Saturday, April 25, 2009

Ode to Okra

"Is it okay if I finish the last of the okra?"  Miles says in his most polite trying-to-be-the-boy-with-manners voice.  "No fair!  You had seconds already.  I want the last of the okra!" his 5 year old brother, Isaac, squawks.  Sound like a dream universe?  Welcome to my reality. I don't want to brag (yeah, okay, maybe I do!) but my children not only eat their vegetables, they fight over them too.  And there are few vegetables as fine as okra to argue over.

Okra is a much maligned vegetable.  It has a bad rap as slimy and hairy - it is neither - it is majestic and unique!  Call it lady's fingers, gumbo, vendaka or bhindi, okra is one of the Bailey family's favourite foods.  We have bhindi several times a week - in fact, during our time in India it has probably been our main green vegetable.  We never have leftovers and the boys have definitely been known to argue over who gets the last bhindi in the bowl.  

Bhindi is in all the markets here and appears to have no season (although we haven't been here for a full year so we don't know if it is available all year round) making it a good go-to vegetable. In Vancouver we buy okra on Main Street in Little India or in Chinatown, it can occasionally be spotted in other "asian" and "mediterranean" stores around town, but rarely in a supermarket so you have to look to find it.

For the uninitiated, okra are beautiful green ridged fruit or seed-pods, about 5 - 15 centimeters long, smaller are usually better since they can get too fibrous as they get larger. When sliced crosswise okra produces little pentagonal disks - hence the name 'bhindi' which means 'dot' in Hindi - filled with edible soft seeds.  Okra is a good source of vitamin A, C and several of the B vitamins, as well as potassium, protein and dietary fibre. There is a myth that bhindi (and mushrooms) should not be washed or they will absorb water and become slimy.  Not so!  Don't soak them, but a wash is just fine.  You can eat the whole pod but some people cut off the top part that attaches the pod to the stem.  

The texture of okra depends entirely on the technique with which you choose to cook it.  If you leave the okra whole, deep or shallow frying in hot oil produces crisp-on-the-outside-tender-juciness-on-the-inside.  If you cut the bhindi crosswise into rings and fry them, they get crispy-crunchy and caramelized like fried shallots.  You can roast them in the oven tossed in a little oil and salt to achieve a similar effect as long as you use a fairly high temperature and lay them on a sheet in a single layer.  Okra's bad reputation comes from the texture of the pods if you use moisture to cook them: if the heat is too low or you have too many in the pan, the moisture in the okra comes out and they stew in their own juices instead of caramelizing.  You can braise or stew okra and avoid the mucilaginous texture if you add something slightly acidic like tomatoes or citrus to the mix.  Sambar is a good example of this (see previous post). Or you can use that texture to your advantage to thicken and add body to a soup or stew.  We are partial to fried, very well-spiced bhindi, either left whole or cut into rings.

The following recipe is an adaptation of Fish Fry.  We were filming at a cardamom estate near Munnar last weekend (more on that in another post), owned by the eminently hospitable Rajindran and Suma.  Rajindran is "pure veg" which in India means that he eats no meat, fish or eggs but does eat dairy.  His lovely wife, Suma, was not vegetarian when they married but has become one in deference to her husband's lifestyle choice.  Because Suma grew up eating fish and meat, she was taught how to cook these foods Keralan style.  Her bhindi dish uses the same spicing and technique as a typical Keralan Fish Fry, substituting bhindi where there would otherwise be karimeen.  Her 'Chicken' Fry is made with cauliflower, but that's a whole other recipe for another time.

Bhindi 'Fish' Fry recipe

500 g okra

1 t turmeric

1 t ground black pepper

2 t red chili powder

1 t salt

1 t crushed garlic

1 t minced ginger

1t lime juice or vinegar

oil for shallow frying (coconut oil in Kerala but canola, sunflower or peanut would be fine)

Wash the okra and cut several 3-4 cm lengthwise slits into the pods, keeping both ends intact.  Mix up the spices and make into a paste by adding the garlic, ginger and lime juice. Rub the paste all over the okra making sure that the spice blend gets into the slits.  Let sit for 20-30 minutes.  Place about 2 cm of oil in a shallow pan and heat until just beginning to smoke. Add a few okra at a time and fry until nearly crisp and almost black.  Remove and drain on paper. Continue frying until all the pods have been cooked.  Serve with rice and other curries as a part of an Indian meal.

There are a lot of myths out there about what children will and won't eat. From what I can tell, a lot of what kids are willing to eat (or not) is predicated on their community's expectations of what they will like.  Our boys eat chillies, blue cheese, olives, pickles, garlic, jelly fish and most vegetables.  I don't think it ever occurred to Rob or to me that they wouldn't like those things (although judging from the reactions we get all over the world, they should not like them) so we ate them and expected the boys to eat them too.  No special meals, no extra dishes "just for the kids", but also no filling up on only those things that you prefer.

