Category Archives: Periyar

First, take your coconut…

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Learning how to cook some of the delicious South Indian food that I have encountered here was high on my wish-list for this trip, so I jumped at the chance to attend a cooking class in Periyar. In the end only four of us opted to take the class, which turns out to be just as well, as our host has sneakily added an additional four people, who are waiting for us when we arrive at the top of the steep, narrow path to a small outdoor cafe, in the front yard of our host’s family home.

Our host can only be described as the Indian, teetotal version of Keith Floyd. He certainly has the larger-than-life demeanour required of a TV chef, utterly wasted in his day-job as a rickshaw driver.

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The living room of the family home has been cleared to make way for a large table, on which gas burners sit ready for use. But as any cook knows, the first item on the agenda is always prep. Outside we take over the cafe tables and are set to work chopping, peeling and slicing red onions, garlic, beans and potatoes.

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The fundamental ingredient in South Indian cooking is the coconut. If there isn’t coconut milk or chopped coconut, then there’s a high chance your meal will have been cooked in coconut oil. The chef’s mother is on hand to show us how to grate a coconut the old fashioned way, sitting on a wooden stool to which a lethal-looking star of metal has been bolted at one end, and running the halved coconut over the blade to produce the familiar stringy white pulp. To make coconut milk, this pulp is wrung out by hand into water until the water thickens and turns white.

20120324-151316.jpg Coconut monster

We are shown how to make several local curries (ideally the class would have been more hands-on, but there are too many of us and not enough cooking space). The basic method seems to be as follows:

1. Make sure all of the ingredients are sitting in front of you, measured and prepped, ready to throw into the pan.
2. Heat 1-2 T coconut oil.
3. Add black mustard seeds, cook for a few seconds until they start to pop.
4. Throw in a handful of curry leaves (they must be fresh, god only knows where I’m going to find them in London, anybody know?). The oil will fizz and bubble.
5. Add the main ingredients, meat/fish if applicable, cook through for a few minutes.
6. Throw in your spices or spice paste, and coconut milk if required, for a few more minutes then serve.

A standard mortar and pestle would do to make the spice paste, but our host (or, to be fair, his mother) relies on even more traditional methods. Outside the house sits a huge heavy stone which is grooved in the centre from decades of use. In the groove rests a stone rolling pin of sorts. The necessary spices are placed in the centre with freshly grated coconut, and ground together with the rolling pin to make the paste. For pineapple curry, we combined freshly grated coconut with garlic, a red chilli, onion, salt, turmeric and cumin. It’s slow and laborious when I try, but his mother makes quick work of it. A blender would be faster still, but where’s the romance in that? Besides, like a seasoned wok, I’d like to think the stone somehow added to the flavour.

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To accompany our various curry dishes, there is fresh basmati rice (bigger and longer than the exported varieties), and we have a chance to make our own roti to accompany the dish. First the dough – a well is made in the flour and the wet ingredients mixed directly on the marble bench top. The dough rests for a while, then we each practice breaking off small pieces to knead, roll, stretch and shape into the flat round pancake shape which is fried on a flat griddle, then (while still hot) clapped between your hands to create the distinctive layered effect (and brushed with ghee if desired).

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At last it is time to sit down and try our creations (and those created for us), at the long table in the yard of the cafe. The vegetarian dishes are delicious (though sadly, a little cold by the time we eat – perhaps time was spent on one dish too many?), but the chicken drumsticks which look deliciously charred, and which have been slowly roasting over coals in a sunken pit since our arrival, prove to be red raw in the centre and are hastily spat out.

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It would have been nice to stay and chat with the other attendees, who are in the midst of their own journeys and have been to some interesting places (one girl has been to the ashram of the Hugging Mother, where devotees queue for hours for a hug from their guru), but there is another early start tomorrow – in any case it’s after ten by the time we find our way back down the path to the waiting rickshaws. It has been a fascinating experience, and with a few tweaks (reheating the veg food for the meal, a smaller class, either cooking the chicken or leaving it out), it could be a truly excellent cooking class – our hosts have given us a great introduction to South Indian food, leaving me keen to learn more. When we are leaving the next day, we stop briefly at the bottom of the path to the cafe again, and someone comes down with a sheet where they have written some of the recipes for us – I don’t think I am giving away any trade secrets by sharing this one….

