Photo Gallery from 2014 Kerala Cookery Experience

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Keralan food with a unique twist

Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland in her final blog she sums up her food adventure.

And now, the end is near, and so I face… well, an expanding waistline, honestly.

Ten days of cooking and eating and taking sneaky tastes from the pan and then piling my plate high with seconds, and I’ve relished every moment. My trip has been so mouthwateringly delicious, a journey through the beautiful Keralan landscape – its mountains, jungle, lagoons, and beaches – savouring the variations in the foods in each place.

So what have I learned? That rather than saving garlic to the end, it is possible to start with the garlic and not destroy the flavour altogether; that coconut oil adds a roundness to the flavour that can’t be replaced by vegetable oil; that each spice has a medicinal value as well as a flavour value; that masala is just a name for a combination of spices; oh and a whole host of other things. I can’t wait to get back to my own kitchen and give everything a whirl and (hopefully) impress my friends.

Even if it’s not perfect, though, it will still be Keralan cuisine. Right at the start I discovered that, because of trade, Kerala is a province of cultural fusions. The starting points for dishes might be the same, but there’s no patented method for how it should be at the end. Learning the basic blocks of Keralan dishes, and then seeing how all the different chefs have added their own twists, personalities, and even histories into the food they prepare, has made me feel confident that I can do the same.

On the flight back to London I’ll be passing the time planning how to make my own Johanna Masala. My mouth is already watering at the thought.

 

Johanna is a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.

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From Syria with love

Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland.

At the start of this adventure, we learned how many different cultures and nationalities, all brought to Kerala by trade, all have had an impact on the food here. For our next masterclass we were focussing on Syrian Christian dishes.

‘What makes it obviously Syrian in origin?’ I asked the chef. ‘It’s not as hot…’ he ventured. I suspect he may have been guessing. Nevertheless, I think I might have found one of my favourite Keralan dishes on his masterclass menu – Suriyani Appam.

Appam is found in the name of most of the breads we’ve been eating here. It’s a kind of pancake batter made from different flours and in different shapes, with different seasonings added, but always Appam.

Suriyani Appam is a Syrian twist on the Keralan savoury pancake. It starts with semolina mixed with warm water into a paste. This is added to rice flour and then with water turned into dough. But unlike batter, which involves eggs, these appam have fast action yeast and a spot of sugar added to make it rise. That’s the basic mix. To add the twist we added coconut, cardamom, and cumin, whizzed up fine in a food processor, mixed it all together, and let the whole thing stand for a couple of hours while the yeast got to work.

Once the yeast has taken effect in the batter, you ladle an amount onto a hot griddle, letting it spread itself out into what looked like a greeny-yellow pikelet. Doesn’t sound so appealing, but bite into one and you’ll see – it’s slightly sweet and coconuty, but with an edge that makes it the perfect complement to a spicy masala roast. God bless the Syrian Christians.

 

Johanna is a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.

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Fish favourite

Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. Johanna tries her hand at the region’s famous fish curry.

I’ve been asking people what their favourite dish is. Fish curry, is always the reply. Given that Kerala, for all its mountains, is a coastal region, I shouldn’t be surprised.

For our third cookery masterclass we were in for a treat. With a kitchen set up outside next to the Vembanad lake, we were going to learn how to make a traditional Keralan fish dish wrapped in banana leaves. The lake itself is an oddity: A lagoon fed by five rivers, is seven kilometres wide and 19 kilometres long, finishes in the Arabian Sea, and, weirdly, is two feet below sea level. No one can figure it out, and we went on to have a discussion over lunch about meteors and myths and all kinds of theories for the lagoon’s improbability.

But there would be no lunch unless we made it, and first, we had to catch the fish.

Luckily for the people eating what we were making for their lunch, we had a lot of help from two local fishermen, otherwise there may not have been any fish at all. They swung out circular nets, weighted down along the edges, into the dykes running from the lagoon, leaping in after them to catch a fish native to the region with a slightly piratical name – Pearl Spot. Then they descaled and gutted them, and we were good to go.

