and hoped for the best.

I must say that I was deeply impressed. My inbox was soon inundated with messages from eBay. "Seller has received payment". "Seller has shipped item". "Here is your tracking number". "Expect delivery no later than...". and so on. I breathed a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that the purchase of the birthday present was handled and that my son's geek factor was about to increase exponentially. The delivery date came and went. I thought I'd give it one more day before complaining. Then two days. I had a bad feeling. Finally, I logged back onto my PaisaPay account and actually cancelled payment for the item, figuring that it had somehow crawled off to die in that special place inhabited only by single socks and election promises. PaisaPay says that if anything changes over the next 5 days, I should cancel the cancelling. Discouraged, and facing the prospect of having to find some other kind of present that would be nowhere near as appreciated ("A cheese straightener. Uh... thanks, Dad"), I did the only thing that any self respecting parent in my situation would do. I went to buy beer.

Returning from the beer store, where I have become such a good customer that my flower garlanded portrait now hangs on the wall of the shop between Nehru and Gandhi, I felt a stirring in my shorts. This time, it was not impure thoughts responsible for the stirring, but my mobile phone. I didn't recognize the number, but took a chance and took the call anyway. A distorted rapid-fire burst of machine-gun Malayalam greeted my ear, in much the same way as that old Far Side cartoon, What Dogs Really Hear ("Blah blah blah Ginger. Blah blah Ginger"). "Blah blah blah Robert Bailey blah blah blah DHL blah...". I had to stop the gentleman on the phone and confess my complete inability to understand Malayalam, with the exception of the words for "water", "thank-you", and "mother******". Thank you, Rajesh, for that last one. "English only, please", I said into the phone in that careful, slow and loud way seemed to indicate I had no business owning a phone in this country. "What is your location please?", the crackly voice asked. I then described my address on Ponoth Road, along with the nearest cross street. "Uh, uh uh...", came the response, which I recognized as being Malayalam shorthand for "Gotcha". The line went dead.

I continued home with my bag of beery goodness. I was nearly at the front door when a motorcycle pulled up to the intersection. The driver looked around, as if trying to get his bearings. I smiled in greeting as I walked past. His gaze narrowed. "What is your good name please sir?", he asked. I get asked this question several times a day. "Robert Bailey", I answered. His eyes lit up, and he reached into the satchel on the gas tank of his bike. "Package for you, sir". A little stunned, I signed for the package in the middle of the intersection, receiving a polite head wiggle at the conclusion of the transaction. He then sped off into traffic. Shaking my head in wonderment, I looked down at the package labelled "Top Most Urgent", and thought to myself, "Only in India...".

I still don't understand my son, but he's getting the Pokemon Ranger Shadows Of Almia...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gone Fishin'

This morning I saw my neighbour fishing. In the sewer beside his house.

The disturbing thing is that after three and a half months here, it did not strike me as odd. "Buddy is fishing in the sewer. Well, that makes perfect sense". As I walked out of the house this morning with the whole family, the first thing we saw outside the gate was our next door neighbour, whose name escapes me. Clad in a lunghi and a once-snazzy shirt, he was poised expectantly beside the open sewer that runs around both sides of nearly every street here. The ditch is filled with some sort of liquid/solid amalgam. An ever changing soup of mosquito larvae-ridden grey water and human effluent. My neighbour dude had fashioned a fishing pole from a 3 foot stick, and tied some fishing line to it. The other end was submerged in the water, presumably tied to a hook, although it was impossible to tell, given the thick crust on the surface. In another setting it could have been some sort of absurdist performance art, where some black-clad bohemian dangles a line into the toilet of a SoHo loft, while reciting poetry about their miserable childhood, whilst the surrounding hipsters nod their heads approvingly. This was different, though. I passed up the temptation to ask "Catching anything?", and the five of us walked on at a zippy pace. 20 yards later we looked at each other. Was he really fishing in the sewer? Yes. I made a mental note to decline any subsequent dinner invitations.

I should point out that this was not my landlord and neighbour Stanley indulging in his piscean passion. Stanley is a bit of a connoisseur of fish, and any and all invitations to dine at his table are gleefully accepted. His wife, Gigi, allowed us to film her creating two Kerala classics "Fish & Mango Coconut Curry", and "Fish Pollichathu", which is fish coated in a spicy paste and then wrapped in banana leaves to finish cooking. All of these recipes will eventually be posted after we go through and review the tapes and transcribe and test them.

