Kerala India Journal 2008
Depart JFK 9:30 PM Friday, Aug. 8th. Flight to Mumbai is 15 hours, crossing 10 time zones, 3-hour layover in Mumbai for connection to Cochin. We arrive hotel in Cochin at 4:00 AM Sunday - Local India time. It is 6 pm Saturday in New York, so total travel time has actually been 21 hours.
In-flight food – snacks are minimal, beverages are plenty. A small bag of peanuts is accompanied by a 5 oz. pour of scotch.
Meals – I order the veg option for the 2 meals they offer – both are surprisingly tasty – although hard to actually identify. The rice is well cooked and fluffy, the “main courses” are veg stews or curries – texturally mush, but flavorful.
We arrive at the hotel and collapse for a few hours. Wake at noon local time and head to hotel dining room to find food. I’m watching the kitchen crew set up the lunch buffet – it’s not hard to identify the sous-chef in charge – I introduce myself and ask to see the kitchen. Suddenly part of the “brotherhood” I am taken into the kitchen, give a full tour and we discuss plans for me to come back between lunch and dinner services to get a lesson in making Biriyani and to give a lesson in making flavored compound butters and using them to make warm emulsion sauces.
The kitchen is fairly small by western hotel standards, but the hotel itself is fairly small – only about 90 rooms, it is organized into separate, temp controlled garde manger/butchery areas, another temp controlled pastry room, and a hot kitchen. The hot kitchen is divided into 3 lines divided by cuisine – Continental, Indian, and Chinese. There are woks on the Chinese side, grill and sauté burners on the continental, and burners for cast iron Karai vessels and a charcoal fired tandoor oven on the Indian side.
Before I leave to eat lunch I get a quick lesson in using the tandoori and a few suggestions on how to improve my technique at home.
- I use yeast to raise my naan, they suggest baking powder
- I paint the putter facing side of mine with ghee before baking, they use water on their hands while shaping the dough to keep it from sticking to their hands, but also to Help it stick to the inside of the oven
Lunch – I am typically suspicious of hotel food when I travel. At best, it’s usually a fuel stop, at it’s worse it’s truly dangerous – if you can’t see what they’re doing you have no way of knowing if it’s safe to eat (I’ll usually opt for street food where I can SEE the quality and freshness before I order and observe the care of preparation).
That all being said – I had seen the kitchen (spotless), met the cooks (trained and proud), and lunch was very good. Well-cooked, varied mostly moderately spiced vegetable and fish curries served with several varieties of dal (lentil stews) and roti (flat breads).
My off-the-cuff French classical demo for the commis in the kitchen went well and exposed them to the use of whole butter and the technique of emulsion sauces and my biryani lesson was equally productive, but cut short by the demands of the group to take off for a “cultural” demonstration…a bizarre, contrived demonstration of esoteric regional dance apparently irrelevant to anyone but the local tourism board (room full of tourists, most of whom appear as bored as I am – not a single local – watching a couple of guys in Hindu Mythic drag making exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures at each other to the sound of background drumming). I pretty much made it clear to our guide that – while I as sure this was important and significant to some, I would have rather been in the hotel kitchen for service – so please, let me know what’s up and give me he option next time.
Dinner at the hotel after the “show” actually worked well. I sat with some friends I had made and - Already being “in the club”- the sous-chef asked our preferences and cooked for our table of 4. Spiny lobster in coconut curry and fried butterfish. Accompanied by chutneys, dal, and doasai (flatbread/crepes) filled with spicy potato and onions.
Breakfast early – more of the same – well prepared Indian vegetarian food, some meat, great mango lhassi, house made yogurt (very tart and refreshing), and honey sweet, soft, ripe papaya.
Then we headed out for a pretty dull morning of generic tourist stuff – a church, a synagogue (Kerala has a long history of ethnic tolerance and diversity and is proud of it), and a few colonial buildings from Dutch and Portuguese occupation. Just as I was beginning to despair, two things happened. We were taken to a ginger drying warehouse where fresh, whole ginger was hand-graded and then dried, stored and shipped to processors (who would grind for other purposes). This was a pretty cool place, piles of dried ginger several feet deep, thin brown men in loose shirts piling, sorting, bagging, …and the pervasive aroma of citrus – the smell of drying ginger has a distinctly lemony aroma. Snitching a small piece to chew as we walked around, my mouth was refreshed and my stomach warmed and settled.
