Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ode To The Junior Wife

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

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

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

Bailey 4 life, yo!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Where's The Beef?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Journey Continues...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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