But first, one must have fish! After briefly considering it, I decided against my other neighbour's approach to fish acquisition, and instead, grabbed my cloth marketing bag and hopped on the back of Stanley's motorcycle for the short trip up to the local market. I've written a bit about this market before, but it's amazing to me how my relationship to food has changed as a result of living here and using this market. I shop every single day, and I only buy what is fresh and in season. I bring home no plastic packaging or canned goods. The selection of meats, veg, fruit, and fish is staggering. I'm going to seriously miss this when I return home. To go from a daily selection of 25 different species of fresh fish glistening on a tarp to eyeing dusty cans of tuna on the shelf at the Bowen General Store is going to be a major culture shock.

Under Stanley's watchful eye, we purchased several Karimeen, or "Pearl Spot" fish for Gigi's preparations that day. These fish are very popular here, and its easy to see why. They grow in the brackish backwaters in large numbers. Karimeen are a little bony, but the meat is very sweet tasting. They are curried sometimes, but when deep-fried whole, the wee bones become crunchy and edible. There are several women that sell Karimeen and prawns at the market. They are a boisterous bunch, and the competition for customers is stiff. There must be some sort of target painted on my shirt, because as soon as I show up in the market courtyard, there is a noisy commotion and a series of frantic hand gestures, most of which I interpret to be friendly, in an effort to attract me to their particular pile of oceanic offerings. The woman that we bought the fish from set to work expertly separating the scales from the skin using a rusty looking, but extremely sharp, knife. She cut away the gills of the Karimeen, giving the poor buggers the appearance of a permanent goofy smile. Much like my own. How these women crouch like this day after day in the heat, surrounded by a growing halo of flies amidst a heap of rapidly ripening seafood is truly beyond me. Yet there they are, day after day after day. These people are tough.

Once back at Stanley and Gigi's, we went to work. I set up all my camera and sound gear, while Laurel helped Gigi on with her wireless mic. Once all her prep was done, Gigi excused herself for a moment. She soon emerged from her room, absolutely festooned with gold jewelry, and looking quite lovely in her green sari. Inside of a couple of hours she had completely assembled two delicious dishes, and I nipped next door to collect our taste testing crew. Miles, Isaac, and Emma arrived, and we all sat down to a fantastic lunch. Real home cooking, or as they call it here, "homely food". Made with love and care. Traditional. Fresh. Local.

Well, maybe not quite so local as what my other neighbour was hoping to catch...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Fish & Fruit Curries

We've been eating an awful lot of fish.

Karimeen. Kingfish. Snapper. Pomfret. Squid. Prawns, You name it. If it swims, it's terrified of us. Cochin is truly one of the best places in the world to eat seafood. There is just such a huge variety of it, and it's always available fresh daily at the market. There's even an extensive network of fish home-delivery men that ply their trade in residential neighbourhoods. They creak and wheeze down the potholed back lanes on wobbly-tired vintage pre-war bicycles that have large plastic containers filled with ice, fish, and ancient rusty balance beam scales strapped to the back. They honk these distinctive little air horns attached to the front handlebars to let the residents know that a fish dinner is within their grasp. If Harpo Marx sold fish, this is how he would do it.

I took advantage of this service for the first time last week. I was having my morning chai when I heard landlord Stanley's voice outside. "Robert!" he intoned. "Stanley!" I shot back, by now used to this kind of exchange. He calls me by my first name, thinking it's my last, and I call him by his last name, thinking it's his first. "Come!" he said. I wandered outside to meet him. We shook hands in greeting. I looked at him expectantly. He simply said "Man come". I interpreted this as an instruction to await the arrival of someone very important. A few minutes of awkward silence, punctuated by the odd head wiggle, and then the Prawn Man pulled up on his bicycle, the melting ice dripping out of the back of his large blue plastic container so that he left a trail like a slug.

The Prawn Man pulled a beat up blue tarp from the back of his bike and spread it out on the ground, revealing a plethora of fresh prawns nestled in chunks of rapidly meting ice. The store was open. I decided to step back and let my homeboy Stanley deal with the negotiations. A couple of minutes of rapid-fire Malayalam later, and I was left holding 2 kilos of fresh prawns that I had exchanged for about 260 rupees. The Prawn Man pedaled, squeaked, honked, and dripped his way further down the lane. "Cool!" I thought to myself. I didn't even have to make a phone call. Telepathic prawn delivery.