Now if only I could get my boys to argue over who gets to clean up their room!  Hmmm.  Taking a page from my own book, if I expect that my kids will want to clean their room, will they? I'll have to get back to you on that...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bovine Non Sequitur

The last thing I expected to eat in India was a steak. Yet, there I was, eating a steak. In India. This deserves an explanation.

Once in a while, despite the dire warnings of my doctor to reduce my cholesterol levels, I like to have a steak. Not just any steak. A good steak. I refuse to push a squeaky-wheeled cart through a fluorescent-lit supermarket aisle as the Muzak distracts me just enough to not critically think about what kind of crap I am buying. No mindlessly plucking a chunk of red-dyed factory critter shrink-wrapped on a dimpled pink styrofoam tray for me! No sirree, if I'm going to have a steak, I'm either going to hunt it myself, or it's going to be from a happy hormone-free grass-fed steer, one that has never seen the inside of a feed lot or a hypodermic filled with growth hormones. A cow whose last thought as it was happily munching grass on the free range was something along the lines of "Awww... that's sweet. They bought me a DeWalt nail gun for my birthday!".

When it comes to a steak house, my standards are high. I have worshipped at arguably the most sacred steak temple on the planet, Peter Luger's in Brooklyn. While attending an AES conference in New York in 1999, I had the pleasure of dining there with my late ex-father-in-law, the noted author Gerald Krefetz, and two of my engineering colleagues. We ordered the Porterhouse steak for four. After a couple of healthy martinis, a surly Russian waiter appeared at the table. He cleared some real estate, and placed an inverted ashtray on the table. The purpose of the ashtray soon became clear. The waiter reappeared with a platter of Flintstonian proportions. The largest steak I had ever seen was placed before our slack-jawed foursome with one end of the platter resting on the inverted ashtray. The steak oozed all of it's not inconsiderable dry-aged melting marbled fat into the reservoir at the low end of the plate. The waiter, who was grumpy even by Russian standards, methodically spooned this beefy elixir onto our potatoes and creamed spinach. In a thick Russian accent, he gruffly intoned "Ees not hailth food...". We were left to gorge on this awe-inspiring artery-clogging chunk of majesty, some of which I'm sure is still lurking in my colon somewhere...

Fast forward ten years. I've ben in India with my family for six months. My wife and I wanted to do something fun to celebrate our 9th anniversary. We were married on April 24th, 2000 in Dharamsala, India. And again on April 25th, 2000, but that is another story. After six months in Cochin, despite the amazing Keralan food here, I have to admit that we were getting some hankerings for something decidedly un-Keralan. In Vancouver, we are so used to having so many great restaurants offering a wide variety of cuisines, that the restaurant scene in Cochin seems rather monochromatic by comparison. Fish Fry? No problem. Rice meals? Everywhere. Strangely bastardized versions of Chinese food? You can't swing a cat without hitting one of those places. For our anniversary, we needed to branch out. Big time.

My fabulous wife Laurel, whom is known to her loyal followers as "the Queen of Google", promptly went online and found reviews of what were purported to be "the best restaurants in Cochin". For those who have done this before, your experience has probably been like ours. The "best" restaurants are the ones that pay for the most advertising. It's a real challenge to sift through "objective" reviews, most of which are submitted by the owners or family members, and come to a decision about where to eat. One review caught our attention. It was a review of Cochin's only steak house, "The Attic". A glowing review. What made this even more remarkable was that the review was submitted by a vegetarian. We were hooked.

Dressed in our finery, we caught a rickshaw from our Ponoth Road home to the bustling downtown scene on Marine Drive. It was a Friday night, and there were lots of people everywhere. Everywhere it seems, but The Attic. The Attic, one level up from the street, was entirely devoid of customers at 7:30 on a Friday night. It was a frickin' mausoleum, albeit a pleasant enough one. After being shown to our table in what must be the most un-Indian dining room in all of India, we were amazed to see that there was not one single item of Indian origin on the menu. We both agreed that this was a bold move, as it demonstrated a commitment to it's aesthetic, which, while being courageous, may prove ultimately financially suicidal.

First up was our appetizer. In a nod to 60's kitsch, we both ordered the shrimp cocktail. 8 or 10 medium sized shrimp drowned in a mayonnaise and cocktail sauce , served in a margarita glass, along with two tomato wedges, and 2 quarters of a hard-boiled egg. All things considered, it wasn't bad, although eating it made me feel like Johnny LaRue in a loud Hawaiian shirt, trying to impress the broads at the Polynesian Room. Retro, but not authentic. What impressed us both was a perfect sprig of parsley, an herb that we have not seen at all for six months.

