Wednesday, 30 July 2014

T.I.I. This Is India

Taj Mahal
              India… four months later and I’ve fallen for you. From northwest to south, and back to the northeast I became accustomed to the pace of life here. Everything seems so sped up compared to what I’m used to, but I came to realize this was only an illusion. When the barrier shatters before your eyes life slows down, patience truly does become a virtue, but I grew to enjoy this. Shanti Shanti as I was told so many times. Peace, relax, patience, chill out.

              A country full of paradoxes. Vast wealth to crippling poverty, cities with hundreds of millions to tribal villages, overwhelming crowds to the humbleness of few, towering snow-capped mountains to cracked barren desert to luscious dense jungles, deafening noise to the serenity of silence, turmoil of past conflicts to the notion of peace, pristine monuments to fields of filth, courteous hospitality to opportunistic scams, strictly ruled to blatant corruption, and the list continues.
Fresh Grilled Crabs
              The food is as diverse as the culture, every region has their own style just like their languages. Kashmiri cuisine in the far north heavily based around meat such as lamb, mutton and goat. Punjabi famous for tandoori food and Rajasthani, influenced by the many occupations of the state throughout its history and the limited ingredients from its arid landscape. Mustard oil and paste are predominant in Bengali cuisine along with the fish from the Ganges Delta and is well known for the collage of sweets. Goan cuisine is loaded with fresh seafood, chili and coconut milk with a strong Portuguese influence. The cashew and coconut feni, a strong distilled liquor produced strictly in Goa has a pleasant kick to it with the subtle aroma of the ingredient it’s made from. A popular drink Toddy, coconut palm beer is made all over the south and is distilled to make the feni.
 Kerala being the jewel of India in my eyes also had some of my most loved and missed dishes since departing from this extravagant country. Similar to Goan in the sense of fresh seafood and the usage of coconut, both lining the Arabian Sea, but Kerala also has an abundance of fresh water fish in the lush backwaters throughout the state. The assortment of fruit (mango, jackfruit, coconut, bananas) is to die for growing in almost every backyard not to mention the spices and nuts grown locally. Breakfast dishes such as the dosa served with coconut chutney and sambar were hard to get sick of due to the many varieties, and my favorite Upma. Not far off the Italian polenta, it was made with dry roasted semolina with the addition mustard seeds, ginger, green chilies and curry leaves and was served with bananas. Using the best eating tool, your hand, mash the bananas into it and chow down. Sweet, savoury and filling, good for a long, hard day.
This is a country that with all its diversity it can be overwhelming, but so captivating. There is something new to learn in every city or village, down every street, from every person. The experiences I had, the things I saw, the foods I ate will never be forgotten, for this has taught me so much about myself. It wasn’t just a journey through the mysteriousness of a place so foreign to me, but one inside myself. A piece of my heart was left here to keep close to its bosom, calling me back so I can really try to get further underneath the skin. Mark my words, I will return with a shovel and do my best to dig deeper to its depths. 

A few simple recipes:
1L - 3.5% milk
Juice of 1 lemon
Bring milk and lemon juice almost to a boil until it separates, then strain through a cheesecloth and hang for 30 minutes. Put it into a mold after the majority of the liquid has drained and place a weight on it. Leave for 3-5 hours until the rest of the moisture has been pressed out.
Chapatti – Yeilds 4-5
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup water
Sift the dry ingredients and make a well in the bowl. Add the water and knead for 10 minutes. Take a small ball of the dough and roll out to about a ¼ inch. Cooked on a dry heated iron pan, flip when bubbles appear and rotate to evenly brown.
Cliffs of Varkala, Kerala

Coriander Chutney
1 cup roughly chopped coriander
3 cloves of garlic
1 green chili – to taste
Salt and touch of water
Blend all ingredients together until smooth. Season with salt and lemon juice if necessary.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Tubular Dude!

