Friday, March 11, 2011

Masala Magic

(Written in Kochi – Mar 8th)

Food is definitely one of my highlights of India.  With only one or two exceptions, every meal I’ve had here has been very good, and eating out is quite ridiculously cheap:  if you stick to the “Indian” menu (as opposed to the touristy “continental” fare), you can have dinner for under 200 rupees, or less than $5, including a Kingfisher if you want.  Unlike previous travels, I eat out almost exclusively here; I’ve never stayed in a place with a kitchen, so I can’t cook for myself (as I usually do, while travelling), and restaurants are so cheap here anyway that it’s easy to eat out on a budget.  I’ll buy fruit at markets, but that’s about the only “self-catering” I’ve done so far.

Restaurant menus (at the more touristy places at least) are absurdly varied, offering everything from traditional Indian fare, to Italian pastas and pizza, to Thai curries, to Chinese cuisine.  Beef shows up on the menu once in a while (well, in Goa, at least), and seafood takes pride of place in the south.  I’ve eaten almost exclusively Indian food while I’ve been here — well, with the exception of all the chocolate cake here in Kochi — and I’m still not tired of it.  It’s deliciously spicy and varied, and so easy to go vegetarian without even having to try very hard; the vegetables are just as tasty as the meat dishes, if not more so.  (The only times I haven’t eaten well are those times I strayed from the Indian menu and sampled something “continental”.  Indian restaurants don’t make good pizza, in case you’re wondering — save that for Italy.)

Finally, after eating my way from the north to the south of India, I decided that I had to learn how to make some of this.  So I sought out a cooking class while in Kochi to begin my Indian culinary education; I won’t be able to use my new-found knowledge while I’m here, as I’m unlikely to ever have access to a kitchen.  (There are no hostels where I’ve gone in India, so I’m staying at cheap hotels, which give you just four walls, a bed and — if you’re lucky — a toilet and shower.  But never a kitchen.) 
Carol with Miss Leelu (centre)

But I’ll cook up an Indian storm when I get home, now that I have learned a thing or two thanks to Miss Leelu at “Miss Leelu’s Cook’n’Eat”.  Miss Leelu, a warm, pleasant Indian woman (at a guess, slightly younger than my mother), holds classes in her home (which also doubles as a guesthouse) once or twice a day, depending on demand from tourists.  For 550 rupees, you get to learn the ins and outs of 5 delicious Keralan dishes, and — here’s the best part — sit down with her and her husband to eat them afterwards.

There were 6 of us in class — me, an older German woman and a 30-something Austrian couple on holiday for a few weeks, and a young English (her)/Irish (him) couple at the start of a year-long round-the-world backpacking trip.  The husband of the German woman joined us after class, solely to eat as he flatly refused to learn anything about cooking (if I were his wife, I’d have given him a very serious talking-to).  Flavours were intense and unexpected; I’d never before thought, for example, of using yoghurt in a savoury dish (with cooked vegetables), or that combining coconut and spices with it would actually render cabbage tasty.  I even liked the fish curry, and I’m never much of a fish person.

That’s the magic of masala — you can make anything can taste good.  “Masala”, I’ve learned, just means “spice mix”; it can refer to any combination of spices depending on the dish you’re making.  “Garam masala”, which you’ll sometimes see on menus, means a hot version of the same.  “Fish masala” will be different that “chicken masala” or “vegetable masala”, and none of those will resemble the masala in “chai masala”, a sweet and milky Indian tea which I’ve grown to adore (“chai” simply means “tea”). 

(Despite all the vegetables, though, don’t make the mistake of thinking of this as “health food”, as there was also an astonishing amount of butter/ghee and oil involved.  Maybe that’s why it all tasted so damn good.)

Not only was the food delightful, it was an interesting little glimpse into Indian home life.  Miss Leelu chatted constantly as she took us through the recipes, telling us all about her family and how she got started with the cooking classes.  She told us, among other things, that she was training a new assistant, a young lad from the north of India who only spoke Hindi and not much English; she herself speaks Malayalam and English, but only a few words of Hindi, so communication is a bit of a challenge.   Despite that, though, she said that she prefers to hire North Indians as they are harder workers, willing to work long hours at as many as 3 jobs in order to send money home to their families.  South Indians, she says, have gotten lazy, particularly Keralans.  (I can understand that, actually, it’s too darn hot to work very hard here.)

She’d had an assistant previously, who had just passed away the week before after 24 years with her; he’d started out as a servant when she lived in Dubai and came back with her to India.  He’d gotten ill (some kind of stomach complaint), and she’d tried to get him medical help; the doctors and hospitals she took him too didn’t want to treat him, as he was “just a servant”.  She had him rushed to the hospital after one particularly severe attack, with a thick wad of cash to pay his medical bills, but he died on the way.  She was clearly still incensed, and saddened, by the callous disregard shown to him.

But she still cooked like a dream, and I don’t think I’ve eaten better in India than I did that night.  I had to roll myself away from the table and down the street to my hotel, I was so very full.   I didn’t think I’d have room to eat again for a day or two, but, somehow, managed to find room for a farewell piece of Death by Chocolate cake from the Teapot Cafe before I left Kochi.  It’s seriously good.  (Wonder if Miss Leelu knows how to make that, too?  I should have asked her to show me.)

I catch the train tomorrow, northward to Goa.  I’m heading to Anjuna Beach first, that old hippie stalwart in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and home of legendary raves in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s; I don’t think there are many traces of either remaining, but I’m going to go see what I can find.  But the season’s winding down now, halfway through March, so it’ll likely be pretty quiet; perfect, actually, as a place to chill out before I head home.

Gulp.  I just realized I’m down to about 12 days.  Tomorrow doesn’t count, since I’ll spend much of it just getting to Anjuna, finding a place to stay and, apparently, calling my boss because he wants to talk to me.  And the 22nd of March doesn’t count, because I have to leave for the Goan airport about noon to make my connecting flight to Delhi, and meet my middle-of-the-night departure for Toronto in the wee hours of March 23rd.

So twelve days.  Huh.  Oddly, though, I think I’m okay with that; I feel very much in end-of-trip mode, just winding down and taking stock of things, as I contemplate what it’s going to be back to regular life.  If I survive the transition, back in Toronto, I’ll look y’all up.  Drinks at Hair of the Dog, anyone?

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