Tag Archives: coconut

thoran (keralan cabbage and coconut with turmeric and mustard seeds)

27 Jan


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)

300g cabbage

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.


blueberry, chocolate and coconut soufflés

23 Jan

souffle 3

(The day I remembered I loved Paris, for future reference when the city seems cold and shrill once again.)

Woken by the sun and the commotion of traffic, earlier than a holiday, already three hours later than my workday, I pulled on a blue dress to walk to the corner bakery for breakfast. On the way back I snapped off the point of the baguette to test; at home I knocked over the clothes rack and woke you. We had our croissants dipped in coffee and apricots plump with juice.

Late as ever we caught the metro to the Opera Garnier, to be tourists for the morning. The guide asked the children in our tour group who might have designed the palatial structure: not a trick question. Charles Garnier was not long left the Beaux Arts, winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome when he was asked to design a new opera house for Napoleon III. A rainbow of marble, intricate Italian mosaics and real gold leaf plastered everywhere lead into the main auditorium where we tipped our heads back to admire the scandalously modern Chagall ceiling, seven tonne chandelier and ring of soft globe lights, Garnier’s “pearl necklace.” We laughed to hear that the best seats had been designed to be seen, not to see the stage. On the roof there are beehives (honey sold at Fauchon down the street), while underneath in the reservoir that served for fire safety as well as acoustics, firemen fish for carp. We looked out over the main avenue, marvelled at the sheer scale and detail of the building. I learned things, for even after three years living here my list of sights is still unfinished. We worked up an appetite for our next eating, a short walk away.

On the menu were soufflés, savoury and sweet. An unassuming restaurant behind the fancy hotels that flank the Tuileries that offers a lunchtime menu of soufflé and green salad followed by soufflé and coffee. Brought with due pomp and circumstance, they did not risk falling; they were very stable but still light and airy inside. Rich with cheese and egg, really just an omelette dolled up for the opera in a hoop skirt, they are extremely satisfying to eat. Their colours decorated the plain dining room: craggy mountain green for spinach and goat’s cheese, tutu pink for raspberry. Chocolate has its own sauceboat. The Grand Marnier comes with a whole bottle to souse as liberally as you wish. Though some of the flavours veered on artificial (peach and apricot was too much like perfumed soap for me) overall the airy creatures were delicious, they were fun.

Blinking at the glare from the sun, we crossed the Tuileries for some lèche-vitrine in St-Germain. Literally “window-licking”, but we were too full even for Pierre Herme macarons. You suggested we see the Chagall expo in the Luxembourg gardens, inspired by the ceiling, a pathway through exile, love and grief all in primary colours. We had time for a swim, the cool water open to the air. You spotted the twins, a pair of identical seventy-year-old sisters in matching cap and costume (later, the same trousers and cardigans) that we had seen at a different Parisian pool years before.

Enough time to traipse home, less sticky and hot, to change for the opera. We were happily over-dressed for an under-done building – it wasn’t the morning’s gilt edifice but the rather more intimate Bouffes du Nord, discovered by Peter Brook in the 70s and left in its charmingly dilapidated state. The paint peels off the rusty-red walls, the front row is directly on the stage. Props comprised only some upright bamboo poles, to serve as palace and jungle and sword.  The whole surroundings left space for the ethereal music, The Magic Flute, sung in German, enough to give you chills; and the quick banter, mostly in French. It was short, an hour and a half of suspended time, breath held. Afterwards it took us a while to shake off the wonder, despite the prosaic metro ride home. You bought some mint from the Indian shop down the road; we sat on the balcony just big enough for two and ate salad. At 11pm, the traffic was still buzzing, the neon-clashing lights of the internet shop below still lit. We gazed at the tree above, talked about nothing and finally went to bed.

souffle 1

Tours at the Opera Garnier (in English at 11.30am and 2.30pm, Wed/Sat/Sun or every day in holidays and July/August)

Lunch at Le Soufflé, (€26 menu, best to book, tel: +33 142602719)

Swim at Piscine Georges Hermant (outdoor pool only in summer)

Opera, theatre, concerts at Les Bouffes du Nord

…and if we hadn’t been so tired, it would have been supper at the best (vegetarian) Indian in Paris, Krishna Bhavan.


