Tag Archives: indian food

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.

colourful and comforting curry – red beans, orange carrots and purple prunes

26 Nov

“Like the guy on the 50th floor? I’m not touching anything…not touching anything…”

Our professor tried quoting the cult film, La Haine, this morning. But he got it spectacularly wrong. The boys that fancy themselves a little street – our own disaffected baker youth – weren’t having any of it.

Jusqu’ ici tout va bien. L’important c’est pas la chute, c’est l’aterrissage.

Until you land, it doesn’t hurt to fall. Just keep telling yourself, everything’s fine. Maybe you won’t hit the floor.

Everything is fine, for the moment. Today we rolled croissants and iced a cake with shiny coffee buttercream. The cake – a mocha – was also soaked in coffee syrup, made with 20% rum. In the old days hygiene was poor and refrigeration non-existent so they killed germs with copious amounts of alcohol.

It was the most alcohol I have seen in weeks, apart from a couple caipirihnas one samba night. (Not conducive to getting up at 5.37 a.m.)

Someone very wise told me today that living is the hardest thing you can do. And that there is no such thing as growing up. That was somehow very reassuring. Sometimes I feel like this cartoon – excellent at life for a few days until I hit the ground.

But we are all muddling along – me, the sardonic professor who mutters putain, fais chier (literally, “whore, you make me shit”) under his breath each lesson; the cool kids in class who still blush when they are yelled at.

This is the food I crave at the end of this long day, my soul food. Something that does not require shopping – only tins, frozen bits and pieces and whatever neglected vegetables are languishing in the fridge.

A vegetable curry, of which I have probably already regaled you. This one is even more granny-like than usual: it’s got prunes in it. The most important thing is getting the right balance of colour and texture, sweet and silky with a dash of spice. I keep a block of coconut milk in the freezer and just break off a little each time. Please note: you can replace the beans with chickpeas, the aubergine with red pepper, the prunes with apricots. Take it as a start. And know that it only takes half an hour to make it into your mouth.


Colourful, comforting curry

Dice one large aubergine and some carrots. Roast at 200C with lots of salt pepper and olive oil until soft  in the middle, crisp on the edge.

Meanwhile, in a deep saucepan, fry a clove or two of garlic with olive oil and a teaspoon of curry paste. (Madras is good for the strong-hearted.) Just as it starts to go brown and dry, tip in a tin of tomatoes (or fresh are fine). Add a splash of water and let it bubble happily until the tomatoes are sticky and sweet. Add a pinch of sugar to enhance.

When your vegetables are ready, stir into the tomato mix along with: a tin of red kidney beans, a handful of pitted prunes and a splash of coconut milk (I would guess 100-150g). Liberally apply more spices – concentrated tamarind is good for sour depth as is mango powder. Cumin for that extra curry taste. More chili. Pepper and salt.

For extra class, serve with bulghur wheat made with a handful of raisins and hazelnuts. Sprinkle with the frozen coriander you keep in the freezer. (Who manages to keep herbs alive? Really?)

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