Category Archives: Home-style

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.

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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

Poppaddum Sadya: A sumptuous lunch invitation

I don’t have any Mallu friends. It is the only reason I can think of for not knowing anything substantial about food from ‘God’s Own Country’. Further absolving myself of all responsibility, I also blame Bombay. With barely a handful of Keralite restaurants, the city is seriously lacking in culinary representation from the spice capital of India.

So when I heard about an economist from Kerala, living in Bombay, wanting to invite ten strangers to share a dining table for a taste of her traditional home cooking… I would have been a fool to say no.

Sneha Nair’s recipes and kitchen tricks are the result of long-distance phone calls with her mother and peering over her aunt’s shoulder as she cooked. Sneha may be a self-taught cook, but my introduction to this glorious cuisine could not have been more perfect. My first ever Keralite meal was – a sadya, the traditional, all-vegetarian feast served at festivals and celebrations.

That Sunday afternoon, ten strangers picked their own banana leaf to eat on, arranged themselves on the floor, and waited for feast to begin. Sneha served us each dish herself, suggesting the ‘correct’ way to eat each item but also encouraging us not to get too distracted by custom.

IMG_2220First came eight chutneys and sides including the raw mango chutney manga peraku, a sweet and sour puliyinchi, lime pickle vadukapuli achar, banana chips, raw jackfruit chips and the moreish banana and jaggery sarkara upperi. The crowd pleaser was most definitely the pachadi, pineapple, coconut and yoghurt transformed into a tangy creation.

Then arrived the vegetables, a riot of colours dancing on my bright green leaf – avial, kaalan, kootcurry, carrot and bean thoran, cabbage thoran; and olan, where two of my favourite ingredients – pumpkin and coconut milk – come together in a delicately textured mild curry.

IMG_2224Next we were served a daal with ghee, aubergine and okra sambhar and pineapple rasam. And last, the delicious payasam ada pradhaman a classic combination of rice flakes, jaggery, milk and roasted cashews.

I was lost in a trance of unfamiliar delicacies, each dish designed to coax the flavours out of the others. There was a time when a sadya used to consist of 64 dishes and I think I speak for everyone when I say we were relieved that Sneha only chose 20! The trick while eating a sadya is to eat the rice sparingly and my only disappointment was that Sneha chose basmati rice instead of rosematta (red) rice that I was later told was more traditional.

When the meal is completed, one is meant to fold the banana leaf. The direction in which we fold the leaf is a signal of our enjoyment of the meal – folding it away is a compliment to the chef.

Even though her mother grew up in a house with three kitchens and spent her summers making banana chips and jackfruit jam, Sneha never cooked in these kitchens. She may have dabbled in some cooking as a teenager, but it wasn’t until she moved to Scotland for a few years in 2010 that her tryst with Keralite food really began.

You never know when your calling hits you, and Sneha can’t pinpoint the exact moment when she thought cooking for others was a good idea. Whatever the reason behind Sneha’s Poppadum supper clubs, Bombay is certainly a better place for it.

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This article was first written for burrp!

Photographs courtesy the lovely Vaydehi Khandelwal.

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Filed under Bombay, Foodie Events, Home-style, India, Indian, Kerala, Pop-up, South Indian, Vegetarian