Tag Archives: kerala

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

27 Jan

thoran

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.

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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.

nigel slater’s spiced bread pudding with fried bananas

20 Mar

spiced bread pudding

After a sleepy Saturday wandering from the Buttes-Chaumont  to the Marais, all I wanted was to curl up in my favourite wine-cardigan with something restorative. Luckily Nigel Slater understands me. When I opened his Kitchen Diaries, not only did the Spiced Bread Pudding jump out at me, but the accompanied story almost exactly mirrored one of my own. His recipe is inspired by a visit to Kerala, where he was stuck in “a teetotal oasis” for which he was unprepared: “twenty years ago the lack of alcohol came as a jaw-dropping disappointment after our long, dusty and dangerous drive from hell.” But the pudding made up for it.

We were also in Kerala when we took a six hour bus journey up into the mountains to the tea plantations of Munnar. I had packed a book, but for the first half of the journey I just wanted to watch out of the window, chin pillowed in the crook of my arm. The windows didn’t have any glass, just metal shutters. The dusty air swept in, a salve from the heat. We crossed lagoons that stretched to the horizon, passed banana plantations and busy villages. School-children, whole busfuls, waved at us and shouted HELLO HOW ARE YOU? Each town had at least one temple, mosque and church or shrine with a glass alcove housing a life-size St George and the dragon. Sometimes a few in a row. Trucks thundered by with their colourful head-dresses, painted slogans and flowers. On the back, “Horn Please OK.”  The two-lane road had an invisible third passage in the middle, constantly available for overtaking. The driver would beep and go and somehow the rest of the traffic would flow around us. Once the bus stopped and the passengers all filed out – us worried about our luggage – because apparently the bridge was too fragile. First the bus went across, empty, then we did.

Around halfway we stopped for a chai-break. Around four or five hours in, it got dark all of a sudden as the sun disappeared. Bella distracted me as you might a bored toddler, with iphone games of Clumsy Ninja and Trivial Pursuit. After six hours and a half hours, we scrambled off with our backpacks some way out of the town centre – where there was no-one to direct us to our hotel in the old British club, the only place with a last-minute vacancy. The Lonely Planet had promised us a quaint place perfect for gin and tonics. Sadly, due to licensing issues the three bars in the club could only serve lemonade. We came in just in time for dinner, just in time to read the Club Rules that forbade sandals and panic.

“You haven’t taken any chicken, please take! Come!” The manager barked. Two of us scurried back to the buffet obediently. He was an affable but abrupt character who might have been Basil Fawlty’s brother in another life. Hands in pockets, he gave us a tour of the club: lounge with leather armchairs and obligatory animal heads, library with table-tennis table. “You play? Yes? You will play now, for forty-five minutes.” It wasn’t a question. We could only acquiesce and laugh. It was an uncomfortably British time-warp. Even without our gin-and-tonics, we slept so well that night, totally exhausted.

The next day we visited the factories of the DARE initiative that teaches the differently-abled children of tea-planters: it included a textile workshop for dyes and prints, one for hand-made paper products, a jam factory, a bakery and a kitchen garden. The quality was absolutely incredible, especially the Aranya silks – all-natural, local dyes made of tea-waste, banana leaves, pomegranate skins, Indian madder. The workshops were surrounded by the hills planted with tea bushes, whose crazy mosaic pattern and bright green colour made it feel like we had wandered onto a Tim Burton set. Kerala is full of plantations, tea, coffee, cardamom, coconut palms. Pepper, vanilla. Bananas. Most of the delicious things in life in fact.

A long story to say: this pudding will remind you of exotic climes AND a really comfortable armchair. It works scaled down as solo supper or scaled up for an easy brunch. (Much simpler than pancakes or French toast if you have to feed a crowd – one dish you can prepare ahead.) I like using brioche for extra luxe, but bread and butter will work too. It isn’t too sweet nor too stodgy, more like a creme caramel than a slab of sponge pudding. It offers the intoxicating scent of cardamom and coconut, barely any resistance to the fork as the brioche soaks up the custard, just a few crisp, sugared points poking out. And the fried bananas, sticky and slightly caramelised around the edges, are delightful. It will cure a hangover, the ennui of a recently-returned traveller or the aches and pains of a long commute. Enjoy.

~~~

Nigel Slater’s Spiced Bread Pudding with fried bananas

Slightly adapted from Kitchen Diaries Vol II. If using brioche slices, omit the butter. Great for using up egg yolks if the whites are needed for meringues or macarons.

serves 4 for brunch or 6 for dessert

300g sliced bread or brioche (about 10 slices for me)

a little butter for spreading (not necessary for brioche)

6 green cardamom pods

1 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)

1/8 tsp cinnamon

400ml coconut milk

400ml milk

2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks

OR 7 egg yolks, about 140g

80g light brown sugar

pinch salt

a sprinkle of sugar for the topping

for the bananas:

50g butter

4 bananas

2tbs sugar

zest of one orange

Preheat oven to 180C. Butter a baking dish (approx 22cm diameter, but more or less is fine). Lightly toast the bread or brioche until golden-brown. If using bread, spread with butter. Cut slices diagonally and arrange the triangles in the dish, points up, overlapping slightly.

Remove cardamom seeds from the pods and crush in a pestle and mortar or with the end of a rolling pin. Slice the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds. Mix cardamom, vanilla seeds, cinnamon, both milks, eggs and sugar in a large bowl to combine.

(If you are preparing ahead – stop now. Clingfilm the bread, put the custard mixture in the fridge. Then all you have to do in the morning, or at the end of the main course is heat the oven, pour over the custard and bake.)

Pour custard over bread/brioche. Sprinkle a little more sugar over the points that stick out. Bake for 25 minutes or until the bread is nicely browned and the custard is set. Let it cool for 15 minutes or so before serving. (Equally nice reheated later or the next day.)

For the bananas: cut in half length-ways. Heat the butter in a large frying pan and cook the bananas on both sides until golden and soft. Sprinkle over the sugar and cook for a few more minutes until they start to caramelise around the edges. Stir in orange zest and serve immediately with the bread pudding.

(For a slightly lighter dessert, serve simply with oranges peeled and sliced into rounds.)

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