In the Kitchen with Chef Sanjin: Meen Curry (Season One, Episode Two)

The ever photogenic Chef Sanjin–(Note to TV producers: The chef is a young, lean fellow with a sturdy gaze, quick hands, a good voice, and a ready and confident smile!)–offered yesterday to bring us back into his kitchen.

This time: Meen Curry.  (Meen, as most of us know, is the Malayalam word for fish.  On an entirely separate note, did you know that “Malayalam” spelled backwards is “Malayalam?”)

We used “king fish,” from the Arabian sea, but any fish will do, especially ocean white, firm fleshed, and thick, like Halibut, Monk, Cod, or Sword.)

Start by making the fish stock: A pot of about two cups of water, a piece of fish you won’t eat (head, tail, back), a few fresh curry leaves, about six dried “kukum (black tamarind), and a 1/2 teaspoon of tumeric powder.  Boil and then simmer for about 15 minutes.  Set aside.

In a small, deep frying pan (like an Indian wok), heat up four tablespoons of coconut oil.  Add 1/2 teaspoon of black mustard seeds.  Cook until they start to pop.  Add a 1/2 teaspoon of fenugreek, a teaspoon of chopped garlic, and a teaspoon of chopped ginger.  Stir.  Add about six tablespoons of cubed onion.  Stir for about 10 minutes until the onions darken.  Add a teaspoon of chili powderand ground coriander, 1/2 teaspoon of tumeric, two sliced, fresh green chilis, and a few fresh curry leaves.  Stir until this turns into a paste.  Add one small cubed tomato and a little salt.  Stir.  Take a strainer and pour the stock through this into the cooking spices.  Add two kukum from the stock and 1/2 cup of diluted coconut milk.  Cook about three minutes, stirring.  Add the fish.  Cook to a boil, about five minutes.  Add about a 1/2 cup of thick coconut milk and cook and stir another two minutes.  Remove from flame and serve.

Folks, this is flavorful!  It sounds hard, but it’s not.  It’s Keralan cuisine at its finest!

In the Kitchen with Chef Sajin: Today’s Recipe is Sambar!

I had a first-rate cooking lesson yesterday with Chef Sajin.

Sambar is a sauce or gravy or condiment served with dosa and also with vegetables.  Deeply flavorful, complex, it’s the kind of savory that makes everything with it taste good.

So I asked a Keralan chef I know, fellow who works at “Privacy,” which is part of Malabar Escapes to show me how he does it.  Who, you might well ask, is Chef Sajin?  Affable, organized, fast, and smart.  This man deserves a cooking program!  Calling all T.V. producers!

Imagine if Indian households could learn how to cook this healthy, delicious food!  Chef Sajin explains how to do it in steps that are easy to follow.

Basic Ingredients:

Yellow lentils

1 carrot

1 “drumstick” (long, thin, green Indian squash)

1 small potato 2 okra

1 onion

1/2 Indian eggplant.

Pressure cook the lentils in water and a little salt for five minutes.  Set aside.

Cube the vegetables and pressure cook them in lightly salted water for five minutes.  Set aside.

Take a small pot with a long handle–an Indian wok of sorts–and set the vegetables in it under high flame.  Get a rolling boil going.  Add about one cup of the lentils and stir under a high flame for about five minutes.  Set aside.

In a frying pan, add two tablespoons of coconut oil.  Put under a high flame.  Add one teaspoon of black mustard seeds and one teaspoon of fenugreek seeds.  Stir.  Now add one small onion that’s been chopped up, two sliced red chilis, 2-3 sliced fresh green chilis, about a half dozen fresh curry leaves, 1/2 teaspoon of tumeric powder, 1/2 teaspoon of asafoetida powder, and three and a half teaspoons of sambar powder.

What is sambar powder?  Well you might ask.  You can buy this in stores or, better yet, make it at home, mixing small, equal amounts of chili powder, coriander powder, tumeric powder, fenugreek powder, mustard powder, crushed and pulverized curry leaves, salt, and asafoetida.

Back to the cooking:

OK, so by now the mix in the frying pan is a paste.  Add one, small, cubed up tomato.  Stir.  Add all this to the boiled vegetable-lentil mix.  Return the mix to a burner under a high flame.  Add a little water to correct thickness.  Add three teaspoons of tamarind juice.  Stir.  Add two teaspoons of chopped up fresh coriander leaves.

You’re done.  I pity the mashed potatoes and fried onions that meet this sambar, I pity them!

You Can Cook Kerala Style!

