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A Culinary Journey in India


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#1 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 09:12 AM

This past March I went on a small group culinary tour of India led by Julie Sahni under the banners of Viking Range and The Culinary Institute of America's World of Flavors Travel Program. The experience was intense as India is a land of extremes - extreme poverty and extreme wealth, extreme beauty and extreme filth and extreme hunger and extreme bounty. I will be recounting my experience through my journal. While the trip and therefore my journal were centered on food, they were not exclusive to food. I believe that the food and the culture are integrally related and so will present the journal in its entirety. I believe that is necessary to convey the true flavor of the experience. Of course I will include photos, though I will limit non-food related photos to a minimum and only those necessary to clearly illustrate the experience. In place of names of my travel companions I will use initials to respect their privacy. I hope that you enjoy!
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#2 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 09:36 AM

DAY ONE: Sunday March 2 2008

At least I was able to sleep a bit on the plane. I arrived in Mumbai late in the evening of March 1st, 2008. The flight lasted about twelve and one half hours with a path that took us over Turkey, the Black Sea, the Caucusus Mountains, the dessert of Iran and coastal Pakistan, It was fairly uneventful though it did not have the advertised lobster and it had the wrong movie list. While I did not get to see No Country for Old Men, Juno or American Gangster as it initially appeared I would, I did manage to see Michael Clayton. Oh well. I was the first off the plane and one of the first through immigration, however, I was held up in customs by some agents who wanted to shake me down to pay duty on my personal camera equipment. Somehow, I got them to relent and they let me pass. It appears that the Indian Government is very sensitive to journalistic criticism and it severely restricts journalistic entry into the country.

As I exited the arrival section of the airport, I was met by Rajesh, the local tour operator in Mumbai, who set me up with a car to the hotel. As I had expected, the streets teemed with humanity with plenty of severe poverty mixed amongst the occasional signs of wealth. While Hindu is the predominant religion in Maharashtra, we drove through a number of pockets, that were largely Muslim. We finally made it to the hotel, The Taj Mahal Towers, where I was checked in to room 409 with a nice view overlooking the Gate to India, a monument built by the ruling British Raj while they were still in power.

I mentioned that I arrived late in the evening. That was on Mumbai time which curiously is 10 and one half hours later than the time in NY. Needless to say, having slept a bit on the plane, I was not all that tired. I showered, called home on Skype and surfed the net a bit, before finally trying to get some sleep. I did not sleep well and woke up on my own at 5:30, which was just as well as my 6:45 wake-up call never came.

At 7:30 I had my bags packed and downstairs with the group. After breakfast at the hotel, I met the remainder of the group and we set off for the airport for a flight to Cochin on Jet airways. The group appears to be quite amiable and interesting, totaling 16 including the leader, Julie Sahni and EW, the representative from Viking, who is here in place of MC. Strangely, there are, including myself, five physicians in the group - two Anesthesiologists, a surgeon, an Internist and a Pathologist. There are only a few true food professionals. On a group tour everything depends on the composition of the group. It only takes one or two bad apples to ruin it for everyone. My initial impression is that we should be fine.

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Mumbai Taxi

On the plane, I happened to sit with Julie and LL, who works for a major food retailer and is on the trip on business. She and I and our families have a number of things in common. Julie is a fascinating woman. She has written one of the most highly regarded Indian cookbooks in the US, is trained as an urban planner, a chef and is an accomplished Indian traditional dancer, having been considered a prodigy as a teenager. From the priestly Brahmin caste in the southeastern region of Tamil, but raised in Delhi, she is extremely knowledgeable about her native country. Having been the chef at the NYC restaurant Nirvana in its heyday, she has lived in NYC for some years, currently in Brooklyn Heights, where she runs a cooking school. We seem to be in extremely good and capable hands with her.

We had been warned that it would be quite hot as we descended from the plane. It was. The bus ride from the airport to our destination in Kumarakom and the backwaters of Kerala at an eco-resort called Coconut Lagoon took approximately 2 hours though it was time well spent relaxing, enjoying the scenery and listening to Julie provide some background on the area and its food. The final leg of our journey was by boat as the resort is located on an island within a large lake -Vembanad. On arrival, we were greeted with a ceremonial anointing of our foreheads and given flowers and fresh coconut milk for refreshment.

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The grounds of the resort are quite lovely. I have my own private bungalow, set along a canal with a pigeon roost in front and a butterfly garden in the rear. The bungalows are actually antiques that were moved here piece by piece from around Kerala. The wooden ceilings are particularly astounding in their ornate detail, reminiscent of a high-born Spanish colonial governor’s mansion.