Next up was the bruschetta, which the decidely un-surly waiter pronounced "Brew-shetta". I successfully fought the urge to correct him. 4 chunks of baguette-like bread topped with some fresh tomato, dried herbs, and sliced canned black olives. The olives were the same uninspired kind that Domino's pizza buys by the trainload. DNA testing would no doubt prove that somewhere along the line there was a vague family resemblance to an olive, but it must be said that these were perhaps best left out of the dish. The bread, sliced in nearly 3 inch thick chunks, was baguette shaped, but unfortunately made from very finely ground local flour, and not at all allowed to ferment and develop the sumptuous crumb of a true baguette. A leaning tower of mediocrity. That only left the tomato, which thankfully, was a passable shade of red. Thank god for small mercies.

Despite this, we were truly enjoying ourselves. It was actually fun to have the place to ourselves, and as much as we love Indian food, to not be eating it. Next up came our mains. Laurel's was a truly retro "Prawn Thermidor". For a moment I hallucinated a vision of her in a beehive hairdo and a Jackie Kennedy clutch purse and pillbox hat, but the vision soon passed. Hers was not bad, but ultimately uninspired. She only ate half, and "parceled" the rest. Then came the object of my desire: the steak. It was advertised as a filet. I ordered it rare, and much to my surprise, that's how it came. Perched upon some nicely cooked spinach, then a few slices of sauteed beetroot, then some slices of roast potato, was my steak. Smothered in black pepper, it seemed rather diminutive in comparison to the Peter Luger's leviathan. It would seem that the passe trend of "piled food" had finally floated across the sea and washed up on the beach. The steak itself was a little difficult to pin down. Was it aged? Perhaps for a day or two. Mainly outside. Was it tender? Maybe a little too tender. It had a texture that would suggest that it had either been relentlessly pounded by a chef as part of his anger-management therapy , or recently kicked into submission by a losing jockey. What was advertised as being "jus", was actually that Langis instant gravy that leaves the telltale MSG burn on your tongue afterwards. I could go on...

However, it was a steak, dammit! An honest-to-gawd piece of roasted meat. In India, no less. This was nothing short of a miracle. We had a great time, and to be frank, we actually expected the food to be a lot worse than it was. It was actually... charming. Maybe it was just the dinner company. Laurel and I talked about all the changes brought by 9 years of marriage. Children. New houses. Businesses. Travel. We wondered what we would be doing in another 9 years.

One thing is certain. As I was following her sari-clad form around the fire in a dimly lit Shiva temple 9 years ago, the last thing that I expected was that we would be back in India with two beautiful children. Eating a steak.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sambar, Over The Rainbow...

It's spicy. It's salty. It's sour. It's everywhere.

For the uninitiated, sambar is a kind of spicy gravy made of toor dal, vegetables, and tamarind. It is served as an accompaniment at nearly every meal, and it's an extremely important part of the South Indian vegetarian diet. It's hard for a non-Indian to imagine not only the infinite and subtle variations on it's preparation, but also the fierce debate that ensues amongst aficionados about whose style of preparation is the best. Every man in South India has a very strong opinion about how this dish should be made, and who makes it. Many will go out of their way to steer you to a place where the sambar is invariably described as the "best in all of India", and it's surprising how often their favourite version of this dietary staple resembles their mother's. Much like Italian men speaking wistfully of Mama's Sunday gravy with a tear in their eye, many will tell you that their mother makes the best version, and most wives have the good sense to agree that their mother-in-law's sambar is undeniably the best. When men speak of it, drool forms in puddles, and their eyes roll back in their heads, like Homer Simpson recalling a double pork chop marinated in beer. Well, almost...

It's long been a goal of mine to learn to make the perfect sambar. Ever since I first tasted this magnificent concoction in the 1980's at the long gone and oft lamented Noor Mahal on Fraser Street in Vancouver, learning to make this has been my heart's desire. The Noor Mahal version was excellent, at least in memory, and the first time I tasted it I was hooked. It is the legume equivalent of crack. All rich with creamy dal, tangy with sour tamarind, just enough salt, and several interesting vegetables. Finished off with hot oil redolent of curry leaves, red chili, and black mustard seed, sambar is a stew to satisfy the soul. When we moved to India, this urge to learn to make a good sambar was still lurking in the back of my mind like a paparazzo in Madonna's backyard. Out of sight, but never far away. Then we met Stanley and Gigi, our landlords and next door neighbours. The game was afoot.

For months now, we have been frequently blessed by the mysterious delivery of yummy dishes at all hours of the day. Stanley has actually appeared at our door as early as 8 AM with a steamer full of delicious idli cakes, a large bowl of Gigi's wonderful sambar, and a smaller dish of fresh made coconut chutney. From the first taste, I knew that I had found Sambar Nirvana, that mysterious state of being first described in the ancient Vedas by Swami Bhaktidefuture. I was instantly transported through space and time back to the 1980's on Fraser Street, all skin and bones with a badly gelled haircut, chewing on a chicken palak dosa that I could scarcely afford, but drowned in that wonderful sambar. Sensing that I was close to achieving a life's goal, I thought of what nefarious plans I would have to hatch in order to get Gigi to teach me how to make this heavenly concoction. I assumed that it would be harder to pry out of her than removing the proverbial rifle from Charleton Heston's cold, dead hands. My evil plots and schemes turned out to be completely unnecessary. She kindly offered to teach us how to make it. Not only that, she offered to let us film her doing it in her kitchen, along with her recipe for idli. Indian hospitality. Go figure...