Later that day we went to film another great cooking episode with our friend Chitra. Chitra has just started her own catering company called "Mayden Treats", and has moved her cooking facilities to a rented apartment that is in the same office complex that her husband Gee occupies with his Ayurvedic "relationship enhancement" business. That's a hard business to be in when your market is mostly soft. Chitra was making a spicy red fish curry for us, and also another regional specialty: sweet mango curry. Her kitchen is small for a commercial operation, but if her cooking is any indicator, she will soon occupy the whole building!

The mango curry is very simple. Freshly peeled small raw mangoes, which are just coming into season now, are simply cooked with a few spices and curd. I'm embarrassed to say that I was so busy filming and watching sound levels that I don't remember the recipe precisely. I would have to go and review the tape to provide the whole thing accurately. That will come later. All I can tell is that it was very fast, and very very good! Savoury, sweet, and a bit sour all at the same time.

The fish curry was a great version of a true Kerala classic. This was made in a "mud pot", which is a thick ceramic pot you can place directly on the flame. It definitely adds to the taste of the dish. Once again, the accurate recipe will follow once I review the tape, but suffice to say that lots of red chili powder and turmeric are mixed with a little water to form a thick paste, which was then cooked with onion, coconut oil, fenugreek, black mustard seeds, and curry leaves. To this was added some coconut milk, water, salt, and the real star of the show, Kokum, or fish tamarind. This is a special kind of tamarind that has been dried and smoked, and it's actually a different plant than the usual tamarind that we cook with. It's a souring agent like the regular kind, but it's the smoke that gives a very unique kind of flavour to the dish. It's as different from regular tamarind as a fresh jalapeno pepper is to a chipotle chili. The dish will simply not taste authentic without it. Once everything gets cooked up, the fish, in this case snapper, gets gently placed in the pot so that it gets basically poached in the fiery smoky red sauce. Like everything Chitra makes, it was unbelievably good.

The unexpected star of the show, however, was a little snack/condiment that she quickly whipped up. Dried shrimp cooked with onion and curry leaves. Rinse a couple of cups of small dried shrimp to remove the excess salt and dust (shrimp are dried outdoors on large tarps or cement). Fry a couple of sliced small red onions in some coconut oil until they start to brown. Sprinkle a spoonful of turmeric and a spoonful of chili powder over the shrimp (maybe some black pepper too if you're feeling bold). Fry the shrimp with the onion and a handful of curry leaves until the whole thing dries out a little and the onions are nice and golden brown. Let them cool in a bowl, and serve as a condiment. It's great as a snack with a glass of cold beer too!

By the time all the food was done, I could hardly wait to sample everything. The smells were enough to make me barely be able to concentrate on filming. Chitra made some simple rice to go along with everything, and we all tucked in for a hearty lunch. Chitra kindly gave us a little care package of each item to take home and share. Then it was back home to cook the prawns I had bought the same morning.

Oi, such a lot of fish!

And the winner is...

We could not have been more surprised than to come home from a day in Fort Cochin to find a small parcel waiting for us. It immediately screamed out Canada Post - the distinctive logo and packaging could be from nowhere else. What could this be? And from whom? Inside the parcel - 2 sticks of candy, a honking bar of chocolate and a copy of The Bowen Island Undercurrent. No note. But the "sender" label told it all - Leanne Romak had purchased goodies for us all and packed them up and shipped them off into the great unknown! Thank you thank you thank you Leanne! Believe it or not, it only took 5 days to arrive - maybe were not so far away after all...?

The boys were thrilled with their candy and scarfed it immediately. The adults are still savouring (one little piece at a time) the luscious Cocoa Camino Dark Espresso Bar which got put in the freezer right away since it was soft in this heat. It lost its temper and has a bit of bloom on it now but we know enough about chocolate to know that a little bloom is a purely aesthetic issue. This chocolate is sooo good that it comes very close to my current favourite from Organic Fair in Cobble Hill (I think it's available at The Ruddy Potato although we first purchased in on a visit to Lucinda and Wayne's fabulous farm in Cobble Hill).

The Undercurrent has been read cover-to-cover. We can read some of it online but much of the detail is missing so it was great to have this reminder of home.

What can we offer Leanne in return? Our undying gratitude? Sincere thanks? Or how about a Curry dinner when we return? We owe you one, Leanne!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Under Pressure

Rob has already waxed rhapsodic over the mixie, and I admit that the mixie is a fine bit of hardware but the appliance that has won my heart and enriched my India experience is the humble pressure cooker. It doesn't look like much and it certainly isn't sexy, but what a work horse! I've always had a vague fear of the pressure cooker - hearing horror stories in the early 70s of pressure cookers exploding and imagining steam burns encased in a scalding hot poultice of splattered legumes was enough to convince me that a pressure cooker was an outdated contraption best left to the 1950s, 60s and those millet and lentil 70s. That is, until now.