I was able to immediately sign up for a massage, though I did not quite know what to expect from an Ayurvedic total body massage. The massage started with me in the sitting position with the masseur rhythmically and vigorously rubbing my scalp with a scented oil. From there, he bade me lay face down on the table at which point started my back massage from my head to my feet in long, sweeping motions. Suddenly it was as if the Hindu god, Shiva, entered his body as he seemed to sprout an extra set of hands and arms. A second masseur had quietly entered the room and proceeded to join the first in a choreographed ballet on my back that felt as if it truly was one person with multiple arms. My total body massage was completed after some time, but was followed by nearly an hour of having warm Ayurvedic oil poured in rhythmic patterns over my forehead in a process called Sirodhara. That was so relaxing and blissful, that in my sleep-deprived state, I took advantage of a little slumber. I have another appointment late tomorrow afternoon for a “rejuvenating” massage. The cost is probably less than a quarter of what a similar massage would cost in the US.

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I relaxed for a bit before joining the group at Julie’s at 7:30 PM for some snacks and wine. She served a variety of Indian chips and snacks, including plantain, jackfruit and tapioca chips and snacks incorporating Indian spices, cashews and lime. The wine was from India, a cab-shiraz blend from Grover, in the International style. Michel Rolland was a consultant for the wine. Julie also gave a brief lecture priming us on the food that we would be eating as well as the variety of Keralan cuisines and the cultures behind them. She has promised to provide detailed descriptions of the dishes that would make sense to us. Kerala is along the southwest Malabar coast of India and is where much of the ancient spice trades originated. Because of this, it received much attention from external cultures, incorporating them into its own tradition over time. The northern third of Kerala, the heart of black pepper country including Tellicherry, has a particularly strong Arab Muslim culture, central Kerala, where we are, a strong Syrian Christian tradition, and southern Kerala, Hindu. More inland, the Hindu Brahmin caste predominates. Julie explained the importance of the coconut to Kerala in cooking and other facets of life. In addition, bananas and seafood hold major places in the local cuisine. Coconut milk is the milk of the region, while oil from the coconut is used exclusively as a cooking oil. Rice, considered sacred , is the staple starch. In fact, there are rice paddies on the hotel property that await the coming summer monsoons to provide their annual bounty.

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Jackfruit Chips

For dinner we went to the outdoor restaurant at the hotel, where Julie had arranged a traditional Keralan wedding feast or Sadya. The building, known as an Ettuketto, consisted of two atrium like courtyards covered by a vast tile roof with many thin columns leaving the space wide open to collect refreshing breezes. Open areas were covered with nets or hanging beads to keep birds and other wildlife out.

We all sat on one side of a long table. Our plate was a broad, fresh, green banana leaf. The servers came to each diner in a row to place a spoonful of a variety of vegetarian dishes on each leaf. A large spoonful of steaming, brown rice was placed in the center of the leaf. We were instructed to eat each of the dozen or so dishes that included a dal, a sambal, pickled lime, pickled green mango, banana in yogurt, avial (had a fibrous vegetable with the odd English name of drumstick since it resembled the one used with drums and not the chicken part), pachadi, pappadam and others by using our clean right hand (using the left hand for this is considered offensive) to mix the item with the rice, scoop it up with our fingers and eat it.

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This is the ultimate finger food, as western style cutlery would tear the banana leaf plate and make a mess. It is not even considered bad manners to lick one’s fingers! I washed my meal down with water and a Kingfisher beer, which was nicely refreshing. At the end of the meal, the waiter came by, folded up the banana leaves and discarded them. Dessert consisted of a plate with watermelon, wonderfully sweet and complex small Indian pineapple and two puddings, each of which came with some cashews on top. The first was a basic rice pudding while the other was made from mung beans and jaggery, Indian sugar, very much like Mexican piloncillo. By this point most everyone including myself was getting tired and went back to our bungalows. Tomorrow will be a busy day as we will be taking a boat tour through the tropical backwaters of Kerala and visiting a spice plantation.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#3 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 09:43 AM

DAY TWO: Monday, March 3 2008

Although the bed and the bungalow were quite comfortable, sleep was scarce for me that first night. I was awakened at 3:30AM by a thunder clap and fell back to sleep until about 4:30 when I re-awoke and could not return to sleep. Happily, I discovered that this is a good time of day to work on my photos and my journal. As the first light appeared in the sky around 6:30 or so, I quickly dressed , scooped up my camera and went to explore. While a number of photo opportunities presented themselves, unfortunately I was unable to avail myself as the lens fogged from the transition from the cool bungalow to the humid dawn. Nevertheless, I wandered amongst the grounds to see and hear a cacophony of morning birds and equally silent fishermen moving along the shore and into the lake to find their catch. I also discovered a treasure of orchids to be found on most every tree in the lagoon. As the sky lightened further, I took my laptop to find the wi-fi node at the Reception area, only to discover it unavailable at that moment.

As I returned to my bungalow, I stopped to chat with JF, a photographer from LA who is accompanying her mother on the trip. Suddenly, as we were chatting outside, it began to rain. We took cover underneath the shelter of the veranda of her bungalow, where we were soon joined by her mother. We waited for the morning rain to dissipate before we headed to the restaurant for breakfast, a large buffet of Indian and western items along with egg and dosa stations. I sampled a number of items including the kerala specialties of idlee and dosa masala. The idlee by itself was bland, but awoke with the embellishment of various chutneys. The dosa masala, delivered to my table was a delight to the taste buds, especially with the addition of a little coconut or red chili chutney.