By this time, we had already shot a few episodes with Gigi in her kitchen next door. She really is an awesome cook, and a very gracious hostess. She somehow makes cooking for a small army look very easy, even as she is turned out in a spectacular silk sari and festooned with gold jewelry. Our normal routine had been to show up with all of our gear around 11AM, cook and film for a couple of hours, and then have a lunch that was usually epic in it's scope. So when idli and sambar day arrived, I assumed that it was business as usual. I was wrong. We were roused at 8:30 AM by a loud and persistent knock on the door. I grabbed the nearest lungi and hastily wrapped it about my waist. With my ventilated nether regions barely covered, I rushed shirtless to open the door. There was Stanley. "You are late", he said, in his characteristically verbose way. He turned and left for his house next door. Then it dawned on me: idli and sambar was breakfast food, and not lunch. Not an auspicious beginning.

Fortunately, when we arrived next door a scant 5 minutes later, there did not seem to be a trace of ill will. Gigi got right to work as the camera rolled. First, she put together the batter for the idli for the benefit of the camera. This wasn't the batter that she ended up using though, as idli batter should really stand for several hours to give it a slight fermentation tang before being used. It's basically the same batter as is used in a dosa. Rice, a bit of urad dal, and water are blended up and left to sit. The batter is poured into little molds, and then steamed for ten minutes or so. She also made a lovely coconut chutney from fresh coconut, a touch of ginger, and some shallot. This was tempered with coconut oil, fresh curry leaves, black mustard seeds, and dried red chili. Then it was on to the sambar...

So what is this thing that inspires such strong opinions? Sambar is a study in contradictions, very much like India itself. It's at once simple to make, yet very complex and varied in flavour. How can an ingredient list so basic yield something so complicated and rewarding? The technique of the cook is everything. At the risk of stating the obvious, not only is the way each ingredient is treated crucial to the outcome, but the actual order in which the ingredients is combined is also critical to the final taste. For vegetables, Gigi's version has eggplant, winter melon, okra, potato, and tomato in it. She spices it with ground red chili, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, and ground coriander. A critical component is an interesting Indian vegetable called "drumstick". It's a long green pod about a foot long, and it looks suspiciously like a big green drum stick. If Bob Marley was a drummer, this is what he would have played. The toor dal is cooked until somewhat mushy, and then water, spices, and vegetables are added. The particular order eludes me at the moment, but suffice to say that the detailed recipe will appear after we return home and log all the tapes.

Once everything is cooked, it's time for the final tempering with the holy trinity of black mustard seed, dried red chili, and fresh curry leaves briefly fried in coconut oil. It's all topped off with a healthy hit of fresh cilantro. We all sat down and had a hearty, if not belated, breakfast of fresh steamed idlis, fresh coconut chutney, and the sambar of my dreams. To say that it was good would be a wee bit of an understatement. It is the cycle of desire, action, and fulfillment that keeps us all spinning on this earthly karmic gerbil wheel. This tasty breakfast was truly the fulfillment of a long standing desire. With this desire out of the way, perhaps sainthood is not far away...

It's spicy. It's salty. It's sour. It's right next door, baby.....
Sambar on Foodista

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Variety is...

Maybe it's because I'm a gemini. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it's because Vancouver spoils us rotten, allowing us to "eat in any language". The ingredients that are available to us at home make cooking and eating a truly global feast. Shall we make Mexican tonight? No, I think Greek. Or how about Thai? Spanish? Vietnamese? You name it, we can get the ingredients. And we do cook from all of those cuisines on a regular basis. What I'm trying to say is that I don't do too well with eating the same food day in and day out. I need variety! Now it does occur to me that this is a very privileged position, most of the world is lucky to eat whatever they can, whenever they can get it. But once food becomes a not-so-hard-to-come-by commodity, it seems to be a part of a truly western desire to want to branch out a bit and explore.

I love Indian food - all the foods of India - and there are many, many different regional cuisines in India but most of them are not available in Kerala. And the "Chinese" food here, while sort of tasty, is not very Chinese either. We've supplemented at home a bit: oatmeal for breakfast (with banana and pineapple, of course), without an oven I have become very good at whole wheat griddle scones and "english" muffins. With the reggiano we received from friends, we have managed to make a good pasta dinner too. But most of the time we eat rice, fish fry, cabbage thoran, bhindi fry, prawn masala, chapati, sambhar, payasam etc. Real Keralan food. And despite really enjoying the food of Kerala, a steady diet of nothing but Keralan food has, on occasion, grown a little wearisome. Thankfully, Rajesh introduced us to The Punjab House restaurant.