The pressure cooker is an everyday appliance in most Indian households. The average Indian housewife would not be without several pressure cookers of varying sizes, perhaps because the diet here is so leguminous (new word meaning heavy in legumes). Perhaps because, as Stanley our landlord advised us, fuel is "costly" and a pressure cooker cuts cooking time by more than a half, thereby saving fuel and money. Or, perhaps it is because it saves time, the busy new era housewife can fit more into her day. Or because of the decreased time and savings in energy - either electricity or gas - it is the green cooker of choice. Why they are so popular here is not that important, they just are. Why have they gone out of favour in the West? I blame the microwave, but that's a whole different kettle of kingfish, which we won't get into just yet.

For those not in the know, the pressure cooker is a thick bottomed pot with a lid that seals completely the escape of steam or air. On the lid of the pressure cooker is a jiggly weight sitting atop the one pin sized hole in the sealed pot. As the pot is heated on the stove with food and liquid, the liquid produces steam, the steam builds up since it has only a tiny hole to vent through and this pressure (usually 15 psi or pounds per square inch) cooks the food at a much faster rate - saving time, fuel and sometimes vitamins. If you're interested in how and why they work the way they do, read this. For food that takes a very long time to cook to become tender - cheap cuts of meat and dried beans - the pressure cooker is a godsend. There are some basic safety rules to follow: careful removal of the weight only after it stops hissing, followed by the opening of the lid, never the other way round, and always check that nothing has blocked that little pin hole BEFORE you start cooking.

The day that Rob and I bought the mixie, we also decided to purchase a pressure cooker. We had watched Chitra use her pressure cooker to make the fabulous duck recipe and, despite jumping out of our skins the first time it "whistled", it seemed kind of harmless. It helps that new era pressure cookers have safety plugs and gasket release mechanisms. So we bought a Prestige 3 litre pressure cooker. A heavy aluminum pot with a little black weight and a whistle that reminds you that the chickpeas are almost ready even if you are 2 rooms away. "Whistle" is a euphemism, "screech" is more apt.

So I started to Google. Yes, I am getting a reputation, and, I have to admit it is mostly well-founded. Google is my friend. Back to the matter at hand, did you know that there are scores of cookbooks and websites devoted to cooking with the pressure cooker? Meat, pulses, vegetables, grains and even dessert recipes all made in the pressure cooker - I may even attempt a pressure cooked cake for Miles' upcoming birthday.

For a gal who really likes beans and whole grains - a bacon and seafood eating vegetarian at heart - the pressure cooker is a thing of majesty. As an example, it can take an hour and a half of simmering to cook wheat berries to a point where they are even beginning to be edible but in the pressure cooker, 20-30 minutes does it all. Cracked wheat (which is NOT the same as Bulgur which has been hulled, steamed and toasted so is already partially cooked and cooks up fairly quickly) takes about 40 minutes to cook in a regular pot. In the pressure cooker, a mere 1 minute. Of course it is easy to overcook food in a pressure cooker so checking out some of the online timetables can be very helpful.

This is a recipe for an Indian sweet called Lapsi I found online. I believe it's north Indian but we can get all the ingredients here in the south. I've altered it - I significantly lowered the amounts of both ghee and sugar - and we think it makes a great breakfast!

Bailey Lapsi (serves 5 in our household)

2T ghee or butter
3 cinnamon sticks broken in half
1 1/2 c cracked wheat, washed and drained
2 3/4 c water
1 chunk jaggery, chopped finely (palm sugar piece approx 2" x 1" x 1", you can substitute 2-3T brown sugar)
1/4 c roasted cashews, roughly chopped
2 small bananas, peeled and sliced (or one North American sized banana)
1 mango, peeled and chopped

Heat ghee in the bottom of the pressure cooker with the lid off over medium heat. Add cinnamon sticks and stir for a few moments. Add the drained cracked wheat and stir to coat in ghee. Toast the cracked wheat for about 2 minutes, until it changes colour a bit and smells toasty. Add water, stir, and secure the lid on the pressure cooker. Place the weight on top. Over high heat, bring the pressure cooker up to full pressure. When it screeches, turn down to medium and cook for 1 minute. Remove cooker from heat and let it depressurise naturally - there are quick release methods but you don't want to use these for this recipe as the wheat needs to stand a bit. Once you can jiggle the weight and it doesn't hiss, you can remove the weight and open the lid (be careful, the steam is hot!). Add jaggery and stir to dissolve. When the jaggery has dissolved, add all other ingredients. Stir and serve (you can pick out the cinnamon sticks or let the eaters do it themselves). Of course you can cook this in a regular pot but it'll take a long time. This recipe is also open to all sorts of substitutions - different spices, fruit and nuts - I used what we get easily here. You can also serve it with plain yogurt to spoon on top and it would be great with berries... yum.