Well, maybe.  Maybe not.  We will have to see.  I certainly have every intention of trying my best.  The food here is so light and delicious and flavorful.  A combination or confluence of cultures: Portuguese, Persian, and the indigenous Hindu traditions emphasizing subtle mingling of spices and the judicious use of local ingredients: Peppers, red, black, and green; dried and fresh coconut; squashes, pumpkins, long beans.

A little tiny bit of tumeric, a lot of ginger and onions.

The boats of the mussel fishermen are being towed in right this minute!  The fishermen are shouting in Malayalam.

Last night we walked through the forest to a temple festival preceded by about two dozen girls and women dressed to the nines holding small bowls of lit oil in which flowers floated.  Four or five bare chested men pounded drums and led us all.  Behind them swayed a mad woman, dressed beautifully, whose utterly blank and statue-like face was a contrast to the perfect, seemingly passionate, and very expressive dance steps she took in response to the beat of the drums.  Two women tried to restrain her and succeeded at keeping her sari from falling off, but she continued and wouldn’t heed them and when we reached the temple, she disappered.

The temple was a sand floor structure with tarps and cotton fabric sides and a raised platform on which a roofed throne was carried.  Later, Lord Krisna, pale blue, playing a flute, was placed there.

The little girls raised their eyebrows and smiled broadly when we caught their eyes, posing then for pictures.  One boy said, “Do you know Malayalam?”  No.  “Then I will teach you.”

Speaking of which, tonight I’m going to get a lesson in making sambal.  Tomorrow?  A lesson in fish curry.

All Veg All the Time

What better way to enjoy a Sunday than to go veg 24/7?  In a nation where vegetables are VEGETABLES, this means a wide array of delicious food, food that I want to learn to cook at home.

We’re talking dosa with a potato mash that includes onions and carrots and then a sambal of spicy, peppery carrots, potatoes, and okra. Lunch of kati rolls stuffed with paneer and served with tamarind sauce.  Dinner of dry, spicy vegetables: Carrots, onions, peas.

And now?  Now it’s raining!  My favorite weather.  Flutes playing in the jungle from the Hindu temple.

Nothing to subside.

Sunday in the South

8:15 A.M. here, lakeside, and it’s a day off for my neighbors, the mussel fishermen, so it’s even quieter than usual except for the sounds of their bathing and hawking.  One man just waded in and then he waded out.

Tropical rains yesterday afternoon and then late at night, but this morning it is hot and overcast and so steamy that moisture condenses on the surfaces of things.

It was all India yesterday in terms of food: Marsala dosa, Aleppy chicken, and then a fried chicken dish (leg, thigh) accompanied by a spicy aloo.  This food is subtle and deeply flavorful far moreso than the north.  I imagined the European traders centuries ago arriving from diets of boiled mutton and wheat or corn porridge tasting the food here: “Whoa, got to have some of this!,” must have been the reaction.  So finding the local kings, they probably said, “Hey, you hate poor people?  Me, too!  We’ll give you more stuff and support your reign with guns and all you have to do is sell us spices and keep the locals under control.  Deal?  Deal!”

I realize I may be simplifying matters somewhat.

Anyhow, here we are some 500 years later, which is even longer in dog years, what, something like 3500 years, and things are still a mess!

A different fisherman has waded in, removed his loincloth, and is slapping it clean.


Saturday Morning, Lakeside, Kerala

Mostly it’s caw, caw, caw.  Until some hullabaloo and then it’s caw, caw, caw, caw, caw, caw, caw!  To my right, in the Tamarind tree, a crow often lurks and he tears open pods with his long, dangerous black beak, eats the interior, and drops the empty pod onto the grass.  It comes crashing down in the relative silence.

You see the occasional Kingfisher, too: Brilliant blue.

The lake is flat and still, the mussel fishermen next door have finished clearing their throats, spitting, and bathing.

Pretty soon it’ll be breakfast: Fresh fruit, coffee, masala dosa.

The plan is to write all day and read the modern history of India.  I figure this is an ad hoc wrtiter’s retreat.  Up to page 32 since arriving and with travel days omitted, that’s nine days and about three+ pages a day, which is pretty good.  Now I’m writing about the chef and his muddah.

Kerala, Backwaters

The straw and canvas covered barge, a facsimile of the barges used to transport rice to the mills, picked us up around noon.  That was two days ago.  What followed were long, sleepy excursions across the lake, up and down the lake, and through narrow canals in the backwaters.

The surrounding fields are used to cultivate rice, mostly, which is the starch and also ground into flour for a variety of breads or as coating for frying pakora.