             Four days of constant merciless rain beating down on the saturated earth. Charred sky, lightning ripping across, it was upon me.  I thought I lost the race to the south, the monsoon got here early. Wading through the submerged streets of Kochi for food alone, I remained close to shelter. A leaking bus down to Alleppey and within a couple days the hurricane I learned of passed and Kerala lit up as the jewel of India.
Fresh Karimeen

              The leaves still damp, pale and lucid, the smell of wet earth in the air, the humidity beginning to creep up. The sun had just risen, my eyes still clouded with sleep and I was on a painfully loud boat on my way for breakfast in the backwaters. Rush hour on the canals in the morning was one of the most peaceful looking backdrops penetrated by a cacophony of bells, motors, shouting. Pulled up to port and walked up a dirt path to a local house just up off the bank. A table awaited us with one of the many styles of dosa, a potato curry to ladle over and fresh chai.

              School boy error, I forgot to bring toilet paper. I got to play woodsman and gather some foreign leaves hoping for the best, that I wouldn’t be awkwardly itching my ass for the next week. Our guide, scrawny as can be showed up and my main thought was, how will this guy paddle us around for six hours, but he was a machine. Ushering us to the canoe, we sunk into the seats and embarked on the timeless escape through the small interlocking canals blocked off from the noise of the main routes. We disappeared under the shaded canopy, brushing by coconut and banana trees. The tranquility was soothing, the sounds meditative. The birds above, the gentle lapping of water on the sides of the boat. Simplicity with enormous beauty. Floating by the village life, everyone had their daily chores. One women fishing, the other cleaning them, washing clothes, transporting goods and building barriers for the coming monsoon. Some houses seemed doomed to the inevitable rise of water looking as if they were already sitting perfectly on the surface.

              The opportunity had arisen, it was time to try ‘Toddy’. The locally distilled coconut palm beer. The palm sap ferments quickly due to natural yeasts, up to four percent within a couple of hours. The longer it is left the stronger and more acidic it becomes until your drinking vinegar. It was eleven in the morning and the locals were not being shy about slamming the sweet nectar back. Tucked away in the back room it was poured out of old petrol containers through a sieve into large blue bins, similar to a rain catcher. From there siphoned into washed out wine/liquor bottles or into half liter measuring cups for your drinking pleasure. It tasted almost like a cider with a clean finish of coconut water. Refreshing in the heat, explaining the copious amounts consumed through the day.
              Varkala, Varkala, Varkala… what to say? Only missing a couple criteria, a personal beachside hut and white shimmering sand and I would potentially never leave. The food so fresh, vibrant, the fruit selection incomparable. Jackfruit falling from the trees there for the taking, bananas in the thousands and mangoes and coconuts taunting from higher above. The beach stunning when the sun sets lighting up the cliffs behind bright red. The cliff top lined with restaurants and shops with the waves crashing below, the strong current throwing one though the washing machine a bit making things interesting.

              Time to get gnarly man, this will be tubular bro! I was going to ride some waves and drink some salt water. This was the only remotely productive activity while here. Dragged myself out of bed at the crack of dawn while the waves were prime, it was thirty minutes to our location. It was a battle against the water, paddling myself out and once there it was a waiting game. Patiently judging which one would be it. It could take seconds or minutes, but it seems that you don’t find them. Respecting the force of nature and the serenity of the ocean, the right wave will find you when the time is right. Picking up as much speed as I can while the mountain grows behind me, it picked me up with exhilarating speed launching my forward with it, and most of the time off the board into the churning depth. The few I managed to remain on the board was such an adrenaline pumping, addicting feeling. Similar to carving a mountain for the first time or crossing the wake behind a boat into choppier waters or springing back like a ragdoll after the stomach lifting freefall of a bungee. It’s that feeling of knowing you’ll be doing that again, but note to self, wear a shirt to prevent serious nipple chafing.
              I was running out of time to legally be in this country, so slowly I managed to climb out of the black hole, my sweet little nest embracing my tight, pulling my further into the abyss of paradise. I had a vision of my future self. He walked up and kicked me, “You just got out of Goa, don’t do this again.”
              I packed my bags and left the next day, looking back the whole way. Onwards to Kanyakumari, the tip of the iceberg, where three seas meet and my turning point back to the north following the east coast.