I love my pressure cooker. Shhhh. Don't tell my husband...

Monday, March 9, 2009

Connected To The Net

I love my neighbourhood in the morning.

There's a lot of life going on before 7AM here. A bunch of neighbours have scratched out a badminton court in an empty lot, and there are spirited games going on at 6AM. Labourers brush their teeth and hose off their feet at communal faucets that empty into the open sewer. There is an old woman who grazes her two cows in the neighbourhood empty lots and on the grasses that grow beside the sewer ditches. She scurries about in the early morning hours with assorted bottles, delivering fresh raw milk still warm from the udders of her bony bovines to her network of clandestine customers. Men on motorcycles head to work, grateful for the breeze beneath the lunghi. Women return from the market laden with vegetables and fish, dodging the odd rat that has been unlucky enough to have been recently flattened in an ill-timed dash. The last tired choruses of hopeful amorous insects buzz, as night gently gives way to morning.

Of course, I was missing all that because I was in bed. I heard a muffled voice say "That ****ing phone of yours!". "What?", I said, as I removed the earplugs that I usually sleep with. "Your phone!. Its' been going off since 6:45!" I hastily wrapped a lunghi around me and went to go and check to see who called. It was my friend Rajesh, who lives just up the road. I figured that he wanted me to go and re-injure myself on the soccer field, and was calling to check my availability for this ritual humiliation. I declined to call back. I opted to maintain my functional knees and the ability to walk upright, and instead returned to bed. Then the phone rang again. I ignored it, while my lovely wife gritted her teeth into powdery stumps. A few minutes later, we both heard the gate clanging as someone from the outside lane tried to gain access. We were being invaded!

Figuring that the sight of a flabby ferengi clad only in a lunghi would be enough to frighten away even the most adamant intruder, I wrapped the cloth around my naughty bits and marched towards the door, prepared for confrontation. The door swung wide to reveal Rajesh and his young daughter. He looked understandably surprised at my appearance. Nothing like a sleepy old white guy in a piece of cloth to get your day off to a good start. "You are having an extra long sleep?", he asked, unaware of the irony of his inquiry. I mumbled something unintelligible. As my fog lifted, I became aware that he was planning a trip to Vypeen to buy some crabs again, and thoughtfully asked if the family and I wanted to come. Naturally, my irritation at being woken evaporated as visions of crab curry danced across my inner field of vision, like one of those old snack ad trailers they used to play at the drive-in movies. "Let's all go to the lobby....".

Changing into my shorts faster than Superman can don a cape, I also managed to convince the boys that putting on clothing before going outside was actually a good idea. Grabbing our trusty green crab bucket, we three headed up to Rajesh's house and piled into his car for the short trip to Vypeen. Vypeen is a long, thin island that can be reached from Ernakulam, where we live, by a series of bridges, and also by ferry. Rajesh first drove us to his friend's prawn farm on one of the lesser islands on the way. This was a very cool property that bordered one of the backwaters that Kerala is famous for. We went to the little "seafood shack" that was right by the water, and there we found a couple of men hoisting large baskets of freshly caught small shrimp. Unfortunately, there was only one small crab was to be had, but as a consolation, we got to follow one of the men to the water to watch him fish. He cast his hand-net out 8 or 9 times, each time coming back with a fish or two. There were Karimeen, or "Pearl Spot", small barracuda, a carp-like specimen or two, and one that looked very close to what we would call a ling cod. A couple of good sized shrimp, and a small crab or two, and there was more than enough caught in 10 minutes to feed a whole family for at least a day. I've got to get me one of those nets for when the eulachon are running at home!

This made me think of why Kerala is called "God's Own Country". No, it's not that there is a Supreme Deity with a penchant for real estate speculation. The name means that this area is so rich, clean, and diverse, that one can pretty much live off the land. Coconuts grow in abundance. Fish and prawns proliferate in the abundant waters. Banana leaves for plates. Perfect growing conditions for rice. Great soil for vegetables. Eat with your hands. You can live pretty simply here, and live pretty well.