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Dosa Masala

There were some small, pasta like strand clusters that Julie referred to as stringers, Indian doughnuts called "vadas", fritters and many other things.

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Vadas

Fruit included lovely red and orange papaya and more delicious pineapple like I had the previous evening. In addition to the sliced pineapple, fresh made pineapple juice was a revelation. To provide my protein base I had a little salty bacon and some very bland poached eggs. To drink I tried the pineapple juice, some flavorless fresh cucumber juice and some excellent Kerala coffee that was pre-mixed with milk. The waitress poured the coffee into the cup by raising the pot high and letting it stream down into the cup which lay on the table. This had the wonderful effect of frothing the coffee as if it came from a siphon. The coffee was delicious.
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John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#4 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 10:07 AM

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We gathered after breakfast to begin our cruise along the backwaters of Kerala. This activity is billed as one of the great attractions of the region as well as India and I could see why. The early morning rains were gone and the sun was out as we took seats atop our tour boat and headed out into the lake and into the backwaters. The avian life consisting of various cranes, herons and other anhinga like birds was plentiful as the path of our boat through the reeds invariably disturbed them into beautiful flight. The human life on and along the water was equally fascinating as it appeared that time has bypassed this are in certain respects. The most fascinating element were boatmen whose low slung dugout canoes were laden in the center by mud from the bottom of the shallow waterway. The men would get out of the boats, dive to the bottom , dredge mud and bring it to their boats. These low caste men do this to provide clay to use for bricks and other purposes.
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While on the water, the opportunity to use my large zoom lens was great. For awhile it worked fine, but then suddenly it lost the ability to focus. Fortunately, my other lens worked fine and I was able to continue photographing though from a greater distance than with the longer zoom. This was bizarre as it happened suddenly and without apparent provocation or explanation. Unfortunately, I missed a particularly good opportunity to photograph one of the mud men.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at Philipkutty’s Spice Farm along the backwaters, where we were greeted by the young female owner, her mother-in-law and her charming, smart and beautiful 4yo daughter Anya.

The story of this farm is both sad and uplifting. The young owner was forced by the heart attack death of her then 34 yo husband to take control of the farm and make a go of it. Two years since he died, it appears that she has done a fine job with this lovely, organic property. Their principle crop is the coconut. She explained that there is “tender” coconut, which is essentially unripe, that is harvested throughout the year. These are used for their coconut water as well as the meat. The coconuts that we were served upon our arrival at The Coconut Lagoon had come from this farm. Mature coconuts are harvested on a 45 day cycle after having been on the tree for approximately one year. These coconuts are used to extract milk and oil. The milk is obtained by pressing the fresh meat from these mature coconuts, while the oil is obtained from pressings of dried coconut. Both elements are essential ingredients for the local cooking.

After a welcome lemonade, the owner, Anu Mathew, who is Syrian Catholic and speaks excellent English, took us on a tour of her property to show us some of her crops. Mango trees held unripe, green fruit. At this stage, they are used to make a delicious, slightly sour chutney.
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The bulk of the property, which formerly been rice paddies lies below sea level. It was difficult to make a living with rice, so a number of years ago, the farm converted to growing everything that we were to see. This included Indian cluster figs, clearly related to the Mediterranean variety, but the fruit arose in clusters from the trunk rather than from amongst the leafy branches; nutmeg; mangos teens, which have recently appeared in a study in JAMA as being a particularly good lipid-lowering agent; true cinnamon bark; drumstick trees; curry trees; holy basil, peppercorns; jackfruit trees; papaya trees and perhaps their most intriguing crop, vanilla beans. Vanilla is a transplant to India, but in recent years the Indian vanilla industry has begun to grow and flex its muscle. The plants and the beans appear to thrive here as the area has become known for its quality, organic product. The time for harvest of the beans is in December, while around this time of year the vines begin to flower. I do not know if this is true of everywhere, but the vanilla flowers here are unable to be pollinated naturally. In order to become pollinated, each flower must be serviced by hand, a procedure demonstrated for us by Anu. Each pollinated flower then produces a single, long fragrant bean pod. Once harvested the beans are cured and sent to market.

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Cluster Figs

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Hand Pollinating a Vanilla Flower

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Growing Vanilla Bean

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"Old" Vanilla Bean from the last harvest

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True Cinnamon Bark

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Nutmeg and Mace

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Coconuts

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Papaya tree

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Young jackfruit

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Green Peppercorns

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"Drumstick"

The lands and waterways of Kerala are perhaps the most important spice lands of India and by extension the world. Ironically most of the spices grown here originated elsewhere. There are only three spices that are native to and originated in India. These are turmeric, cardamom and the peppercorn.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#5 Genny

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 11:02 AM

Doc, I always clamour to read your trip reports. This one is amazing, just as Mexico was. Thank you so much for letting us experience vicariously that which we may never do otherwise. It appears you are traveling alone here. Is there a reason for that? Also, have you noted any observations about travelers going with family, friends or alone and if there are more men or women traveling alone? Why did you select this group to travel with? What were your goals for this trip?