We saw numerous schools, state and Catholic, and numerous uniformed students in shades of blue clothing and khaki.  The students ranged from seven or eight to sixteen or seventeen.  Huge backpacks of books!  Girls with thick, sleek hair pulled back and pink ribboned!  Waves!  Smiles!

The hours on the barge moved so slowly that it was a delicious kind of conscious sleep.  Who knows what it was, OK?  It felt good.  We played cards, snapped photos, read books, drank water, and ate very bad food.  The highlight of the food were onion pakoras and banana pakoras, which were wonderful.  The highlight of the beverages was some coconut hooch I found in a village distillery: Called “toddy,” and the color of skim milk, this local brew had low alcohol, little flavor, but was fun.  It was fun, OK?

Back now at the house for another five days, Paul Scott’s first volume a memory, it’s time to write about chefs and start reading Patrick French’s new book on modern Indian history.




The South Indian Connection

I can’t pass up certain dishes.  Pastrami and corned beef on seeded rye with a couple of Cel-Ray’s.  A good arrabiata.  Thin slices, thick slices, any slices at all.  BLT’s, turkey and bacon clubs with way too much mayo.  You get the idea.

With Indian cooking, it’s pretty much everything when done right, but if I was on an Indian desert island?  Why, vindaloo, of course.  No dish is more delicious or more mucked up or more maligned than this really subtle one. Which is why a good one brings joy to my heart.  I think it was my first great experience with Indian food.

So of course I had to have chicken vindaloo last night.  And y’know what?  It was just as good as the night before!  True, no joke.  What I love about the dish is its ease of preparation if you know what the heck you’re doing, and the need for restraint, and the hot mingling of spices, and the history of Portugal and the subcontinent on the plate.

Masala dosa for breakfast and paneer pakora for lunch.  If you must know.

Other than all that, it’s been non-stop writing: Up to page 105 here, having written 30 in a week; and, reading about that very evil Ronald Merrick in “A Jewel in the Crown.”  The writing in that novel can be tedious at times and a smidge ventriliquistically so, but it’s good and easy drama, which helps when you’re writing: Tell a friggin’ story, for Chrissakes. (And we all know what “friggin” means.)

Tonight: Vindaloo?  Or do I think outside the box?

Update on Alcohol in Kerala and The Vindaloo Skinny

OK, I’ll admit it: I was wrong, dead wrong.  Happy?  Seems that Kerala, the most Christian, most educated (90% literacy, as noted), most developed, and so on, well, when I said that it was also the state that looked down on alcohol, I could not have been more mistaken.

According to the Rough Guide on Kerala, this state has the highest alcohol consumption in all of India.  Further, the state-owned liquor stores, which control the trade, sell so much booze that revenues of these sales account for a whopping 40% of the entire state budget!  Yikes!

Not wanting to be left out, I bought what I felt to be the obligatory two bottles of Blue Riband gin.  At 300 rupees per liter sized bottle, I was set back about $13.

On the way back from the store, I asked our tuk-tuk driver to stop in at a small grocery.  There I bought 1 kilo of taro chips, deep fried then and there, for 100 rupees.  If the rest of the chips taste as good as the sample, wow.  Wow, I say, wow.  This is how fast food got started.

On a slower note: Last night I asked for and got a vindaloo.  Aloo, as we all know, means “potato,” in Hindi, is stewed with onions, long dried red chili peppers, garlic, and with a meat, be it chicken or lamb.  Mine was chicken.  Cooking this at home is a lengthy process, and I’ve never had a good version in the States–there the meat is drowned by huge amounts of ghee-infused sauce and bottled hot sauce.  But the version last night, a good replica of what’s served north of here in Goa and thereabouts, was refined and rustic at the same time.  It’s a throwback to Portugal and the old days of the spice trade and long nights probably made shorter with gin.

Sunday in Kerala

Many barges go by on this day of weekly rest in Christian Kerala.  Filled with local families carousing and singing.  One docked about an hour ago, and since has gone, unloading the singing men to go ashore and drink some more, I’m told, while women and small children stay aboard with water.

A pasta arrabiate for dinner last night was pretty wonderful:  A south Indian interpretation with spicy red chilis and minced bacon.  Lunch will be potato croquettes of sorts.  The food overall is influenced by the Portuguese colonial history, and the Italian and German tourists, and the availability of rather beautiful fruits and vegetables.  A light touch in all.

The days are spent working on my book about chefs, reading Paul Scott, and lolling.  We drink nothing but water ’til six when we break out the gin.  A word of caution: The gin, purchased aboard the plane, is running dangerously low, and here in Catholic, teetotling Kerala, this could lead to a very dangerous situation indeed.