Category Archives: Cooking class

Turning pages at Pepper Trail

We are at the stunning Pepper Trail retreat, a 200 acre coffee, tea and spice plantation in northern Kerala. From the moment you drive through the retreat’s gates one is enveloped in a cacophonous hush. Days begin with the sounds of morning dew crashing into leaves, and end with songs of a thousand birds. Time stands still, even as the plantation breathes new life into each day.

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Anand Jayan is a third generation plantation owner and welcomes each visitor as if we were guests to his home. From personalising every single meal and guided tours of his gardens, to offers of coracle rides in their private reservoir – he spoilt us rotten. No request was too outrageous and we were especially looking forward to a cooking class arranged with the plantation’s cook. Mani has been with the family for over two decades and is now the keeper of their several culinary secrets.

I was chopping smoked kodampuli for Mani’s fish curry when WhatsApp pinged his message of rejection. Decades of being turned down doesn’t seem to be practice enough and my eyes pricked with an all too familiar emotion… or perhaps it was the red chilli tadka being prepared for our jackfruit thoran. I was grateful to be standing in a kitchen full of distractions – Mani’s Malayalam cooking class translated into English by Anand’s mother, the vague recollection that kodampuli is often mistaken for kokum, and the desperate need not to cry in front of my younger sister.

The irony of being rejected whilst at one of the most romantic hotels I’ve been to was not lost on me. And so, as I walked up to our treehouse, balancing myself on a ramp that meandered through the tops of enormous jackfruit trees, I swore not to succumb to the seduction of self-pity.

We spent languid days not turning a single page of the several books we thought we would need, only sitting up for the delicious meals that arrived at regular intervals. We feasted on heavenly breakfasts of idiappams and stew, puttu, kadala kari and fried bananas; lunches and dinners of kodampuli fish curry, olan, mezhukkupuratti, and appams and curry; and tea time always included banana fritters and surprisingly awful filter coffee. And needless to say, everything featured coconut. (See end of the post for descriptions of these meals.)

We only managed to drag ourselves away from the plantation’s serenity and steaming plates of food for a few hours. And only to buy some smoked kodampuli and mountains of banana chips. Anand drove us into Sultan Bathery, the erstwhile dumping ground for Tipu Sultan’s artillery. It’s a small town by any standards – we were told that stores began selling ice cream only a few years ago – but large-hearted enough to string new year decorations between temples and mosques. And tolerant enough for the morning azaan to give way to temple bells even as traffic quietened around the churches.

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It was only on the drive back to Calicut airport did I allow myself the luxury of self-reflection. About the kind of pain I was willing to accept in my life. None, you say? Then surely the only alternative is an even more painful ‘what if’. Like not turning the page of a book because I may not like how it ends? As always the Dalai Lama comes to my rescue – seek passionately, let go lightly he says. And let’s keep turning those pages.

-p

We ate very well…

Idiappam: also called string hoppers in Sri Lanka is a breakfast favourite and a snack. Noodles made from rice flour, and served with sweetened coconut milk or meat/chicken stew. The earliest mention of this food was in the 5th century Perumpanuru as a snack sold on the seashore.

Puttu and kadala kari: A traditional breakfast item for the original warrior class of Kerala, the Nairs. Bamboo-steamed rice and coconut served with a curry of black chickpeas.

Kodampuli: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/02/spice-hunting-kodampuli-gambodge-malabar-tamarind-kokum.html

Olan: A Nair dish of white pumpkin and dried beans cooked in coconut milk.

Mezhukkupuratti: a delicious vegetable stir fry, always cooked in coconut oil. Ours was a mix of plantains and green beans.

Appam: rice pancake traditionally eaten with meat stew by Syrians and the mixed vegetable dish, aviyal, by the Nairs and Nampoothiris.