Thanks so much, I look forward to seeing the rest of your report!

Genny

#6 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 11:19 AM

Doc, I always clamour to read your trip reports.  This one is amazing, just as Mexico was.  Thank you so much for letting us experience vicariously that which we may never do otherwise.  It appears you are traveling alone here.  Is there a reason for that?  Also, have you noted any observations about travelers going with family, friends or alone and if there are more men or women traveling alone?  Why did you select this group to travel with?  What were your goals for this trip? 

Thanks so much, I look forward to seeing the rest of your report!

Genny

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Hi Genny, thanks for your interest. This is actually the same organization I went to Mexico with, although since that trip the organizational balance seems to have tilted more towards the Viking range Co. and less towards the CIA. I did indeed travel by myself within the group. One, the trip was not inexpensive, so finding a travel companion wasn't easy. My wife would have liked to go, but she didn't wish to leave our children so long (two weeks) while being so far away from them. She very kindly let me, who had no such compunctions go, though! This particular trip was pretty evenly mixed between couples and independents with no clear gender imbalance. My goal was simply to experience Indian culture with a particular emphasis on the food. My sense was that I think India is one of those countries in which the previously uninitiated are better off traveling with experienced people. I think Julie Sahni fit that bill perfectly. As the trip unfolded, the wisdom of my approach was demonstrated repeatedly, though in the end, even that was not infallible. :wink:
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#7 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 11:23 AM

We returned to the plantation house to a cooking demonstration by the mother-in-law. In the clay pot of the area she prepared a fish curry with fresh caught fish from the nearby Arabian Sea, coconut oil, coconut milk, onion, garlic, ginger, chilis, curry leaf and a mixture of freshly ground powders including turmeric, chili powder and cardamom, and mangosteen (otherwise known as “fish tamarind“).

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Picking fresh curry leaves

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Ground Turmeric, Chili and Cardamom

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Onion Garlic, Ginger and Chilis ready to add to the hot coconut Oil

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Mangosteens

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Mixing the Spice Paste

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Mixing in the Spice paste

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Adding the Mangosteens or "Fish Tamarind"

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Simmering Sauce

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John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#8 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 12:31 PM

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In heavy aluminum alloy pots that looked like tire rims, she prepared a chicken curry with many of the same ingredients minus the mangosteen and the spice paste. A curious thing about the use of spice paste here compared to other areas of India is the lack of pre-frying the paste. In other areas of India, especially to the north it is standard to fry the paste in oil before adding it to the dish. In Kerala they consider the “raw” paste to provide more vibrant flavors.

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Adding turmeric to the base or the chicken

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The chicken is in the pot

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Carrots and potatoes are used

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Grinding Fresh Spices

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Adding coconut milk

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The fish continues to stew

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The chicken cooks
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#9 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 12:40 PM

She also prepared a cabbage and coconut based vegetable stir-fry.

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Mis-en-place

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Frying mustard seeds

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Coriander seeds

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Chilis and fresh curry leaves

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adding Coconut, cabbage, carrot and onion

A fascinating detail of the demonstration was the knife-technique used by the mother-in-law to cut vegetables. They typically do not use cutting boards in India. Instead, the use their thumb as the base on which to finely cut whatever it is that they are cutting. Her knife control was exquisite. I had the opportunity to inspect her scarless fingers as well. Julie explained that the technique is started and mastered from an early age and that most, if not all, Indian cooks cut, dice and slice this way.
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After the demonstration and prior to lunch, we had the opportunity to buy limited quantities of several spices grown here at the farm as well as some from an uncle’s farm in the mountains. I took the opportunity to buy recently harvested and cured vanilla beans for 350 Indian Rupees per bag of about twenty beans (less than $10/bag), fresh nutmeg, mace, cardamom, peppercorns, mangosteen, and cloves. In all I spent about 1000 Rupees (roughly $25) for something that will make great gifts.
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John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#10 heidih

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 12:50 PM

This wonderful doc! Thank you for the detail. What made the dry spices become a paste for the fish dish? The mangosteen are dried?, reconstituted, and then is only the soaking water used? Looking for to your adventures. I know you said you missed a great shot of the men harvesting mud, but the shot you posted conveyed so much. What a mindblowing mix of poverty, wealth, societal classes, colors, smells, landscape and masses of humanity. Was it overwhelming?

#11 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 01:10 PM

This wonderful doc! Thank you for the detail. What made the dry spices become a paste for the fish dish? The mangosteen are dried?, reconstituted, and then is only the soaking water used? Looking for to your adventures. I know you said you missed a great shot of the men harvesting mud, but the shot you posted conveyed so much. What a mindblowing mix of poverty, wealth, societal classes, colors, smells, landscape and masses of humanity. Was it overwhelming?

