The days pass slowly and leisurely in one sense and rush past in a blur in others. We wake each morning, some taking a skiff across the river to a network of paths and “roads” for an early morning run, others sleep in, others sip tea and read.
We gather for meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – in a beautiful outdoor pavilion, where Keralan specialties are served buffet style by the house staff. Dosas and pooris, and chapattis make up the bread baskets; dal (lentils) and rice are always included, as are at least one meat, one fish, and one vegetable curry. Boiled eggs come with breakfast and fresh fruit is always on hand. Annu’s refreshing fruit coolers are staple beverages and we drink them by the gallon. Sugar syrup infused with fresh ginger is mixed with freshly squeezed juice of “Chinese Oranges”, Lemons, or limes and then diluted with chilled water.
The kitchen facilities at Phillipkutty Farm range from a modern Demo kitchen with two burners on a marble counter – from which Anniamam holds court and gives classes – to a series of rustic outdoor prep areas where the staff cleans fruits and vegetables, cleans and cuts meats and poultry, and cooks the dal and rice over open fires.
I spend as much time as I can in the kitchens, watching, helping, and cleaning (which the staff seems to find very weird). Monday evening will be our final meal together as a group, so a special meal is planned and I am asked to cook anything I like as a contribution to the celebration. “What will you be making?” everyone wants to know – especially Anniamam. But I have no idea. First, I generally like to compose my menu while I’m shopping – using the market as inspiration; but what will I find in the market and will I know what to do with what I find? Second, and more daunting, if I try to cook Keralan food I’m going to get my ass kicked by Anniamam…it would be like my mother going up against Mario Battali in an Italian dinner competition. So, I stall for time and hope the market is good to me.
Monday morning is market time. Up at 5:30, across the river by skiff and a few of us take tuk tuks into the village. Anniamam has given us a shopping list which we break into segments so that each can try their hand at local “shopping”. On top of that, I’m supposed to be composing my dish in my head and adding on to my part of the list with items I’ll need to cook it.
The area is rustic, the ride through it jarring, exciting, and a bit disturbing. We’ve been living like royalty for the past few days and now I feel like I’ve left Versailles for the squalor of medieval Europe. Here's a Tuk Tuk eye's view of the ride to town
But the guilt wears off as soon as we get to the market – these people know what they’re doing here….and I can only pretend that I know, and hope that I guess right.
The vegetables on my list are easy to recognize and purchase, the stall tenders are very helpful and polite. One of my companions has been charged with buying the fish, but it’s all whole – outside, on the fin, thinly cooled with chunks of rapidly melting ice. She has an idea of what she’s looking for, but not really sure how to go about choosing the right ones or checking for freshness so I’m enlisted. With translational help from our guide Saresh, I wade into the fish sector, pulling back gill flaps, pressing on flesh for firmness, checking for belly burn, odor, and clarity of eyes – all of the CIA basics. One guy is sure he has a sale, until the gills turn up brown and slimy, but after a few tries we pick 6 kilos of small fresh bonito tuna which satisfy the criteria. I learn later from Saresh that the background conversation was pretty funny - “Hey, that white guy really DOES know what he’s doing”….
The easy stuff done, I can’t put off my challenge any longer. I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to prepare for dinner…
For 10 days we’ve eaten South Indian food – it’s been good and interesting and the spices have been a huge education, but almost all of it has been stew. Heat oil, temper spices, add protein or veg, add water and coconut milk and cook until very tender…soft…wet…
Right now, I’m dying for something grilled, or fried and crunchy and when I see a stall filled with cages of live chickens…..hmmmmm….Southern(Indian)Fried Chicken!....I can do that and it’ll be good…I can tweak the local ingredients a bit to make something satisfying from home.
Southern (Indian) Fried Chicken:
12 Kilos live chickens (ask your poultry man to kill, eviscerate, and feather them for you)
1 quart fresh whole milk yogurt (ask your staff to make milk the cow and make it fresh early that morning)
4 oz. each fresh ginger and garlic mashed to a paste (again, have staff pick and prepare fresh earlier in the day)
½ cup ground Keralan red chili powder(hand grind in mortar)
¼ cup ground dried turmeric(preferably home grown, boiled, dried and ground)
2 Tbsp. salt
1 kilo imported “American” flour (all purpose)
¼ cup ground black pepper (preferably home grown, dried and ground)
2 liters sunflower oil – for frying
1. Bone chickens – separate legs, thighs, breasts, wings – reserve bones for stock
2. Combine yogurt , ginger, garlic, salt, chili powder, and turmeric powder – taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
3. Add chicken parts and marinate for 4-6 hours
4. Heat oil in large Kadai (or similar heavy, flat bottomed pan) until a pinch of the flour “sizzles”
5. Add black pepper to flour and stir to combine evenly
6. dredge chicken pieces in four and gently place pieces in hot oil. Fry until deep golden on each side and interior is well cooked.
7. Serve with Keralan Rice, sambar dal, curried okra, and papadams
The dinner was a success. Anniamam made chicken curry, fish curry, vegetable curry, lots of other really good Keralan cooking. At one point during my chicken frying, Annu and Anniamam asked if they could try a piece….they tasted, talked in Malayalam (the local dialect), and Annu asked “what did you call this again?”….I replied “Southern Fried Chicken”….to which SHE replied “We think it tastes like Kentucky Fried Chicken, it’s good”…