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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Culinary Adventure: Fort Kochi

?Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. Her gourmet adventure starts in the vibrant city of Kochi.

I’m on a culinary adventure. Kerala on the west coast of the southern tip of India is known for its beauty and for its food. Gordon Ramsey has been here. Rick Stein has been here. And now I, though definitely not an expert cook by any stretch, am here, to experience the food and learn how to make it from some of the area’s best chefs.

As soon as I arrived at the airport I was bombarded by smells, flavours, colours, and noise. This is the India I expected – bustling, lively, and thriving.

Kochi itself has a history of busyness. The Portuguese came here from the west, followed by the Dutch, and then inevitably wherever there was trade and money to be made, the British. They weren’t the only ones to visit, and all have left their mark; in Fort Kochi where I am staying, there’s the Dutch Palace, Vasco de Gama Square, the Jewish Synagogue, and so on.

On the banks of Vembanad Lake, a busy thoroughfare from the sea through to Kochi port, local fishermen use Cheena Vala, or Chinese fishing nets as the Indians call them, to catch mullet, Indian salmon, and a halibut-like fish locally called Motha.

We went to watch them work, heaving weights at one end, to raise nets out of the sea at the other, singing a Malayalam version of heave-ho, as they went. As they pulled up their nets, a large cargo ship passed by. This is India as you’d imagine it – a mix of ancient methods used against a backdrop of modernity, a mix of cultures, absorbed into one giant melting pot.

The food we ate that evening reflected Kochi’s multi-cultural heritage. Chuttulli Meen, a fish dish handed to our first chef, Ajeeth, from a Jewish family, serving as the Brunton Boatyard Hotel’s signature main course. It was delicious – mullet smeared with roasted shallots and ginger, grilled, broiled, and then layered up onto sliced potatoes and saffron sauce made with coconut milk. It was light and rich all at the same time, clearly Asian food, and yet of immigrant origin.

Ajeeth came to join us after we had eaten. All the fish we ate that evening was sourced locally, he explained, from fishermen who he has built a trusted relationship with over the course of several years. Provenance is important as well as quality. Ajeeth won’t use fish from polluted waters, and takes care to use what is plentiful in the waters and the landscape around. The food can’t help but reflect the place where it’s made. The dishes on our menu may have started out as recipes brought here by Orthodox Jews, or Syrian Christians, but when it’s made with the ingredients of the place, it can’t help but become local in flavour.

Sounds like every dish has a story to tell. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

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

 

 

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Welcome to International Cookery Tours – for adventures in food

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