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Thank you, Heidi. The spices were made into a paste with water. The mangosteens are somewhat prune-like. I believe that they were also in water.

Starting in Kerala was a nice way to become acclimated to India. India can be very overwhelming, which is one of the reasons that I am glad I was there with an experienced person in Julie. Most of the other people on the trip were also experienced travelers. both of these things made the trip much easier than it might have been, especially when we got to the north. Another element that helped keep things from becoming more overwhelming was the fact that language wasn't a major barrier as English is very widely spoken and the people are largely very friendly and helpful.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#12 Genny

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 01:55 PM

As the trip unfolded, the wisdom of my approach was demonstrated repeatedly, though in the end, even that was not infallible. 


Oooooh, forshadowing! I love it!! I can't wait to see what happened along our mighty adventurer's trail.

Doc, did you catch the name of the cooking vessel for the fish dish? What materials there? The photo has it looking quite thick to my eyes.

Your photography is amazing!

#13 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 02:27 PM

As the trip unfolded, the wisdom of my approach was demonstrated repeatedly, though in the end, even that was not infallible. 


Oooooh, forshadowing! I love it!! I can't wait to see what happened along our mighty adventurer's trail.

Doc, did you catch the name of the cooking vessel for the fish dish? What materials there? The photo has it looking quite thick to my eyes.

Your photography is amazing!

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Genny, the name was mentioned, but unfortunately, I don't recall it and can't find it by Googling. It is made from thick, heavy pottery. I was tempted to buy one, but thought better of carrying it.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#14 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 02:49 PM

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We were seated on a beautiful verandah where lunch was laid out for us. There were three tables, two smaller rectangular ones on the other side of a small pool (lovely with various water lilies and flowers arranged within as appears to be a local custom) and a large round one in front. The meal consisted of the dishes prepared during the presentation as well as Kerala “red” rice (what we would consider brown), banana dough fritters, bitter gourd, pineapple raita, fried fish, papadams, appams, vegetable curry and pickled green mango chutney.

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Banana dough fritters

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Kerala red rice

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Pineapple raita

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Green mango chutney

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Vegetable curry

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Pappadams

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Appams

All of this amazing food was washed down with a refreshingly cold Kingfisher lager. The Kingfisher cost an additional 100 Rupees for a large bottle. Curiously the bottles were not uniform in color. Some were green, others brown and others clear. The table conversation was fascinating as we discussed various Indian customs, especially as they effect women. Topics included the plight of Indian widows, dowries, arranged marriages, similarities and differences amongst the major religions in India. For example, while I was under the impression that arranged marriages and the caste system were typically Hindu customs, our Syrian catholic host, Anu, explained that her marriage had been arranged as is typical amongst her people, she had a dowry (typically a per person share of the family wealth) and that though not necessarily as strictly proscribed as the Hindu castes, class distinctions are a way of life throughout India irrespective of religion. A number of these elements appear to be changing, especially in the large urban centers and amongst the educated classes, where arranged marriages are less a factor than in the past.

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Coconut custard-like dessert

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Anu eating Kerala style with her right hand

Our leisurely and outstanding lunch and visit had come to an end as we headed back aboard our boat for the return to the Lagoon. The rest of my day consisted of a shower, a dip in the pool another rejuvenating massage and a rather disappointing, albeit fun, dinner at Fort Kochin, the seafood specialty restaurant of the hotel. I had a mixed seafood grill that included calamari, kingfish, tiger prawns from the sea and freshwater giant prawns. The kingfish was by far the best item on the plate. The tiger prawns had some flavor, while the calamari and giant prawn were tasteless. I tasted a Chinese style seafood and corn soup that was awful and a seafood curry that was good.

I returned to my room, where I quickly fell asleep, enjoying a refreshing night.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#15 sanrensho

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 03:03 PM

Wonderful photos.

By any chance, do you have proportions or recipes for the fish curry, or any of the other dishes?
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#16 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 03:54 PM

Wonderful photos.

By any chance, do you have proportions or recipes for the fish curry, or any of the other dishes?

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Thank you. I can't find them right now for these dishes, but I will continue to look for them. I do have them for some other dishes that will be coming down the pike.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#17 ninetofive

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 05:38 PM

Fascinating report, John, and can't wait to hear/see the rest. I was in India March 10 through the 22nd and stayed at the Coconut Lagoon and the Taj Hotel and Towers, too. One morning at the Coconut Lagoon I woke up early and counted 20 water snakes swimming in the lagoon next to us -- cool! The staff naturalist told us they'd caught a python there the week before.

Sorry, not food-related ... am curious where else you went. I took a cooking class in Cochi and eGullet came up during our lunch conversation. :-)
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#18 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 07:21 PM

Fascinating report, John, and can't wait to hear/see the rest. I was in India March 10 through the 22nd and stayed at the Coconut Lagoon and the Taj Hotel and Towers, too. One morning at the Coconut Lagoon I woke up early and counted 20 water snakes swimming in the lagoon next to us -- cool! The staff naturalist told us they'd caught a python there the week before.

