Our Indian trip started in Puducherry. Or, in fact, we arrived in Chennai and took two buses south, standing up and swaying in the wind from the open windows. One woman near me had come prepared for the three hour trip, with a tiffin box full of steamed idli that she ate dipped in a red sauce. Jen chatted to the girl behind us, I daydreamed.
We made our way to the guesthouse on foot, our backpacks turning us into unwieldy turtles, then went straight out for lunch, a vegetarian thali served on a banana leaf that cost all of 70 rupees. We wandered down to the sea, taking in the families out for a Sunday walk, the occasional French signage (Alliance Française, Café de Flore) in an otherwise Indian city. I drew pictures of the kolam, intricate swirled chalk designs at the entrance to each house.
One morning, we woke early for a cycle tour on colourful bikes, for lessons in local culture – including the kolam – and in assertively ringing the bicycle bell.
The cooking class at our guesthouse started with a trip to the market for ingredients. We bought vegetables, herbs, ginger, green peas from one stand, and individual packets of nuts and masala spices from another. A skinny cat sat under the tables in the fish market. Outside the chicken stand, cages of birds waited. As we watched, our chicken was killed, spun in a centrifuge to remove the feathers and cut up with confident strokes of a heavy knife. Less than two hours later it became chicken masala with a paste of ginger and garlic and peppercorns, the freshest meat I will ever eat.
Back in the kitchen our hostess and teacher, Sumathi, prepared the mise en place, each ingredient in its gleaming metal dish. I didn’t know what the mint rice on our menu would be. A side dish? boiled rice with a few mint leaves? In fact it was close to a risotto, not as creamy but bursting with flavour: a base of sweated onions, a diced potato and those green peas, plus a vibrant pesto of mint, ginger, coconut and chili. The rice was finished in a pressure cooker in a few minutes, turning out fluffy grains in a bright green.
It actually reminded me a little of the Italian dish, pasta alla ligure, with its basil pesto, beans and potatoes. Sumathi was like an Italian mother too: eat eat, have some more, please, mangia! Her little son clowned around, showing off his English and playing tennis with the racket-shaped crisps still warm from the fryer. Our homemade meal was served on banana-leaf plates – and despite being full, I couldn’t resist a second helping of the rice. Good with the sauce from the chicken masala, but perfect just as it was.
Sated, we napped the rest of the afternoon under the whirring fans. The next day on the bus to Tiruvannamalai, we proudly opened the tupperware box Sumathi had packed for us and snacked on her rava kesari, a buttery semolina-cardamom dessert, while we waited for the bus to fill and to move on.
Sumathi’s mint rice
I have made this several times at home, and have adjusted the recipe slightly. No need for a pressure cooker. The mint rice works equally well as a colourful side dish to a meat or vegetable curry; or in a bowl, risotto-style, with extra steamed greens on top. Leftovers can be re-heated in some broth with a squeeze of lemon for a hearty soup. I make a big batch and use it throughout the week, often taking a portion to work in my new tiffin tin.
Do use dried (unsweetened) coconut if you can’t or don’t want to get and smash a fresh, whole one.
makes enough for 4 as a side dish
1 tbs oil
2 tbs ghee (or butter)
1 small onion
1 medium size potato (200g ish)
140g / 1 cup frozen peas
40g fresh coconut (or 40g / ½ cup dried coconut)
2 small, red, dried chilis (depending on how how you like it!)
20-25g fresh ginger (a thumb-sized piece)
large bunch (40g) fresh mint – save a few leaves for garnish
200g / 1 cup rice
1 1/2 tsp salt
Heat a large saucepan with oil and ghee on a medium heat. Roughly chop onion in food processor then sautée for 3-4 minutes. Dice potato, add to pan with peas, allow to cook for 5 minutes.
In the same food processor, finely blend coconut, chilis and ginger with 60ml / 1/4 cup water, then blend again with the mint leaves, until it makes a kind of pesto.
Rinse rice in a sieve and give it a good shake to remove excess water. Add mint paste to the pan, along with the rice, salt and 375ml water (1½ cups). Bring to a boil, stir, then cover and cook on a low heat for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes for the rice to finish steaming – do not remove the lid! Fluff up the rice with a fork, serve warm.