We marinaded the newly-gutted full fish in thin turmeric paste. Turmeric works as a natural antiseptic, so it serves a double purpose, both medicinal and flavour-giving.

We made a basic masala – now familiar to us – with garlic, ginger, green chillis, curry leaves, onion, tomato, and then turmeric, chilli powder and coriander. We used this as a paste which we spread onto a banana leaf, followed by the fish, with more of the tomatoey paste on the top.

Then we wrapped the fish like a Christmas present and put it onto a tray to bake in a super hot charcoal pit oven, known here as a Towa.

We’ve learned lots of ways to cook fish on our travels, but I think this might be my favourite so far. The fish was tender and the sauce was the perfect relish. No wonder fish curry is the dish of choice.

 

Johanna is a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.

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Living the dream

Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. Johanna takes a trip to a foodie’s island paradise.

On our way from Thekkady to Kumarakom, I was in for a real treat.

Hidden away in Kerala’s equivalent of Venice, among a network of waterways running parallel to the Arabian Sea and the Malabar coast, is Philipkutty’s Farm. We took a boat across to the farmhouse where we were greeted by the smiling face of Aniamma.

In the late 1990s Aniamma’s son, the Philipkutty in the farm’s name, took over the land from his father, who had reclaimed it for cultivation. He began to build small lodges to let out as part of a homestay scheme. He left his job in Mumbai and moved to the backwaters and began to build. His dream was to have six cottages where he and his family could host visitors with good food and good rest in a beautiful place.

Tragically, the day the last roof tile was laid, Philipkutty suffered a devastating heart attack, leaving behind his mother, his wife Anu, and two small children. Anu and Aniamma decided the most fitting memorial to Philipkutty was to continue to welcome and host visitors to their farm.

So as Aniamma, affectionately called Mummy by all who come to stay, welcomed us on the jetty, her daughter-in-law Anu joined her and brought us in to the house to learn how to make chicken stew. What she made we would be eating for lunch.

What I didn’t realise is that at the same time, lots of work was taking place behind the scenes in a bigger kitchen. We sat down to eat our stew, and ten different dishes joined it on the table – cooling yoghurt dishes made with cucumber or beetroot, spicy chutneys, pickles and sambols, huge bowls of comforting vegetable curries, a fish fry, and of course, the traditional fish curry, among poppadoms, croquettes, salty banana chips and a whole host of other treats.

I can’t help but feel like I’m living the dream. With every mouthful it became clearer – this is a taste of Philipkutty’s dream. A fitting tribute.

Johanna is a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.

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Masala masterclass

Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland.

It’s time for our second cookery masterclass, this time at Spice Village in Thekkady, a small spice town on the edge of the Periyar Nature Reserve. Rumour has it there are tigers in there, but the only roar I’m hearing is the rumble of my own stomach.

I was very determined to redeem myself after the disaster of the Meen Moilie in my first class, so I turned up to learn from Chef Jerry, keen to concentrate and get his three recipes spot on.

He had chosen to walk us through Chicken Kurumulagu Roast, Cardamom Vegetable Curry, and finally to show us how to make Piratha, a layered flatbread that I’ve become slightly addicted to over the past few days.

We started with the chicken. I’m quickly discovering that lots of Keralan dishes begin exactly the same way: heat coconut oil in a pan, add garlic first, then ginger, curry leaves and green chillis, and once the garlic is beginning to caramelise, add the onions until they soften. From this point the dishes diverge. In this instance we then added a mix of spices – turmeric, red chilli powder, black pepper and coriander powder. After a couple of minutes we added finely chopped tomatoes, and a bit of salt.

This is a masala sauce.

Every chef has his own masala, his own combination of spices which he uses, called a garam masala. According to Jerry, garam masala always has cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, dry chilli and fennel, but some chefs then add star anise and other spices to make their garam masala unique.