Sorry, not food-related ... am curious where else you went. I took a cooking class in Cochi and eGullet came up during our lunch conversation. :-)

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Cool. Looks like we didn't miss each other by much! Did the cooking class happen to be with Nimmy Paul?
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#19 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 07:48 PM

DAY THREE: Tuesday March 4

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I slept well, but once again woke up at 4:30, which was just as well as it gave me time to work on photos and write the previous day’s entry in this journal. Once done with that, I made it for an early breakfast that was significantly more restrained than that of the previous morning when I had to try everything. I enjoyed another dosa masala, more Kerala coffee and fresh papaya and pineapple juice as I did on Monday, but I tried a few additional items including a surprisingly good chocolate croissant. After breakfast, I returned to my room to shower and pack as we would be leaving for Fort Cochin later in the day.

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Making a dosa masala

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Dosa Masala with Sambal and Chutneys
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#20 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 07:52 PM

The group convened at 10:30 for a cooking demonstration. Two hotel chefs, Sanu and Agila (a woman), prepared a number of dishes for us. As the prep work was done over the prior day, the end result, the actual cooking, looked deceptively easy. The devil, as it is said, however, is in the details. The first dish that they prepared was “Kerala Fish Curry.” This was similar to the home-made fish curry that we had seen prepared and eaten on Monday with a few notable differences, stemming mostly from the milieu. Monday’s curry at the spice plantation was cooked in a clay pot, while this day’s utilized a non-stick metal Indian wok at a much higher heat. The plantation’s curry used entirely their own or local ingredients. A key ingredient for this curry was Kashmiri Chili, which was used to provide a vibrant red color. Another difference was the cutting technique used in the professional kitchen - Western style cutting on a cutting board instead of in the hand.

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Mise-en-place

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Sanu and Agila

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Kashmiri Chili Powder

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Preparing Coconut milk

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Preparing Kerala Fish Curry

Julie defined a “curry” as a dish that uses a masala (mixed spice) paste when the spice was added to the cooking. For this one, the masala paste consisted of Kashmiri chili for color, chili de arbol for flavor and heat, coriander powder and turmeric powder. Other spices and herbs used included a ginger and garlic paste, curry leaves, sliced green chilis, shallots, fenugreek seeds (which Julie calls “a stamp of south India") and since this is a fish dish, kokum (mangosteen or “fish tamarind.” Coconut oil and 1st press, freshly made coconut milk were principle ingredients as well. The coconut milk was made by using grated fresh coconut, mixing with some water and processing finely before straining through a sieve. This would be repeated with the same coconut a little later for a second pass or thinner coconut milk. The fish used for this dish was a local ocean fish called “seerfish.” It was firm and meaty. Good substitutes would be sea bass, cod, halibut or swordfish. The fish had been cut into cubes. Replacing the fish with prawns would make it a prawn curry, etc.

Edited by docsconz, 05 June 2008 - 07:54 PM.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#21 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 08:01 PM

Kozhi Piralan, or Keralan Braised Chicken, followed. This used cubed, boneless chicken as opposed to the cubed chicken with bones at the plantation, a difference resulting from restaurant versus home cooking. Onions and tomatoes were also cubed. For this dish, the ground spices that included cardamom, cloves, fennel seeds (indicates a “Mopla” or northern Kerala Muslim influence) and coriander seeds, were not made into a paste before being added to the dish, therefore it is not a “curry.” The coriander seeds provided a thickening agent for the gravy. Other ingredients included chili powder, turmeric, coconut milk (Julie recommends frozen coconut milk in the states and light olive or grapeseed oil in lieu of the inferior coconut oil available at home), green chili, curry leaves and incredibly fragrant coconut oil. Coconut oil is a major product in India and especially here. In addition to its culinary use (primarily southern), it is used as a hair conditioner and skin care item. The region’s name “Kerala” even means “land of the Coconut.”

The next demo was of “Mutton Stew.” Curiously “mutton” in India does not refer to an adult sheep, but rather goat. For this dish, the mutton had been cubed and pre-boiled. Unusual for this region, ghee was used for the frying rather than coconut oil. The gravy for this “stew” was thin since no coriander was used. It also utilized two grades of coconut milk , thick and thin, the qualities of which stem from being either first pressed or second pressed.

The final preparation was appam, a special south Indian pancake using rice flour and fermented toddy (palm tree sap) The toddy was passed around the group. To me it smelled similar to Japanese sake. Julie agreed that sake would probably make a good substitute. The batter was spread in a special curved pan with a larger amount collecting at the bottom to create a spongy center. One side only was cooked This is generally served with either a chicken dish or sometimes with a sweet coconut milk.

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Making appams

Edited by docsconz, 05 June 2008 - 08:02 PM.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#22 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 08:16 PM

We had a little time between the demonstration and lunch. I was able to sample some fresh, gelatinous coconut meat from a green coconut. It had a mild flavor to go along with its gelatinous consistency. I liked it.