We bought a couple of kilos of the fresh prawns, and had them cleaned for us on the spot. Unfortunately, our second "Quest for Crabs" was thwarted, as access to Vypeen was rendered impossible due to a colourful festival, complete with drums and dancers with enormous fake heads, that was taking place in the one main road that runs the whole length of the island. Abandoning the quest after a lengthy stop on the last bridge to the island, we turned the convoy around and headed for home. We had to content ourselves with the fish, the prawns, and a lonesome small crab. Once home, I drained the prawns, and then sprinkled a little turmeric, chili powder, black pepper, and salt on them. Then I deep fried them in coconut oil, and drained them on newspaper. I fried some onions until they were golden brown, then added some fresh green chili, garlic, coconut chunks, curry leaves, and the previously fried prawns. A few stirs and dinner was ready...

I love my neighbourhood in the evening.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lights Out!

Rob has alluded in previous posts to the power going out here on a regular basis but I don't know how many of you realize how regular it really is.  The power is turned off for a half hour every day.  Yes, every day. That is the scheduled "out".  It took us awhile to figure it all out, but it goes something like this: Week 1 your power is out from 6 - 6:30 pm every day.  We've been messed up by this one several times since we are often making dinner around that time - out comes the trusty headlamp and the cooking continues in the dark (whilst been eaten alive by mosquitos).  Indians tend to eat later - 8 pm -  so this particular time slot probably isn't too hard on them.  Week 2, power goes out from 6:30 - 7 pm, and so on.  Each week the scheduled out is a half hour later until the final one which is 10 - 10:30 pm.  Then you're back to week 1 again.  Each neighbourhood is on a different schedule.

Then there are the all-too regular, but not predictable, power failures as well. We usually have 3 to 10 of these a week.  Some last 5 or 10 minutes, others last for hours.  You have no idea how dependent you have become on overhead fans until the power is out for 2 hours in the middle of a 35C day!

It tends to get dark here around 7 pm so when the power goes out in the dark, before the boys go to bed, we use that time to play a great game taught to us by our fabulous Bowen neighbour, Brian.  We play Geography.  The first person names a country (we expanded it to include continents, cities and towns...).  The next person says the name of a place that starts with the same letter that the last one ended with - for example: first one says "Athens", second one says "Sweden", third one "Nantucket"  etc.  What's great about this game is that it requires no equipment, not even a pen or paper.  You also don't need to be able to see each other (very handy when the power is out)!  We've used this game on trains, in cars, in airports, at restaurants...  Miles has always been geeky about geography so it was an obvious game for him to play but I was afraid Isaac wouldn't be able to keep up.  But the game is so repetitive that each time we play it Isaac picks up more place names.  He has no idea where the places are but since we're not trying to place them on a map, that is irrelevant. We rarely need to give him hints anymore and now that he is reading, a whole new world (pun intended) has opened up. Of course, if you play Geography too often it can get really, really, repetitive and boring but we save it for those really-need-it-times and it works out well. Watch out for all those names starting and ending in "A" though!  We've also corrupted it horribly to Animalography and Foodography (yes, I know the "ography" part doesn't really work here, it should be "ology"  but that's what the boys started calling them and the names stuck) where we use names of animals or food - both ingredients and finished dishes - instead of places.  We've also used the dark time to make shadow puppets using the headlamp, listen to music or watch a DVD on the laptop (if it's charged) and create oral stories together.

A half hour doesn't seem like a long time but when it happens everyday you become acutely aware of the things we generally take for granted - like how much power we use and how much we are dependent upon it.  You plan your day differently, or maybe it is that it forces you to PLAN your day.  When are you going to cook? When are you going to eat (hard to eat in the dark, we've done it but try to avoid it since you can't see fish bones and things)?  When are you going to wash the dishes (also tricky in the dark), check your email, do yoga (not when the fan isn't working!)?  The power out is a good time to play games, hang with the family and remember why we came here in the first place.  It forces you to slow down at some point every day, and stop doing.  Less doing, more being.

Clap on.  Clap Off.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Shtanley's Shtoo

Enough Larium induced piffle. Time to get back to basics.

First off, we want to thank all the people that took time out to write comments or send us a private email in response to our plea from a couple of posts back. In retrospect, it was obviously a cry for help. Nevertheless, our staunch friends came through with much appreciated notes from the home front. We are now reassured that we have not slipped into some odd curry flavoured parallel universe, never to be seen or heard from again. Your comments ranged from "Keep it up. The pictures and recipes are nice. We're very much enjoying this", to "You bastards. How dare you complain when you're sitting amongst the palm trees enjoying 90+ straight days of sunshine. I'm freezing my soggy ass off here". No matter. It was great to hear from friends old and new. Thanks. Ahhhhhhh.......

