Monday, August 25, 2008


The boats are romantically beautiful, hand carved wild jackwood with ornate prows and complex thatching for roof and walls. We relax on deck – the weather finally cooperating, and sip cocktails as we glide past rice paddies, coconut groves, children splashing and women pounding laundry with stones. Being Independence Day we get the occasional shout of “Jai Hind” - “Long live India” - from groups on shore.

Part of the plan is that we will be able to assist in preparing the evening meal and some of my group is expecting me to take charge and create dinner. Although I feel pretty confident that I could, to the extent that I inspect the kitchen for ingredients and tools, write a menu and a prep list, I am also sensitive to the crew. How would I feel if a tourist walked into MY kitchen, threw my menu out the window, and started cooking his version of MY region's food? So instead, a few of us volunteer to help with prep. I’m assigned to peeling and slicing onions, chopping tomatoes, and cutting broad beans.

Because everything was made from scratch, cooked, and served right away, the resulting meal was perhaps the best we’d had so far. The vegetable dishes were especially good, broad beans pooryaal, aloo jeera (potatoes with cumin and chilies), and “thoren” a concoction of grated carrot and coconut liberally spiced with black mustard seed. Of course , rice and chapatti accompanied.

After dinner is cleared, cheap Indian rum and “vodka” is poured and the adventurous among us prepared our “digestif” – the paan.

Paan is used through out south Asia – for some as a true after dinner refresher, for a others as a stimulant to get through the daily drudge of hard physical plantation work. To prepare, you need three essentials- Betel nut , which supplies the stimulant itself; lime paste (the caustic alkaline, not the citrus) to release the stimulating alkaloids from the nut; and paan leaf, a highly aromatic leaf from a variety of pepper vine, acting as the wrapper to hold all together. Often, flavored tobacco or spices are added but tonight we are roughing it. First a dab of the caustic lime goes onto the leaf – not too much or you’ll burn a hole in the side of your cheek when you chew it- then some chopped or shaved betel nut flakes, then the leaf is wrapped around, creating a small packet which is placed between the cheek and gum, lightly chewed and sucked. The combination of the leaf, nut, and alkaline makes you suddenly start to salivate like mad…and a chemical reaction with the lime turns your saliva bright cherry red. So, we suddenly went from a relaxed, civilized dinner party on the mahogany deck of a boat to a pack of drooling savages, spitting constantly and profusely over the side. The ultimate psychoactive effect was hardly worth the effort, but it was good for a laugh and gave us all bragging rights back home.

A comfortable night’s sleep on the boat followed by a cold “bucket shower”, a breakfast of omelets with chilies and onion and coconut dosa and then a two hour trip up the river to our “farm”. This will be our final stay, we are spending three nights on an island which is home to a working coconut plantation.

1 comment:

Nancy Heller said...

Chef Pardus - thank you so much for continuing to share your trip with us! And thank you Bob for bringing it to us!