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John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#23 docsconz

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 08:35 PM

For lunch we had everything we saw made, plus a vegetable soup using local vegetables and lime juice that reminded me of a Mexican tortilla soup and papadams. Everything was quite delicious. I particularly enjoyed the appams. The fermented toddy gave them a distinctive flavor that was quite pleasant, reminiscent of sourdough bread, but with a unique consistency. When soaked in the sweet coconut milk, it was like a coconut-sourdough bread pudding.

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We gathered after lunch to head back to the mainland where we would get our bus to Fort Cochin and the Brunton Boatyard Hotel. It was at this time that we met our guide, George, a particular favorite of Julie’s. He regaled us with information on the ride to Cochin including history of the region and an abbreviated Hindu Theography illustrated by telling us a story about some of the principle gods, Shiva and Mahavishnu and Shiva’s brush with a demon. Pretty fascinating, he helped me gain a new perspective on Hinduism. The highlight of the bus trip was a stop at a coir factory. Coir is the husk residue of the coconut that is wound into an incredibly strong and durable fiber. The communist run factory felt like something out of the nineteenth century as the workers plied their age old craft. I purchased two kitchen floor mats for a total of 200 rupees (about $5).

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Spinning coconut husk fibers to make coir

The Brunton Boatyard check-in followed shortly thereafter as we arrived in Fort Cochin, the old section of Cochin. Once again, we were greeted with a flower garland, an anointment and drink (sweetened pomegranate juice). The hotel is beautiful and quite elegant in an understated, Nordic way. After some time to settle in - I purchased an internet access card and finally was able to call home and check e-mail. We met to attend a performance of Kerala Kathakali, a traditional male dance form using broad gestures and expressive facial features similar to Japanese Kabuki. The dances portray interpretations of ancient stories and sagas. We arrived at the theater in time to witness the dancers putting on their elaborate make-up. The show started with a performer demonstrating techniques and meanings of Kathakali gestures and facial expressions all set to rhythmic percussion. Following this, the main performance took place, an interaction between a god and a demon disguised as a beautiful woman. Initially intrigued, the god ultimately suspected treachery , which was borne out as the spurned woman turned back into her demon form. The god killed the demon to end the tale, the moral being, “under any circumstances, evil should be punished.” While intricate and visually arresting, the bulk of the dance was soporific to my tired eyes at least until the excitement of the end.

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Applying makeup for Kathakali

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In full costume

Dinner was at the hotel restaurant called History. We had an arranged menu starting with a delicious “Mutton” Soup, that was, of course, goat. The meat was shredded in the soup, known in its native language as “Attukal.”. This was followed by a beef vindaloo with a delicious multilayered paratha. Beef is not taboo in Kerala given the number of Christians and Muslims in the region. Unlike vindaloo in America, this was not overly spicy. A Goan dish, it was made specially per our request as we would not have another opportunity to sample it. It was the best example that I have ever had as it had more flavor than heat, which is not at all to say that it lacked heat. A few found theirs to be too salty. The paratha was a marvelously complex bread with swirls of layers within. The swirls are achieved by multiple foldings of the dough, which is flattened by whacking it on a flat surface rather than with a rolling pin like northern parathas. In any case, it was the perfect foil for the vindaloo. The next course was a shrimp curry with rice. This too was excellent. Dessert was a lovely coconut pudding.

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Beef vindaloo and Kerala paratha
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#24 bague25

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 11:32 PM

Docsconz

Thank you for sharing your journey!

You've made very nice pictures and your posts are descriptive

#25 Shaya

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 05:24 AM

I am reading with great fascination, Doc. Thank you for this report.

Was India a place you'd always wanted to visit, or were you motivated by a love of Indian food? I understand your thought process in joining a tour of experienced people in this particular country. I have the same feeling, if ever I decide to go. My father lived in Bombay for 12 years during and after the War and he had very mixed feelings about his time spent there. While he always took us to Indian restaurants whereever we travelled, he did not seem tempted to return to the country for a visit.

Thank you for showing the detailed photos of nutmeg; I keep a series of similar photos in my food journal and its amazing how often I pull them out to show people who have no idea where the spice comes from.

The curries look so tasty, and a special mention must go to the paratha...that is my kind of bread. Must look into reproducing that at home (they didn't give you a recipe, did they?)

#26 docsconz

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 06:53 AM

Thank you, bague25 and Shaya.

I love to travel and have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to do so in recent years. I particularly enjoy traveling to places with interesting cuisines. I find that those places generally have interesting cultures and histories as well and make great overall destinations. Much of my travel is opportunistic in that it depends on what is available when I am. That being said, I had been wanting to go on this India trip for some time, but it had previously never fit with my schedule. This time it did and I took advantage of the opportunity. India and Indian food always intrigued me, though I never considered myself as someone particularly knowledgeable in either. This was, however, a great opportunity to increase my knowledge and experience on both counts. In that regard this trip was quite successful.

