Hands-on with Keralan cuisine

?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 gets to grips with some Keralan classics, with mixed results.

After having tasted the beginnings of the delights of Keralan food, today I got to roll up my sleeves and have a go at making some myself. Chef Ajeeth gave us a masterclass in three basic Keralan dishes: Idyappam, a noodle dish, Cheera Thoran, a vegetable side dish, and Meen Moilie, a fish main course. We each had a mini workstation, where everything was measured out and chopped ready for us, and Ajeeth talked and showed us every step. Simple. It ought to have been impossible for anything to go wrong.

First up was the Idyappam, which we were told is the trickiest of the three dishes. I’m not going to lie – I totally rocked this dish. You make a simple dough with rice flour, water and a little oil and knead it. Then you feed it through a rice mincer, and as it comes out the other end, catch it and turn it so it looks like a nest. Sounds easy, but was in fact easier said than done. The nests get steamed and when they’re cooked form the base to pour a sauce over. Like I said, somehow I nailed this dish, – Ajeeth judged mine the best.

So far, so good. Next we made the Cheera Thoran, a simple spiced vegetable dish. The mix of spices – coconut, turmeric, mustard, curry leaves, chilli – smelled incredible in the pan, and formed a distinctly Keralan base which you could add any vegetable into. We used red spinach which infused the whole pan with a rich red. No disasters there – I was beginning to feel a little smug.

And then, the main dish, a Keralan favourite, Meen Moilie. There was a lot to be done on this, and we needed to concentrate. Again we threw in a mix of fenugreek, garlic, ginger, green chilli, onion, and curry leaves, each adding their unique smells and tastes to the mix. Then in went the fish and some turmeric in water to simmer. Finally, coconut milk and a dash of lime. Sounds so straightforward doesn’t it? Yet, right at the end, for some inexplicable reason, my sauce separated, and instead of a luscious, creamy, coconuty, fresh flavoured sauce for the mullet, I presented Ajeeth with a yellow watery sauce that had separated and had bits of fish floating in it. ‘Oh dear’, he said.

How the mighty have fallen! I loved learning how to combine the spices and how flexible the sauces are to use. Though I might not have mastered every dish, I’m definitely learning.

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


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