We added chicken to the masala after a few minutes, and then slow cooked it with a lid on until it was cooked through. So far, so good.

Next up was cardamom vegetable curry. Again we began with garlic, ginger, green chilli, and curry leaves in coconut oil. This time we added turmeric, coconut paste, cardamom, and shallots, followed by veggies. You can use any vegetable, making it a very seasonally adaptable recipe. At the very last, you take it off the heat, stir in coconut milk, and you’ve got a very creamy aromatic veg curry to go with the drier chicken of the Kurumulagu Roast. It was very cardamom-y though, which I should have worked out from the title of the dish. Maybe I’ll be using less of it when I’m back home, but then I did say in my last post that cardamom has become a big part of Keralan cuisine, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Last but not least, the holy grail of Indian comfort food for this trip so far – piratha. I’ve been trying to suss out how these are made as we’ve been eating them, and all I could work out is that there must be some kind of layering. I wasn’t far off. We took a basic flour and water dough, rolled it into flat rounds, spread ghee on it, concertinaed each one into a fan, wound it round into a spiral and tucked the end in like a turban. Then you squash them flat again, roll it into a round and dry fry it.

It was all delicious (and all the more because I managed to get all three things right this time) but the piratha was strangely the most satisfying of the three to learn. I know I will definitely be regularly making that recipe on my return to the UK.

 

Johanna is a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.

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Abraham’s Spice Garden

Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland.

There’s a magic about spices. Each has its own unique flavours, pungencies, and potencies, and each works differently in combination with another.

The curators and discovers of this magic are the spice gardeners, men like Abraham, who is a sort of herbalist-cum-apothecary, curating a garden filled with a whole host of different plants, established by his father, who learned from his father, who learned from his father before him.

On the road down from the mountains towards the backwaters and lagoons and then on to the coast, we stopped by Abraham’s spice garden.

In it he grows cocoa, coconuts, bananas of several varieties, cardamom (of course), tea, coffee, chillis, turmeric, ginger, and a whole host of other herbs and spices I either can’t remember or have never heard of. Abraham knows which part of each plant is useful – the root, the stem, the bark, the leaf, the flower, the fruit – how it can be used for food, and for medicine.

It was like a small garden of Eden, but even in Paradise, there are signs of the trouble of a changing world. Abraham grows vanilla, which he pollinates by hand.
‘Why?’ we asked.
It seemed like an awful lot of trouble. Vanilla comes from an orchid with a particularly deep trumpet flower, which means for many insects it’s impossible to get to the nectar inside. Impossible for all but one kind of bee. And that bee is extinct. So vanilla is produced by human hand. All of a sudden the price of spice makes more sense.

Abraham is a guardian of nature, of ancient plants, and long-held knowledge. People come to visit and learn from a true spice master.

 

Johanna is a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.

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A trinity of taste

Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. Johanna discovers a hidden gem in the Western Ghats.

Staying in a hotel, in mountains surrounded by acres and acres of tea, it’s hard to believe that tea isn’t native to India. The notion of Indian teapickers, probably reinforced by Typhoo tea adverts from my childhood, is so strong, it was extremely odd to discover that tea wasn’t grown here until the mid-19th century. In fact, nothing at all was really cultivated on these hillsides, at least not on any scale.

Travellers more entrepreneurial than I were the ones who realised that the land, far from being worthless for crops, was actually incredibly valuable. They took advantage of cheap land prices to establish plantations, and by experimenting with different plants, discovered that these slopes were perfect for three crops: tea, coffee, and cardamom.

It’s an efficient way of using the land – tea needs absolutely no shade to be able to grow, which is why tea is the most obvious crop to see in the Western Ghats. The shady parts of the hillside are perfect for cardamom, and the land with a mix of both sun and shade are ideal for coffee. The roots of the tea plants go deep, preventing soil erosion.