Since then, I thought soufflés a little intimidating to make at home, especially in my small oven. Rowley Leigh rescued me with his detailed and clear instructions that took up more of his column than usual. His soufflé Vendôme – a cheese one with a poached egg in the middle that miraculously stays runny – with tomato sauce is just right, rich and fluffy with the contrasting tang of tomato. Again for emphasis: it has a poached egg suspended in a cloud of cheese. Wondrous. So good in fact that I will do it no justice by paraphrasing, so here is the link: Rowley Leigh’s Soufflé Vendôme. He makes six starters, but for a main course you can make the same amount of mixture, only three poached eggs and bake in larger dishes (10cm).

Here is a dessert instead, one that worked first time and would be infinitely adaptable. It has a fruit base, with little pockets of melted chocolate and coconut for texture, and it rose like a dream. The blueberries did turn the egg whites an alarming shade of grey-blue but were delicious nonetheless. You can use frozen fruit since it is then cooked down into a jammy mixture, to recreate the summer, until it is time for dresses and pools again.

souffle 2

Blueberry,chocolate and coconut soufflés

From Australian Gourmet Traveller, December 2013

Makes 6 – Works with cherries, raspberries or other soft fruit. Try to find shredded coconut rather than desiccated, it is chunkier and juicier.

Cocoa + soft butter for moulds

200g (frozen) blueberries

110g caster sugar, divided in half

15g cornflour

150g egg whites (5 eggs)

60g dark chocolate (70%)

40g shredded coconut + extra for sprinkling

Grease six small ramekins (or oven-proof coffee cups with straight sides) with the soft butter. Then tip in a teaspoon of cocoa and roll ramekin around until the sides are totally coated. Tip excess into next ramekin, repeat. Refrigerate.

Defrost blueberries and blend them roughly, leaving a few chunky bits. In a small saucepan, heat puree with half the caster sugar (55g) until it dissolves. Pour a little into a small bowl with the cornflour and mix well to remove lumps. Tip it back into the saucepan with the rest and simmer, stirring every now and then, for 10 minutes or so until thick like jam. Let cool.

Measure out the egg whites and remaining 55g caster in separate bowls. Chop the chocolate finely, weigh the coconut. Stop at this point, if you are not ready to eat dessert. Egg whites whip better at room temperature anyway. (Alternatively, make up the soufflés and refrigerate for 1 hour before baking.)

While serving the main course, heat the oven to 190C. When main course is over, boil the kettle. Then beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, adding the sugar gradually as it becomes opaque. Stir a spoonful of whites into the blueberries. Carefully fold everything together without losing the volume. Spoon into the six ramekins and smooth the tops. Run a knife around the edge to help it rise. Sprinkle a little coconut on each. Place in a deep baking tray or roasting tin and fill it with the boiling water, halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 11-12 minutes. The soufflés should have browned and risen a couple of centimetres and feel firm to touch. Insert a skewer to check: it should have a bit of melted chocolate on it but not drippy mixture. Place each ramekin on a small plate and serve immediately.

coconut crème with tamarind caramel

13 Apr

A triumph.

(Rats. Here I wanted to declare proudly something about blowing my own trumpet, but it just sounded wrong. Damn corrupted innocence.)

An experiment that worked wonderfully then. An imagined recipe created from the sweet-sour memory of a buttery tamarind toffee, from a love of coconut milk and a desire for panna cotta. A melange of the traditional French crème caramel and the more challenging Indian flavours.

Tamarinds are a little like dates – sticky fruit, tough seeds – but with a puckery sharp tang that prompts confusion, another taste, and finally pleasure. But they are a devil to separate from their pips. In the end I unceremoniously dumped half a packet into a saucepan with a scoop of sugar and half a cup of water. The fruit reluctantly melted into a sugary lava – still with that hint of lemony spice – from which I pried a few spoonfuls, enough to coat the bottom of a baking dish with this makeshift caramel.

I googled flan recipes until I found a combination that would suit me – tweaking to allow for coconut milk and a less obscene amount of eggs – added some coconut rum and blended it all together. Put it in the oven for an hour and crossed my fingers. Turned it upside down later despite being a little drunk. It was perfect, just wobbly enough and so smooth. The tamarind did not scare off the guests at my supposedly “indonesian” dinner. They were very appreciative. (Or they are just very polite creatures).