(Source for all historical food facts: KT Achaya)

 

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Filed under Breakfast, Coffee, Cooking class, Foodie adventures, Home-style, Hotel, India, Indian, Kerala, Outdoor dining, South Indian, Vegetarian

Sammy the Billingsgate seal, Geoffrey the pigeon & fish we didn’t call Wanda

Fish is my least favourite food (closely followed by okra and cauliflower). The only difference between fish and the two vegetables I was force fed as a child is that I want to like fish. You see, I do like some fish – shorshebata ilish, Hyderabadi pomfret tikka, Goan fish curry. But ask me to grill/fry/bake/steam/poach/curry my own and the meal has always ended in (my) tears (and pizza out of a box).

It’s my Birthday Month and I have decided to gift myself – among other things – the love of fish. It’s a bit ridiculous to ban fish just because I haven’t learnt how to cook it properly. Turns out that all I needed was to spend a fish day with someone who loved fish, cooked fish, ate fish, and was quite a dish himself.

A chance meeting last year with lawyer-turned-chef Edward Smith (aka Rocket & Squash),  somehow led to us spending a day together as teacher and student. In addition to writing a fantastic food journal, Ed also caters events and conducts private cooking tutorials in your own kitchen. Once I made him promise not to even try and make me like mackerel, the world was my oyster… urr, fish market. Careful consultations later we had the perfect Saturday planned. I had just given myself the first birthday present of the year – my first ever private cooking class.

Ed was going to pick me up at 6.20 am (he said he wasn’t a masochist and we didn’t have to get there for the usual 4 am start. I beg to differ.) He had warned me to wrap up, wear sensible shoes and be prepared for freezing smelliness of the Billingsgate Market, UK’s largest “inland” fish market. A few iPhone alarm mishaps, caffeine-deprived map reading, and road works related detours later – we were there!

2013-03-02 08.12.192013-03-02 08.18.11You definitely smell it before you see it! I saw octopus, squid, lobster, and more varieties of fish than I knew existed.

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Ed walked me through the stalls explaining the various seafood, teaching me what to look for, and even regaled me with stories about the market’s pet seal – Sammy. Once done with our shopping we popped into their café (so local; so fab) and stopped for a quick chat with one of the fishmongers.
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We then drove to a less malodorous shop – the Chelsea Fishmongers. (I have a feeling I may visit Rex Goldsmith’s labour of love more often than the sprawling Billingsgate for my weekly fish supply.)

A few hours later we were in my kitchen. I even got my very own Rocket & Squash apron and a detailed fish prep manual and recipe booklet. The next two hours were not pretty – I learnt how to skin a fish, clean its guts out, fillet it and cut it in a few ways, always careful not to eat the eyes (they’re bitter you see). Ed was so patient with me – gently helping my knife skills along and filling the class with enough juicy cooking tips and tricks to keep me wide awake despite the ungodly start.

To add to the drama of our day my class was interrupted by pigeon coos. My heart nearly stopped as Ed suggested that the pigeon may be inside my spice cupboard. A hesitant search of my kitchen confirmed that the poor baby – now named Geoffrey by the chef – was stuck inside the chimney!

We had together cleaned and prepped salmon, lemon sole, sea bream and squid. We were finally at the part I was looking forward to most ! The next few hours were magical – Ed taught me how to create delicious meals from the simplest ingredients. He gave me a peek into his world of clever twists to standard recipes. We grilled, stewed, fried and poached our way through six mouth-watering dishes.

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Braised squid with chorizo and butter beans

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Grilled salmon with courgette and broad bean salad

2013-03-02 14.21.33Pan-fried sea bream with fennel and blood orange salad – my favourite!

He also taught me how to make the classic sole à la meunière with a brown butter and caper sauce; proper wilted spinach;  and the most moreish side –  creamed leeks, peas and pancetta.

The best thing about the man – he cleaned up after himself (and me)!

EdI loved this day so much! Ed let me take my time, answered every question, and gave me the confidence to go out the next day and buy more fish. I can now safely say, that fish is no longer my least favourite food.

-p

 

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Filed under Cooking class, Fish, Foodie adventures, Seafood