The Punjab House has become our once a week please-give-me-something-without-coconut-in-it place to dine. The current proprietor's mother opened the restaurant 30 or 40 years ago and it has been an Ernakulam institution ever since. On a Friday night you have to hang over the tables of diners and scoop in to take their seats the minute they stand up or you won't get dinner at all. We know this from experience, watching seat after seat being taken by young men who came in after us and didn't care that we were waiting with children. We are now as ruthless as they were then. Lost is he who gets up to wash his hands! The restaurant is nothing fancy - about 15 formica-topped tables, a cash desk, a fridge and freezer and some young men who work really hard because the place is always hopping. The kitchen is cramped and very, very hot. The proprietor's English is excellent (as a side note, you may not know that the main language that Indians from different areas use with which to communicate is English. There are so many languages in India but English is the common thread leftover from the colonial period) and he likes to tease the boys whenever we drop in. He is a warm and affable host who runs the restaurant as a tight ship, making their own yogurt every day and handling a very busy lunch and dinner service.

You can gather from the name that the restaurant specializes in the food of the Punjab, an area in northern India that is very fertile and known as the "breadbasket" of India because it produces most of the subcontinent's wheat. The availability of wheat in the area shaped the cuisine which is not quite as rice-heavy as southern Indian food. The Punjab House is a vegetarian restaurant that is famous for its Alu Parotta. This is not the parotta/porotta that Rob wrote about in the last post. Kerala parotta is a flaky spiral flat bread, the Alu Parotta is a stuffed flat bread. A small ball of whole wheat chapati dough is rolled flat, a scoop of filling is placed in the centre and the edges are brought up around the filling and pinched together at the top. The dumpling-like ball is then gently pressed and carefully rolled out into a circle without letting the filling ooze out. Then this pancake is fried in ghee on both sides and served finger-burnin' hot with a side of curd (plain yogurt), raw chillies for those who like them (me, me, ME!), raw onions squeezed with lime juice and various other dishes of vegetables and legumes (chick peas, lentils etc). Alu means potato and the potato filling is made with a mix of potatoes, chillies, cilantro, turmeric, mustard seed and various other yummy spices, depending on who is making it. Stuffed parotta (or paratha/parantha) can be filled with a minced cauliflower mixture (Gobi), with herbs, or anything else you have around the house. I suspect, like many of the world's great foods, stuffed parottas were originally created as a way to deal with leftovers. And what a yummy way to clean out the fridge! These are one of the tastiest foods we've eaten and the whole family agrees that a week without Alu parotta is not a good week.

I've made them at the house a couple of times and they are no where near as difficult to make as the Kerala parotta. That being said, I still prefer the one's at The Punjab House. I suspect they add a heck of a lot more ghee than I'm willing to add with good conscience. A perfect example that what you don't know can still clog your arteries...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"You Say Parrotta, I Say Parantha..."

My request for sustenance was greeted with a blank stare.

"Parantha, please", I said in my most polite just-landed-must-be-extra-nice-to-everyone tourist voice. It was way back in December, and we had just arrived in Cochin, Kerala. After schlepping 12 bags of clothing, camera, and audio equipment up to our "budget" room, and seeing our tired kids and their nanny/teacher off to bed, I was hungry, so Laurel and I headed down the block to a place she knew from her previous visit: The Indian Coffee House. I could see from the tables around me that the great flatbread that I had come to know during my previous visit was available here in great abundance. I took Laurel's recommendation and ordered an "Egg Roast", along with two parantha. Or so I thought. The waiter, dressed in a rather elaborate headdress and soiled tunic, gave me my first taste of the Notorious Head Wiggle, which looked as if one or two crucial vertebrae have suddenly gone missing from his neck, causing the skull to oscillate madly on a bed of squishy cartilage, eventually returning to a point of stasis. This now familiar gesture can mean anything from "I understand you completely" to "Your daughter's pregnancy brings great joy to our village". It can also mean, as I discovered in this case, "I have no clue what you are saying". I pointed to a neighbouring table and repeated my order. "Parantha. Two please". "Parrotta!" came the sharp reply. Another brief wiggle, the meaning of which I am sure was derogatory, and he was gone, leaving me to wonder what I had done wrong.

Laurel clarified it for me. In our last trip, I had only been traveling through the North regions of India, where this flatbread is referred to as "Parantha", or "Paratha", whereas she had spent a couple of months in the South of India. In the South, after being being run through the Malayalam filter, "Parantha" has been mutated into "Parrotta". or even "Porrotta". It's kind of hard to tell exactly how it's supposed to be spelled, especially when we items like "Sweat and Scour", "Chineees food", "Chickin Manchoorian" on the local menus. Fortunately, no matter what it's called, it's pretty much the same critter. Parrotta are sort of like pizza, not only in shape, but also in the sense that even when they're not brilliantly made, they're still kind of okay. When they are brilliantly made, they are transcendant. Paired with a simple dal or curry, they make a delicious meal. Just about every culture has a staple flatbread, and this one is a high expression of the art. It's actually very similar to a Malaysian dish called Roti Chanai. We've become really addicted to them.