Next, the guide let slip that after the next “cultural stop” we would walk to the docks from which the fishermen cast their nets and launch their small day boats and that we could – if we wished – purchase fresh fish and find a local restaurant to prepare it for us.
I pulled the guide aside and told him that I’d meet them at the docks and wandered down the squalor-strewn street to the docks and fish vendors.
Mackerel, small tuna, barracuda, Indian “salmon”, squid…. a lot of fish – all fresh, some still alive. Some men were casting nets into the river, some were fishing off of stilt piers, some were pushing out or pulling in with small boats. Under lean-to tarps were casual displays of the catch for sale and hawkers tried to hustle and sell me. One guy followed me for several blocks – “where are you from?” “What do you do” “you like fish?” – his offer was if I buy the fish he would take me to his restaurant and cook the fish for me. I deflected him, telling him that I needed to wait – to meet my group and see what they wanted to do.
One of the group members was native to Kerala and his mother had joined us on the tour – somewhat as a guest, somewhat as an unpaid guide and local expert. On the docks she proved to be a fierce bargainer both in negotiating the price and quality of the fish and then in deciding who would be allowed to take us to their restaurant and prepare it for us. Unfortunately for my new “friend” he was not chosen – all I could do was shrug…. he had figured out that neither he nor I was willing to argue with “mem taz”.
So, cook selected, we followed down the street behind as he led us to the restaurant. I made sure I was close on his heals and that he knew that I would be in the kitchen, with camera, as lunch was prepared.
The kitchen was not spotless…but given the general squalor of the rest of the area, it was acceptably clean. The tabletop was wiped down with a reasonably clean rag and the fish gutted and prawns striped of their legs. The Mackerel was then hacked into2” thick steaks. The prawns to be quickly stewed with onions, chilies, turmeric, tomatoes and coconut…. the mackerel, smeared with a chilie paste and deep-fried in hot oil until crisp.
From market stall to table, including walking time, cleaning, prep and cooking was 1 hour….we sat on a deck overlooking the river, ate our catch and drank cold beer….tab for everything ? $8USD per person – including food, preparation, and tip.
Few hours to relax and/or shop, clean up, and we were due for a “cooking lesson” and dinner at a local home. No need to elaborate on this…. a local “expert” regularly invites (sells) tourists into her home for a “class”…I didn’t expect much, and I was still disappointed. Again, I should have stayed “home” at the hotel with pros.
Tuesday August 12, 2008
Need to be on the bus by 8:00 am, didn’t get to sleep until 1:30 last night, attempting to upload photos and video for blog. Checking out today and heading into the mountains – town of Munaar in the Cardamom Ghats..(mountains covered with tea plantations and cardamom.
High light of the trip so far was what was to be a 30 minute stop at the wholesale banana market in the center of Cochin. That was pretty cool in and of it self, but the banana market was on the periphery of a larger, deeper, and more labyrinthine market place which sold foods of all types. Fruits, vegetables, and fresh spices from the area were on the outer circle, but wandering deeper in we found fish – live or freshly caught; poultry – live in cages and in various stages of dismemberment; and goat, again, from lvie to freshly killed and bleeding, to cut into subordinate pieces. One table featuring only the heads and parts there-of – tongues, cheeks, and eyeballs freshly plucked from the still fur-covered, horned heads. I took a couple of photos and joked that I was doing the cover art for the re-release of an old Rolling Stones album. The vegetarians in the group did not laugh.
I could have spent the entire day in that market, the sights tempting and disturbing, the smells tantalizing and repugnant, life and death, visceral senses from our ancestors times.