This week we filmed a great segment with Gigi, our landlord Stanley's wife. As some of you may recall, we were invited to their house for a Christmas lunch. Well, some might call it lunch. It was more an epic two and a half hour festival of gluttony. Knowing what I do now, it must have taken the better part of two days to prepare. The first course, which was brought out shortly after Stanley literally stuffed a big piece of pineapple cake directly into my gaping maw, was a delicious vegetable and coconut concoction served with appam, the light and lacy rice and coconut pancake. Incredibly balanced and nuanced, this dish had a complexity that belied its simple ingredient list. We had never had anything like it before in any Indian restaurant. "What IS this?", I asked, between enthusiastic mouthfuls. "It's fantastic". "Ishtoo", replied Stanley, looking very pleased that I was pleased. I was tempted to reply "gesundheit", but fought the urge. The puzzled look on my face made Stanley repeat it. "Ishtoo". Suddenly it was clear to Laurel and me. Stew! Yes, that's it! Vegetable stew. The name of this dish is a Malayalam mutation of the English word, much like "milk-uh" and "curd-uh". Despite their propensity for appending extra syllables, they make-uh some-uh good-uh ishtoo. Almost Italian, really.

So yes, ishtoo is not a personal electronics device made by Apple-uh. It's a very tasty combination of potatoes, beans, carrots, onions, and coconut milk. It's seasoned with fresh green chili, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and whole black pepper. Finally, the whole mixture is tempered with dried red chili, mustard seeds, and crispy shallots. First, Gigi showed us how to make appam. I've made appam a couple of times here, but always from a prefab mix. As you might expect, mine were pale imitations of the ones that Gigi makes. A quantity of rice is soaked overnight, then drained. This gets ground up in the mixie with some watery coconut milk and some cooked rice. Salt and yeast are added, and the mixture sits for a couple of hours. The yeast makes the whole mixture rise, and the bubbly batter doubles in volume. Next, Gigi heated up a special non-stick pan called a "tava" (pronounced "Ta-wha"), which is slightly parabolic in shape. Once heated, she ladled a scoop of the batter into the pan, and gently swirled around the center, which left a little island of batter in the the deepest part of the pan. In a couple of minutes, the edges turn crispy brown, and the finished appam gets slid out of the tava in all its lacy majesty. This she repeated until all the batter was gone. She must have made a few dozen of these.

For the iShtoo, she simply put all the vegetables in a large pot, along with the spices, salt, and a couple of cups of thin coconut milk. Then she covered it, and let it simmer for fifteen minutes. That's it. She removed it from the heat, and stirred in some "thick" milk (first extraction). This is done off the heat so that the coconut milk does not curdle. Finally, she heated up some coconut oil (1/2 cup?) for tempering, that all important process of finishing a curry. When the oil was hot, she put in the mustard seeds, red chili, and curry leaves When the seed sputtered a bit, she put in a load of sliced shallots and fried them until they were crispy golden brown. This she placed immediately into the iShtoo, yielding a satisfying and fragrant sizzle. A couple of stirs, and the dish was ready to serve.

Appam is the ideal accompaniment to many South Indian dishes. Their lacy texture is perfect for absorbing every last drop of gravy, as well as for grasping the yummy little bits lurking in the sauce. Emma and the boys were summoned away from their schoolwork being done at our house next door, and we all sat down to a stunning lunch. Laurel and I both marveled at how such a simple ingredient list could yield something as interesting and complicated in taste. Then again, it should come as no surprise that quality ingredients combined with good technique should make something incredibly tasty.

Good ingredients.. Good technique. Can't go wrong with the basics!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Star Trek Memories

I love Star Trek, and I always have.

It was not until last night, however, as I was ruminating over recent events with a gin and tonic ("for the malaria, old boy..."), that the full brilliance of Star Trek as a social and political satire hit home. I'll try to explain the path taken to arrive at this conclusion. Watching the news from the BBC last night, there was a story about how the Sri Lanka cricket team was attacked by extremists in Pakistan as they were on their way to a test match. I had just finished reading "The Last Moghul", a historical novel by William Dalrymple that documents the brutal suppression by the British of a Muslim/Hindu "uprising" in 1857. Also, I recently completed a book documenting the relationship between Winston Churchill and Gandhi. This has provided some wonderful background information on the events that have shaped the Indian society that we are currently living in. The ruthless subjugation of the Indian people, and the incredibly bloody suppression of the 1857 rebellion by the English make it even more remarkable to me that I can walk down a street here in India with my family and be smiled at instead of lynched. One of the most interesting lines from the Churchill/Gandhi book stated that "imperialism and religious fundamentalism have always been deeply intertwined".