Like all things in India, parrotta are a study in contrasts. They are at once flaky and chewy. Flat, yet stratified. Light, yet filling. Reticent, yet tenacious. And so on... They are deceptively simple in composition. Although the recipe varies, they are basically white flour, water, a bit of salt, and some oil. Now if you were to merely combine these items and heat them, you would end up with a whitish lump about as appetizing as albino elephant dung. It's all in the technique. The dough gets kneaded really thoroughly to release the gluten in the flour. After the dough rests for a while, it gets cut up into little balls (see previous post). These little dough balls are then put on an oiled surface and flattened into about an 8 inch disk. Pretty simple so far, right?

Now comes the tricky bit. Using a technique that would make any New York pizza purveyor bow down on his knees and genuflect with a hearty "We're not worthy!", the dough is quickly flipped several times, the centrifugal force of the flip stretching the diameter of the disk by a factor of at least two. This paper thin bit of dough is then sliced into 3 equal strips. The strips are then rolled up in much the same way as a cinnamon roll, and left to rest for a while. When its time to heat them up, the cook grabs one of the rolled up dough bits, and slams it down hard onto an oiled surface. At this point, the rookies use a rolling pin to flatten them back out into about an 8 inch disk (again), but the real pros just use their hands. We've seen guys who can make several hundred of these things in a day. Every day.

The newly rolled out parrotta are then placed on a griddle until they get golden brown on each side. Upon removal from the griddle, there is one last step. The cook will stack up 4 or 5 of the freshly cooked parrotta and then sort of crush them together. This breaks the breads up a bit, and makes it easy to pull them apart in large flaky strands. When they're done right, and served fresh off the griddle, they are the perfect snack or meal. The thing is this: it's incredibly difficult to do well. Laurel is a truly great baker, and although she's come close in her few attempts, it will obviously take many more sessions before our homemade ones approach the ones made in the local food stalls. Much like a golf swing, something that looks simple can take a lifetime to perfect.

There is a good stall near the boat jetty that serves the ferry travelers between Ernakulam and Fort Cochin. It's a blue plastic tarp covering an ancient propane grill and a stainless steel work table. There are a few broken plastic chairs if you choose to sit. Not me. I'll pony up my 18 rupees and get two piping hot parrotta, served on a metal plate with two hard boiled eggs in a spicy chili/onion/tomato gravy. Standing with my fabulous wife in the shade of the tattered blue tarp and eating with my hands, using the bread to glean the last drop of gravy, I am convinced that at that moment there could be nothing better on the planet.

My request for sustenance has been granted.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ahhh, Nuts...

What is it about goat balls this week?

Earlier this week, an old friend of mine posted a bunch of ancient band promo pictures, mostly from his band, on FaceBook. This was circa 1976, and yes, it's true, in those dark days there were many crimes against fashion committed. One of the pictures featured a great guy I used to play with who, for the purposes of this tale, must remain nameless. My friend passed away tragically in an accident many years back, but he is remembered fondly by all who knew him. A great singer and front man, he was also known for two very prominent physical attributes: he had a truly immense afro, and also perhaps the largest scrotum known to man. His nickname in the band? "Goat Balls".

You might well ask, "How do you know this?". I'll let you in on a little secret. I'm a musician, and I've spent a lot of time on the road. When guys in bands get on the road, it can get a little stifling. Travel. Play show. Eat bad food. Repeat as necessary. Sometimes you need to blow off a little steam. According to my friend Joe Alvaro, who played bass in the band, our singer friend had a very special way of blowing off steam that he had been known to do on at least two documented occasions.

After a gig, when the usual bevy of party girls and hangers-on had found their way back to the band's hotel for the inevitable after party, our hero would wait for an opportune moment to sneak into the bathroom armed with a roll of duct tape, a section of newspaper, and a lighter. While all the other guys in the band were furiously trying to get lucky, and the local boys were trying their best to pick up the surplus girls, much like remoras looking for edible crumbs around a shark's mouth, he would get busy in the bathroom. He would remove all of his clothes, and then carefully fold his enormous scrotum up over his unit, covering it completely. Using the duct tape, he would judiciously apply a strip of tape so that the monster sac was then attached to his belly, thus completely obscuring Mr. Johnson from sight. The whole package bore a stunning resemblance to processed poultry skin, and therefore earned the name "The Cornish Game Hen".