Back on the bus for the 4 hour trip into the mountains. Up, a lot….cool weather replaces oppressive heat, clean forest and spectacular waterfalls replace urban filth. Stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch where I get to practice eating with my hands – an order of fish “thali” – plump local white rice served with an array of condiments ranging from hot and sour lime-chilie pickles to sweetened condensed milk thickened with noodle segments and scented with cardamom. The condiments are served in small tin ramekins ,the rice on a tin "plate" - you add condiments to the rice as you like and then scoop the rice up in your hand (only your RIGHT hand) and put it in you mouth. It's not that hard, really = just weird for a knife and fork kind of guy.
We reach the hotel, get settled in and have dinner – another buffet of curries and lentils and rice and flat breads – but better than average this time. Our guide has arranged for a demonstration in the kitchen with the chef after dinner.
The demo consists of the chef quickly and experrtly preparing a Keralan fish curry and then “sevai” – a thin, sweet milk based dessert containing, of all things, Italian vermicelli pasta. This loose “pudding” is one of the most popular sweets in India, we’ve aread seen it a few times, but this one is the best so far. I am very impressed with the cleanliness of the kitchen, the professional appearance of the cooks, the meticulous ay out of mise-en-place for the hastily arranged demo and the precise cooking technique of the chef. Although, for the most part, he did things the way that I would have, there were slight nuances that brought a me a better understanding of how to prepare these dishes. The curry leaf in the fish dish were lightly fried in the oil to bring out their distinct but subtle aroma and flavor, the vermicelli was added raw into the pot and lightly toasted in coconut oil before the other ingredients were added in order to bring the depth of the toasted wheat to an otherwise sweet-bland concoction.
Wednesday August 14, 2008
Up and out of the hotel by 8:00 AM – some opt for a “cultural” tour of local sights and landmarks, I ask to pointed toward the local market where I spend 4 hours wandering., examining and sampling various fruits, watching chickens unloaded and slaughters, and buy a few souvenirs for folks back home. Most interesting – a large meaty variety of red banana which proves to be substantial enough to be lunch with a cup of tea; a variety of passion fruit which is ripe and fragrant while still firm and yellow on the outside (as opposed to the shriveled purple ones we get in the US; and a fruit the locals refe to as “tree tomatoes” – apparently a relative of guava/passion fruit with a sweet but distinctly tomatoey flavor to the flesh.
Then back on the bus for a 4 hour wind through the mountains and tea plantations – jaw dropping scenery. One rest stop of note: A guy in the side of the road with a small wood fire, a bellows, and a stack of corn on the cob…..to order he shucks the corn, stokes the fire, places corn on steel rod and quickly roasts in. when the kernels are slightly blackened he rubs the ear with fresh lime, chilie and salt, places it back into the husk and hands it to you to eat – 15 rupee (roughly 25 cents US).
When we finally reach the hotel for the night we’re pretty beaten up by the bus ride. Some have started to get sick from contaminated water or food some are just nauseous from the long, rough ride. I’m tired, but feeling pretty good so I drag myself into town to look around and have dinner. Near the edge of town is a guy deep frying banana chips in coconut oil – slicing them thinly into the oil with a rough mandolin and stirring until crisp. For 10 rupee I get a 50 gram bag and munch them on the way to a restaurant recommended by our guide.
The restaurant is mediocre. I order Pork Vindaloo – a dish I make with my students in my class at CIA. A dish from the city of Goa, Vindaloo is supposed to be like fiery- vinegar laced pork BBQ. Tonight I settle for less – chunks of overcooked pork in a n insipid sauce with a few potatoes.
I promised everyone that I would post everyday. Several things have conspired against me and prevented this from happening. Some of which has to do with my own tech ignorance but mostly limited, slow, or non-existent net access I'm having real problems getting photos and video embedded into this blog - I'm sure that's my own inexperience.
1 hour later - Checking in on this I see that only 1/3 of my photos uploaded. I can't upload from where i am - can't connect my own lap top. The connection at the 'net cafe where I posted the draft of this was pretty spotty - it took three attempts to send a couple of simple e-mails, so I'm not surprised that a lot of the photos didn't load properly. Anyway, the journal below is complete as of Wednesday night. When I get a stable connection I'll try again inserting photos and video clips where appropriate -Mike Pardus