I wrote every day in India. I kept a mental list of images, faces, phrases until I could scribble them down at night or on the train. Reading them back makes me feel a little dizzy, but grateful for the sketches that unlock past hours and days.
The diary entry from 11th January 2014 – more than a year ago already! – is marked ‘Kochi’ and ‘Cooking Class with Leelu’. There are recipes: Traditional Keralan Fish Curry, Masala Tea, Pumpkin Curry, Aubergine Curry, Thoran and Chapatis. And I wrote down all of the asides as well as cooking instructions. “You are sweating? I am sweating, see. Hot!”
It was hot: eight of us crowded into Mrs Leelu’s kitchen. She was perched on a stool, explaining ‘masala’ (a mix of spices); showing us the powerful Indian wet-dry grinder; letting us taste shredded fresh coconut. She made three curries and let us each roll and cook a chapati until black and blistered. She told us about her son’s wedding, Protestant, no alcohol. One thousand people had been invited; she had ordered 1200 meals to be sure. “If I will be in the kitchen, how will I enjoy?” She learned cooking after her marriage, from listening to her mother instruct the servants. (My diary entry for the Mattancherry Palace tells me that Kerala is a matrilocal society: the wife stays with her family after marriage and the family name and property is passed down through the mother. Which meant that historically, women were more likely to be educated, to learn Sanskrit) Mrs Leelu was jovial and lively, her eyes full of fun. And her cooking efficient and bold. The other English couple in the room raised their eyes at the amount of salt that went into one of the curries and asked questions like, “Ooh I don’t know if you can find coriander powder in England?” and “Can you substitute lemon for tamarind?” (Of course you can. But it would be a different dish. And I am all for substitutions and inventions – after trying the original once. Maybe buy some of the spices before you leave, there’s an idea. I didn’t say any of that. Just wrote everything down for posterity.)
When we sat down to eat, still hot but with a happy anticipation of the feast before us, we each had to reclaim our own chapati, some rounder than others. Mrs Leelu asked us to pick a favourite dish: mine was unquestionably the thoran, a finely grated cabbage dish tempered with fresh coconut and ginger. It is like a refreshing slaw, only cooked for five minutes to take away the raw bite. Warmed up with turmeric and cumin, it is nevertheless a mild side dish to serve alongside a fiery curry. The carrot in the mix adds colour, the mustard seeds a decorative speckle like vanilla in desserts.
Later, back at the hotel, when we had packed – it was our last night as a four before I went north – we shared the quarter-bottle of white wine saved from the plane on arrival. It had been a mostly alcohol-free holiday, more tea and trains and sunburn than anything else. We toasted its success. (Then I was delegated to kill the cockroaches in the bathroom before we went to sleep.)
I would happily do the two weeks in Kerala all over again, to the letter: Wayanad, Alappuzha, Munnar, Kochi. Mrs Leelu’s class was in the latter, in the heart of the old city. It is mostly demonstration, but you get to eat everything at the end. And she is very entertaining.
Thoran (Keralan cabbage and coconut with turmeric and mustard seeds)
serves 5-6 as a side-dish
Can apparently be made with all kinds of vegetables: carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, unripe plaintain, potato, courgette. So use whatever you have on hand. Adjust cooking time and quantity of water accordingly: more for potatoes, less for courgettes.
100g carrot (one large)
1 small red onion
15g ginger (piece roughly the size of top joint of thumb)
1 small chili (depending on what kind – I used 2 tiny bird’s eye chilis)
1/2 – 1 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 – 1 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt or to taste
100g (roughly 1 cup) shredded fresh coconut
OR 80g dessicated coconut + 60ml coconut milk
60ml (1/4 cup) water
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp coconut oil
If fresh coconut is unavailable, use dessicated (unsweetened coconut milk) and soak it for 20 minutes in coconut milk to rehydrate it.
Peel carrot, onion and ginger. Using a food processor, finely grate them with the cabbage and chili. Heat the grated mixture, turmeric, cumin salt and coconut in a large saucepan for 5-10 minutes. Taste: it should be nicely warmed through and no longer taste raw. Add extra spices or salt if necessary. In a small saucepan, heat the coconut oil and mustard seeds until they start to pop, then tip onto thoran and mix in. Serve warm as a side. Also nice cold the next day as a salad.