No recipe yet. Because I made it up, I will have to bake it again and write down the proper quantities. A terrible sacrifice.

indonesian peanut coconut curry

1 Apr

Loneliness creeps on you all of a sudden. Even in the middle of a whirlwind of nervous energy, sometimes it taps you on the shoulder, mutters:

Do you realise you spent an entire day without a grown-up conversation?

You shrug, try to shake it off. Justify the hours in front of the computer as productivity.

Sometimes it shrieks at you in a public place like an exasperated mother. You go to buy a phone, documents ready prepared. Identity card, bank details, proof of address, proof of steady salary. (The uncompromisingly harsh stereotype of the French love affair with bureaucracy.)

They reject your foreign passport, your unconventional job.  Autoentrepreneur status is obviously less attractive than it sounds. They ask for all the documents under the sun, and then ask impatiently,

Don’t you have any family in France? Friends?

Why is that relevant? Your job and house are indequate for the French system – why do they need to emphasise your friendless status? Because you are a mature adult, you just shake your head crossly and stalk out. No phone.


Being independent, new in the big wide world, suddenly in charge of feeding body and soul is delicate. Being an autoentrepreneur leaves you with glorious stretches of free time to walk in the park, to select shiny aubergines at the market, to run along the canal when most people are behnind their desks. Freedom and loneliness.

So you have to be careful. Just as I did in the first weeks of university, you need to carefully select the interesting souls from a horde of blank faces. You need to invite them to dinner, hope they will spark a friendship. Spend your spare hours chopping and stirring, rolling meatballs and stealing sips of coconut milk.


Choose a dish just foreign enough to intrigue, impress – simple flavours, not too spicy. Red curry paste and coconut milk for authenticity, peanut butter for salty rich comfort. It might be the ugliest dish in the world, an ochre slump, but cover it with fresh coriander and serve with bright yellow rice and sharp green cucumbers.

If you are very very lucky, it will work not once but twice to start a tradition of pseudo-family eatings. At Oxford we had French dinners almost once a week for three years, with a circle of new and old faces. There was a match-making disaster, some burnt sausages and lots of wine. We mainly ate on the floor. By the end of our degrees, I had graduated from this first indonesian curry to themed dinners: a vodka-based menu, a Mexican meal (moustaches obligatory).

This next time around in Paris had the same menu with a few added extras. Now there was a happy muddle of languages, all interrupting and contradicting. We smashed coconuts on the balcony. I experimented with a  sweet and sour tamarind flan. Just as I turned it out, a silken wobble of cream topped with bitter caramel, the door-buzzer blared. The lift chimed and one of my favourite people, and an original member of our French dinner tradition, leaped out to hug me.

So take photos of shadows and spring flowers. Breathe in your free time.  Start a new Sunday tradition to fill that missing piece with spices and jokes. Invite ten new faces over for dinner and remember that you only have six chairs and four knives. Hope that they are the kind of exciting people that turn up for a dinner party with three coconuts and a jar of honey.


Indonesian peanut/coconut curry

serves 4 hungry people

350g minced meat
One or two shallots, minced finely
a clove of garlic, crushed
A little flour, olive oil

350g pumpkin and/or carrots – cut into large chunks
2 tbsp red curry or madras paste
1 can chopped tomatoes (400g)
1/2 can coconut milk (400g)
3 tbsp crunchy peanut butter

Mix the mince meat with the finely chopped shallots and garlic. Shape the mixture into walnut sized meatballs and dust them with flour. Heat a large deep frying pan with a little olive oil and fry the meatballs in batches for a minute or two on each side until they are nicely browned (but not cooked through). Remove from the pan.

Add a little more oil to the pan if it is dry, along with the curry paste. Fry it for a couple of minutes until the spices release their flavour and smell delicious. Add the chopped vegetables, cook for five minutes or so. Finally add in the tomatoes, coconut milk and meatballs.

Cover the curry mixture and let it simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes until the meatballs are done and the vegetables soft. If the sauce is too thick, add ½ cup water. Equally, if it seems too watery, remove the lid and reduce it.

Finally add the peanut butter, stir gently and taste. Add more curry paste/peanut butter according to taste.

Serve with a sprinkle of fresh herbs, basmati rice and a fresh cucumber and yoghurt salad.

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