The public unveiling of "The Cornish Game Hen" to stunned partygoers was only phase one of the operation. Phase two is best related in a private message, but suffice to say that it was a spectacle of dance that even now is only spoken of in hushed tones of awe by those who have seen it and lived to tell the tale. Years later, I actually played with this singer in a band called whose name is best forgotten. When I mentioned the Cornish Game Hen and the accompanying sacred dance, he blushed a little. He never denied it. He was a great guy, and I miss him.

Later this week, our new friend Gee, who is also on FaceBook, proposed that despite my porky faux pas of the previous week, we return to his friend Anwar's farm in order to film a special dish, "Mutton Dum Biryani". Sajna, who is Anwar's charming wife, is an expert at making this very special dish, She was kind enough to let us into her kitchen to document this amazing recipe. It takes about 4 or 5 hours to prepare, and while not technically complicated, it is a great example of what the Italians call "insaporire", which loosely translated means "flavour" or "taste". It really means so much more than that. It means giving each ingredient the proper time and attention it needs when cooking in order to develop the maximum flavour. Sajna gave us a master class over the course of almost 5 hours.

First of all, you need to have mutton. About three kilos worth to feed the 25 people that had be invited for lunch that day. Mutton is a mature lamb or young sheep in European and North American parlance. In India, mutton means goat. Yes, I'm talking about those all-pervasive, pellet pooping, poster-eating, city dwelling horny critters. Notice I am no longer talking about the band here. Sajna had a few kilos of goat meat on the bone already cut up waiting to be cooked in the pressure cooker.

As Laurel asked questions and I manned the camera and recording gear, Sajna took this huge plate of mutton and slid nearly all of it into the pressure cooker, along with some spices and a little yoghurt. I did say nearly all of it, right? Bits of liver, kidney, and heart were tossed into the pot. There were two somewhat suspect chunks left on the plate. "Why aren't you putting that part in? What is that?", Laurel asked innocently. Sajna did not answer immediately. I began to have my suspicions, but I kept them to myself, as I involuntarily crossed my legs. Sajna sort of blushed a little and pointed in a southerly direction. She silently mouthed the word "Balls". "You mean testicles?", Laurel asked. Sajna quickly nodded and pushed the plate aside and locked the pressure cooker up tight. "Goat Balls", I thought to myself. Twice in one week.

Sajna prepared the masala, or spice mixture, for the biryani by sauteing onions for nearly an hour over low heat until they were meltingly soft. Then she added large amounts of garlic, ginger, green chili, tomatoes, and spices. Each ingredient was cooked for at least 20 minutes before the next one as added. The cooked goat meat was finally added and left to simmer, along with cilantro and mint.

Outside, a fire was lit with coconut shells and wood, and a massive volume of basmati rice was cooked and then drained into a wicker basket. In a large pot, the goat masala was put in, and then a layer of rice was placed on top. Then came some crispy fried onions, raisins, and cashews. More rice, then onions and nuts again. A splash of rosewater and then nearly a pint of ghee, or clarified butter was drizzled over the top. Then came the "Dum" part. The dum is a simple flour and water dough that is applied to the lip of the pot, so that when the lid is placed on it, there is a very complete seal created. No moisture or steam can escape. The huge pot was then placed on the fire, and some coals from the fire were heaped on the metal lid, effectively forming an oven. The whole mixture was left like this for about an hour, until the coals died completely down.

Guests arrived, drinks were poured, children played, and spirits were high as everyone anticipated the arrival of the biryani. And with good reason. It was truly amazing. Rich and flavourful, the meat just melted off the bone. Laurel and I agreed that this was the finest biryani either of us had ever eaten. It was a real thrill to document the whole recipe from start to finish, and a real pleasure to watch a true master at work. Sajna made cooking for 25 people look easy.

Good thing 27 people didn't show up...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bark, Bites, and Bozo...

I have a big mouth.

Not a big mouth in the physical sense. I could never give Mick Jagger or Julia Roberts a run for their money. Actually, I wish I had their money. I mean a big mouth in the sense that for most of my teen and adult life, I could almost always be counted on to say the wrong thing at the most inappropriate time. "So aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, how did you enjoy the parade?". Where gaffes and epic lapses of taste once sprang from the youthful desire to be a smart ass, age has brought on a brand new root cause for foot-in-mouth disease: plain stupidity.

A short time ago, we told our good friend Gee that there were still lots of spices that we wished to capture on film in their native habitat, and so he introduced us to his friend Anwar, a local businessman. Anwar is an extremely affable gentleman who, despite having only just met us, was more than happy to show us his farm on the outskirts of Cochin. Gee set up a visit for Friday afternoon, and drove us out to the farm in his new white Honda CR-V. This was a good thing, because if we had been left to our own devices, we would never have found the farm. For almost a half hour, we snaked through labyrinthine unmarked country lanes. Gee had spent about ten years living in the area, so he knew it like the back of his hand. On the way, Gee told us a bit more about Anwar. They were old friends. Anwar was doing very well for himself and owned several properties. Gee also mentioned in passing that he was a Muslim. I should have paid more attention.