What’s remarkable is that all three plants aren’t native to Kerala, but have become an integral part of both Keralan food and the economy here – there’s no place you stop where you won’t be offered masala chai – sweet tea with milk and a mix of spices including cardamom. Cardamom appears in puddings and in curries, and is used as a medicine.

And coffee. Well you can’t live in London, like I do, and not know the value of a caffeine kick first thing in the morning. Tea, coffee, and cardamom: a Keralan holy trinity.

 

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Second helpings in the Western Ghats

?Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. Johanna discovers a hidden gem in the Western Ghats.

“My only qualifications to start this place were complete ignorance of the hospitality industry and good eating habits,” says Dr Simon. The founder of the Windermere estate is sitting at our table regaling us with tales of how he transformed this small coffee and cardamom plantation from a piece of not-very-productive land, into the best place to stay in Kerala’s Western Ghats.

In front of us is an epic amount of food – fish curry, vegetables, grilled and spiced quail, chickpeas made into something dahl-like, and more fish, marinaded in spices, wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked. Oh and rice, and delicious flatbreads called baturas. Dr Simon definitely knows what makes good food, and it’s clear that, in spite of his protestations, he knows how to offer good hospitality too.

The Windermere Estate is 3,500 feet up, and so offering guests a home away from home, with incredible 360 degree panoramic views, was a more sensible way to make the land pay its way than struggling to sell the coffee and cardamom grown there. Instead, the plantation itself has now become one of the estate’s biggest draws for visitors – the coffee tastes as it ought to taste, not bitter, but almost chocolatey, smooth and round in your mouth.

We’re not up to the coffee yet in our meal, and though I’ve pretty much eaten all I can, I’m stretching my stomach to try just a little more fish curry; just a little bit more of the chickpeas; oh go on then, I’ll have some more quail too.

“My chefs are ‘grandmother cooks’,” says the doctor. “They all learned how to cook from their grandmothers.” It’s true: the food is simple and clearly of the kind that might be made in the homes of the workers of this landscape. But then again, there’s some kind of magic going on here, something which is preventing me from being able to stop putting more of it onto my plate.

Finally I think I’m done. And then out comes pudding… a gentle cardamom and coconut milk pudding that’s just too delicious to resist. I lean forward, and under the satisfied gaze of our host, help myself to seconds.

 

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The allure of spice

Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. She looks at the story behind Kerala’s famous spices.

When the great adventurers of the 16th Century thought about the East, they thought about spices. For centuries, the aromatic smells of saffron, turmeric, jasmine, sandalwood, and plenty more, lured travellers towards the East, where traders and explorers gathered the exotic smells and flavours of the food they found there and sent them back along spice routes over mountains and sea to bring the exotic flavours of the Orient to Europe.

Trade with the East was so critical that competition between western nations for control of trade in places like India often became heated, with deals being brokered between local princes and whoever’s ships held sway in that port at that time. The Portuguese reached Kochi first, followed by the Dutch, and then ultimately East India Company, a British mercantile organisation, who took control of the trade route. The British, Dutch and Portuguese are long gone, but the demand for exotic flavours and spices remains and so, therefore, does the trade.

Kaycee Corporation are the only spice wholesalers in Fort Kochi, the part of Kochi city where we’re staying. The port is still a bustling hub, and every day we’ve been able to watch a whole host of small boats and large freight ships as they’ve sailed by into dock, some coming to collect the spices this part of the world has always been known for.

In some ways we’re following a spice route of our own. We paid a visit to a spice merchants in Kochi, a spacious warehouse off a street full of spice shops for tourists piled high with sacks of herbs, spices, and beans. This is where chef Ajeeth sources all the aromatics he uses in his cooking. Some are completely recognisable, but who knew that turmeric was a rhizome like ginger? Not me. Like the traders of the previous centuries, there’s a lot for me still to discover.

 

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