It was the ruling British that decided to carve out Pakistan as a Muslim state, and this forced separation was done in such an arbitrary way, that the dividing border ran through towns, and in some cases, the middle of peoples homes. In many ways, the attack on the cricket team, the attack on Mumbai in November 2008, and many others can be seen as merely the latest episodes in a bloody struggle, going back generations. It has roots in the actions of the British, who ruled India for quite a number of years. The British East India Company made vast fortunes off the backs of the Indian people, all the while playing Hindu off of Muslim, and basically doing anything they could to prevent Indian independence and maintain control over India's people and resources. Things can get pretty testy around here, especially around election time, when old and bitter rivalries bubble to the surface.

Star Trek fans, and by this I mean "The Next Generation" era, not the earlier delightfully cheesy vehicle for William Shatner's propensity for overacting, will remember a curious race of creatures known as the "Ferengi". These loathsome little men, with bad teeth and ears that were a cross between Dumbo and Prince Charles on a bad hair day, had virtually no redeeming qualities. Their only loyalty was to profit. They were untrustworthy. They would sell out their grandmothers if it meant earning an extra dollar. Lying, cheating, and stealing are de riguer. What you might not know is that "firangi" is actually a Hindi word meaning "foreigner", and its application is decidedly derogatory. That's when the brilliance of Star trek hit me. I realized that we (and by this I mean white people) are the firangi. All the unsavoury personality traits of a fictional race of space creatures have been demonstrated in the behaviour of Europeans, and their descendants, towards India.

Wow. Suddenly everything from The Crusades to 9/11 made sense.

Then, propelled further by the mystical qualities of the gin, I riffed a little more on the Star Trek theme. It became immediately obvious to me that the Borg was a metaphor for the Western perception of the failure of Communism. The Borg Collective, which was the arch enemy of the ostensibly democratic Federation of Planets, assimilated any individual into a rigid and humourless group consciousness that placed the well-being of the collective above the needs of the individual. A clear nod to the Western perception of Communism. Communism has been pretty much in our face here, as Kerala is pretty unique in having a democratically elected Communist government. And they keep getting re-elected for the most part. This is most curious, as communist ideology, at least from what I can gather, thrives on fomenting revolution, and tearing down existing government structure. I can only imagine the shock and surprise of the Communist Party here when they actually got elected, and were faced with the responsibility of forming a government! "Uhhhhh... gee fellahs. What do we do now?". One would think that thoughts of revolution would need to be put aside for a while. Resistance is futile...

The last ice cube melted in my gin, and it was definitely time to head to bed. There's no intelligent life here...

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Fair Comment

Forgive me if this sounds a bit whiny.

We've just passed the three month mark of being away from home, and I have to admit, we're starting to miss our friends and family, despite having an amazing adventure here. You can tell by looking at the sad faces in our passport photo montage.

We thought that this blog would be a very comprehensive diary of our trip, but more importantly, it would be an effective and efficient way of keeping in touch with friends. Since the blog started, we've noticed that our email inbox, which normally overflows with quick notes from friends and family, not to mention unwanted ads for male enhancement products, has been strangely quiet. Sure, we still get our bill e-notices, subscription offers, and so on, but the regular contact has pretty much dried up. Then we flattered ourselves in thinking that the blog itself, yes, this very thing that you are reading now, contained such a richly detailed overload of information that anyone reading it felt like they were peeking over our shoulders as we went along, and the reader might feel that any subsequent communication would be superfluous. As I said, we flattered ourseleves.

The reality is that we really intended this thing to be a dialogue, and we must remind our bloggy friends that your comments and emails are not only welcome, they are in fact absolutely essential in keeping us connected with our home and the people we care about. Looking at the hit counter, we're pretty sure that several of our friends and family are reading this daily, although admittedly, at least half of those hits are us desperately checking to see if there has been any response to anything we've written. We're not attention-seeking neurotics (well, maybe a little...), we just want to hear a friendly voice from time to time. What can we say. We're starting to miss people.

Also, if anyone wants to Fed-Ex us a kilo of parmeggian reggiano and a bottle of decent red wine, our address is:
Post 104, Ponoth Road End
Kaloor, Cochin
Kerala, India

Just sayin'....