We arrived at Anwar's very comfortable country place and were ushered inside to get out of the midday heat. Wireless mics and transmitters were quickly affixed to Laurel, Gee, and Anwar. I set up my camera gear, strapped on my field pack containing the audio mixer, wireless receivers, cables, and headphones, and followed Anwar out into his garden, which was steaming in 43C heat. Anwar had many amazing things to show us. A large curry leaf bush was growing just outside his door. This leaf is absolutely mandatory in many South Indian dishes, and there is no effective substitute. The plant was in it's dormant stage, and we were told that in the rainy season it would grow much larger and more lush.

Next to that was a tree that he called "allspice". It wasn't the allspice berry producing plant, but rather a tree whose leaves embodied the aromas of 7 different herbs and spices. More than halfway to KFC. They said it was sometimes used in curries. We had never even heard of this before. We crumbled a dried leaf and sure enough, there was traces of cinnamon, clove, and a host of other scents, all coming from one leaf!

Next we saw a neem tree, whose bitter leaves have great medicinal value. Next to that was a very unusual tree bearing clusters of what looked like oversized oblong grapes. It's called "bilimbi", or "prawn tamarind". The fruits are slightly sour, and go very well with prawns. As if on cue, Anwar's wife appeared with a tray of glasses of cold bilimbi and lime juice. Gee told us that it was an extremely healthy drink, and he was right. It was extremely refreshing, if only for about 30 seconds. It was hot outside!

Adjacent to the bilimbi were a couple of large tamarind trees. Some of the tamarind pods were ripe, and had fallen on the ground. Tamarind is essential for providing the necessary "souring" in a well balanced curry, and it's used not only in South Indian cooking, but in other Asian cuisines as well, such as Thai and Vietnamese. Moving on through the property, we came to the cinnamon tree, and Anwar's farmhand peeled off several strips of incredibly aromatic cinnamon bark for us with his machete. We have since dried it, and used some for cooking. It's nice to know where your food comes from! Next was a soursop tree, which yielded a large thorny tangy fleshed fruit like a football. Jackfruit. Mangoes. Guava. Several kinds of chillis. We were in heaven!

On a nearby piece of property he also owned, Anwar showed us his tapioca plantation, where Laurel and the farmhand pulled up a massive cluster of this tuberous staple. Tapioca, also called cassava, is a very common starch round much of the world, but largely unknown in North America. A fast growing thin stalk hides a cluster of large sweet potato like growths just under the soil. It's bland, but a perfect vehicle for sauce. We took some back to Anwar's kitchen, peeled it, and pressure cooked it until it was tender. Anwar's wife, who is another great cook and a truly gracious hostess, made an awesome chutney from back yard chillis, shallot, ginger, salt, coconut oil, and yet another kind of tamarind, the smoky "fish tamarind".

Before we knew it a sumptuous meal was placed before us in Anwar's beautiful dining room. Two kinds of fish curry. A beef curry. A prawn dish. A plate of tapioca with chutney. Then beers magically appeared, and subsequently began to flow. Anwar sat down, all sweaty and somewhat chuffed at his first foray before the cameras, and surprised us by producing a bottle of whiskey, which he used to fortify his glass of beer. More beer. More whiskey. We began to talk of food. He surprised us again with his familiarity with Nigella Lawson, the British TV presenter famed nearly as much for her prodigious foundation garments as she is for her food. At the mention of her name, I outlined a large hourglass shape with my hands and mimed two large mounds on my chest. Anwar laughed and nearly spat a prawn through his nose. More beer. More whiskey...

The conversation moved to the importance of maintaining old ways of doing things relating to food. Somewhat emboldened by the 6 gallons of cold Foster's I had ingested at this point, I ventured off on a monologue about the glories of pork. "Sometimes I get a whole pig, and butcher it myself. We get it all ground up and make our own sausages and everything! ". My enthusiasm ramped up. "We even cure and smoke our own bacon, use the feet for soup stock, and eat the kidneys!!! We use everything but the squeal! Yup, God has never created a more perfect creature than the pig!". Not content with that graphic description of butchery, I sipped my beer and went on to describe our annual pig roast barbeque. "We stick that bad boy on the spit at dawn, and slow roast it all day. About a hundred people show up, and inside of an hour and half, the whole pig is pretty much gone! God, we love pork!!!!"

It was only on the ride home, bathed in a beery glow and grinning a satisfied grin from the day's shooting, that the epic scale of my cultural insensitivity struck me. I had just been hosted by a Muslim family for the day, and been invited into their home to share copious food and drink with them at their table. Naturally, any reasonable person would see this as a golden opportunity to launch into a half-hour long lecture on the glories of pork. It was later agreed by all that entirely new levels of stupidity had been reached by yours truly.

A dubious honour, but after a lifetime of this kind of thing, I was used it. Like I said. I have a big mouth...