Sunday, January 08, 2006

The "Sour Curry" Cooking Classes

South India, especially Kerala, is known for its unique cuisine and we were ready to savor every taste of journey. Though we were definitely uncertain of what to expect in flavor and texture; most of what we eat at Indian restaurants in the States is North Indian.

[On a geek note: When the "Partition of India" divided parts of the country along mostly religious lines in the 1950's, many Punjabis fled all over of the world and brought their "wetter" Northern cuisine that is ghee-based, made into rich gravies and eaten with flat breads like naan. Thus, their flight from fear launched the flavors that we now enjoy in restaurants worldwide. But, it's truly just the tip of the rice bowl of what all they eat on this subcontinent!]

And so in Munnar, we began our noble eating pursuits! Each night at Olive Brook, we crowded into their 10'x10' square kitchen--equipped with a locking spice cabinet, mid-sized fridge, 6 portable gas burners and a low shower in the corner, fully tiled and with a squirt hose, for washing fruits and vegetables--and learned the secrets of a different South Indian dish.

Sour Curries are the special guest star of any Keralan meal, and we were schooled in how the tangy dish comes together: high heat, lots of stirring, sour curd (yogurt), plenty of cardamon and turmeric, and mustard seeds! Somehow, the mustard seeds, cardamon and yogurt blend together for a distinctive taste that is tangy, creamy and good. Different, like when you eat a sandwich with a surprise sauce, but good. The color is a vivid gold from the turmeric, and perhaps cumin if included, and the texture is palpable from chopped carrots, gourds, onions, beans and potatoes. (or meat, but you'll have to ask Andy about that!)

Cashews have a supporting role in numerous South Indian dishes and, luckily for us, sometimes we felt like a nut! If, sometimes, you don''re out of luck on dessert, vegetables, a main dish and possibly all three in one meal. Olive Brook's chef, a young man who'd attended three years of hotel management training and learned to cook there (because he's a man...a woman would have learned from female family members growing up), showed us the secret steps to making awesome dishes with cashews: toasting/roasting them yourself in a pan for fresh flavor and making a delicious, decadent, not-so-low-cal fresh paste of cashews to blend into dishes for rich texture. "Whoa!" is all I can say! Amazing deep nut taste that is sweet and pairs so nicely with paneer (their fresh cheese that is like tofu when it's good) or potatoes in a korma or a vanilla-coconut sweet rice pudding. Yum! Cashew roasting and paste are new endeavors for our next kitchen...

Vegetable Sambars with coconut had a recurring role in our meals of Olive Brook and I'm ready to have Andy but a machete from one of the local men so we can hack into fresh young coconuts whenever possible! These are essentially "dry" curry type dishes that use only vegetable oil and spice to hold the dish together instead of ghee (clarified butter). Coconut is grated fresh from the shell and added to the pan, placed atop the chopped fresh vegetables that range from cabbage to carrot, eggplant to pea, as to steam and cook to a perfect tenderness. And it did! Fresh coconut isn't as sweet as dried coconut and when mixed into a sambar spice mix of cumin, clove, cinnamon, cardamon, turmeric, mustard seed and green chilies, you taste something unlike anything before.

We savored these dishes each night to piggy perfection, and ate them with either rice or a puffed, thin chapathi that is lighter than a tortilla. For breakfast, we tried South Indian dosas and idliis that are made with feremented rice flour, or puffy pappadams that are salty and can be dipped in chutneys or yogurt.

Our cooking and flavor knowledge is increasing by the day, and we're having fun tasting a new dish, or even new blend of chai, and teasing out whether it's heavy on cardamon or maybe has mustard seeds. We're kind of like sommeliers of spice at this point, or partners in pappadam. We experienced sour curry instead of sour grapes in Kerala, and now it's on to Goa where the cooking landscape is bound to change. Bring it on!

** Please Note: It would be grossly unfair of me to mis-represent our stomaches in all of this. As the saying goes: no pain, no gain; no guts, no glory; no spice, all is nice. We're going for the gusto here and there's no rhyme or reason as to what makes for interesting digestion. India is an adventure in eating in every sense!


Anonymous Mommy & Daddy Moore said...

Sour Curry--what a name! What a description of all you saw and did, Tiffany and Andy. We do want to taste some of these things in the future, but your vivid description almost makes me feel like we are eating right along with you. Take care of your tummiews!!!!!

11:15 PM  

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