India is a fascinating country to visit. On the one hand, people are exceedingly helpful and friendly, but on the other, the officials can be extremely intimidating and one is best off if one knows the intricacies of the game of baksheesh. While a model of integration in many respects, there is also an undercurrent of tension, especially in certain locations of shared cultural influence. In this regard, the history of India is truly fascinating. I can understand your father's reticence.

That paratha was perhaps the most amazing bread of the trip, which is saying quite a bit. It is a Kerala style paratha and is very, very rich. I do not have a recipe for this specific version, though Julie Sahni provides a number of paratha recipes including stuffed ones in her book Classic Indian Cooking.
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#27 docsconz

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 07:12 AM

DAY FOUR: Wednesday, March 5

I woke up early again to work on my photos and journal, but I was somewhat stymied and frustrated by problems connecting to the internet with the pre-paid wi-fi card I had to purchase. Like many other commercial enterprises in India, the wi-fi internet service is a product of the seemingly ubiquitous Tata Industries, a family owned company based in northern India. The family that owns the company, the Tatas, represent another example of the heterogeneity of the country as they belong to the Parsi or ancient Persian Zoroastrian religion, rather than the more common Hindu, Muslim or Jainist religions of India.

I managed to get a few things done before heading to breakfast around 7:30. I ran into a few of my trip mates at the outdoor dining area overlooking the harbor. I enjoyed “string hoppers” or iddyappam, a local specialty as well as Malabar coffee. The hoppers were served with an egg sambal. The Malabar coffee consisted of local Kerala coffee mixed with some milk and served in a special metal set. The coffee is poured back and forth to aerate it and cool it enough to be drinkable. It was rather pleasant sitting there and socializing before undertaking a walking tour of the waterfront.

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Iddyappam with egg sambal

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Fresh fruit on a banana leaf plate

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Julie Sahni demonstrating the technique of pouring Malabar coffee
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
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#28 docsconz

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 07:36 AM

A few steps from the door of the hotel, the waterfront holds a busy ferry service shuttling pedestrians, motorbikes and vehicles to islands and Ernaculum, the more modern part of the city. Just past that, we met the first of the famous Chinese fishing nets, that were brought to the area a millenium or so ago by Chinese traders and still remain in daily use. They are ingenious contraptions that depending on their size take four to six people to operate. We enjoyed a demonstration of one that brought up a few interesting fish. I was invited to participate in the process by the leader of the crew, a man who called himself “Bernard.” From there we continued along the coast with the old fort to our left and the beach to our right passing by the small fish market. Moving away from the shore we came to a snake charmer who mesmerized four cobras at once in front of the old Dutch Palace buildings. Our walking tour also took us to St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India and the original resting place for Vasco de Gama, who died in Cochin in 1524.

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Bernard and his Chinese fishing net crew

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Netmending

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Fresh seafood for sale
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#29 docsconz

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 07:58 AM

We boarded a bus that took us to “Jewtown,” the area of the city that was at one time home to many Jews, most of whom left for Israel when that country was founded. The Jews that had lived here originally came from the Middle East and lived in Cochin in relative harmony. Now only a handful persist. Nevertheless, the synagogue is the oldest in India and quite charming. We shopped in the area for awhile before heading towards lunch. On the way we stopped in a Cochin neighborhood, where we passed a large Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu before seeing a demonstration of pappadam making in a small, private home.

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It was wonderful to see how friendly and guileless the people of Cochin could be as it seemed that they all wanted to be photographed. The children were especially pleased by it. When in the neighborhood of the pappadam demonstration, a group of several small children came running over to me asking me to take their photos when they saw my camera. The oldest was eight and the youngest three. They spoke English well and were extremely friendly, introducing themselves and asking about me. My cynical self was expecting that they would be looking for a handout, but they made no effort in that direction. They were simply pleased to see the photos on the camera. I wish that I had something appropriate to give them for a gift. Pens are very popular, but I had already given away what I had earlier in the day.

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John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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#30 docsconz

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 08:23 AM

Lunch was at a nearby elegant small hotel called Koder House, which specialized in the Jewish cooking of Cochin, the style of which is more Mediterranean than Indian. Our table, located in the rear of the dining room off a sunny courtyard was cool and beautifully set. A welcoming ginger wine was too sweet, but had nice ginger flavor and bite.
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A salad with onions, small, local potatoes, tomatoes and parsley was refreshing.
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A chicken soup with balls of ground chicken meat was a beautiful golden color achieved without the usual turmeric. It was delicious, full of rich chicken flavor.
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The main course was very good, though a little surprising in one aspect - it contained French fried potatoes as a side dish! The principle protein was a beautifully fried veal cutlet serve along side a prawn curry, small green salad and aromatic, yellow rice in addition to the potatoes. Everything was quite tasty, though the potatoes on the plate were nothing special. However, they subsequently brought out more potatoes for an additional helping. These were amongst the most delicious fried potatoes I have ever had as they were still hot and crisp on the outside. The flavor was deep and satisfying.
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Dessert was a gelatinized chocolate water served with orange slices. It was not particularly memorable.
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John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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