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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