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….or the paratha recipe. I shall leave the interpretation of the diagrams to your imagination.

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Periyar – spice garden of India

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The most exciting thing about starting our journey to Periyar is that it is on a small private mini-bus and not the crowded public version. As the South India leg of the trip draws to a close, everyone seems to be feeling a bit worn out, and when it is suggested that for an extra five pounds each we could club together and hire our own transport, there is a unanimous vote in favour.

The long drive is broken by a few informal stops along the way, as something catches someone’s eye or our tour leader thinks we might be interested, but it is a long, hot journey.

As the evening draws near we begin to climb into the hills, and the landscape becomes verdant and more jungle-like, until at last we draw to a halt outside a house almost overgrown with garden. A spice garden, in fact, owned by the inimitable Abraham (who has some not insignificant growth of his own – see picture below) and his family (his father, aged ninety, has only recently stopped climbing the coconut palms on the property). With his quick sense of humour and encyclopaedic knowledge of horticulture, it’s not surprising that Abraham was chosen to appear on the BBC’s Around the World in 80 Gardens with Monty Don, a fact of which he is understandably proud.

20120324-122302.jpg Abraham in full flight

The garden itself is crammed into a single hectare, overflowing with every kind of spice and plenty of other surprises – including a giant lemon tree with fruit the size of a rugby ball, as well as papaya, cacao, coffee, and several varieties of chilli, which spark the boys’ competitive spirit: birds eye chillies are dispatched in quick succession, though only our beloved leader can be convinced (coerced) to try what I think is a scotch bonnet. He is absent for the rest of the tour, bathing his tongue alternately with sugar and yogurt and curled in the foetal position on Abraham’s sofa.

20120324-122356.jpg A giant lemon, yesterday

We cannot see the entire garden, as it is growing dark and it is not unknown to find sloth bears or even the occasional tiger lurking at the end of it (not just a scare tactic – only a couple of years ago one of his workers was attacked by a bear here). Instead, Abraham’s wife has prepared a feast for us, eaten in traditional style on banana leaves, including delicious fat reddish grains of Kerala rice (apparently unobtainable outside of India, though I’m determined to try).

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At last we arrive at our hotel, a row of two-storied wooden chalets on the edge of Periyar village. Hot water is only available for certain hours each day, but other than that very slight inconvenience it is lovely. My room has a decent-sized balcony, and my roommate and I promptly lower the tone of the neighbourhood by decorating it with fresh laundry.

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The next morning we rise early for a visit to Periyar wildlife sanctuary. This is a rare sanctuary in that it is possible to walk, accompanied by guides, around certain parts of the park. Walking down the long driveway through the forest to the guides’ hut, we are accompanied by the occasional curious langur. On arrival we are issued with sock-like canvas gaiters, for the avoidance of leeches (I have come prepared with sachets of salt, just in case, and another girl has teatree oil, which apparently has the same effect).

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The first challenge is to cross the man-made lake on the edge of the park. The lake is calm and the air is still, save for a pied kingfisher which patrols the edges, occasionally pausing mid-air and plunging dramatically into the water. To cross, there is a ferry of sorts: a raft constructed of bamboo poles, with an extra pole crosswise at each end which serves as a seat. The guides pull us across by way of a rope, using another long pole for guidance. Embarking and disembarking is an exercise in careful balance!

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It is the dry season and the lake is low, which ought in theory to improve our chances of seeing elephants on our walk, but we have started late, well after dawn, and despite our guide’s efforts to get us through the park at maximum speed (which is no small challenge for the septuagenarian in our group), the animals are hiding.

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We see elephant footprints, elephant poo, even elephant bones (from a fight to the death between an older male and his young challenger, unsuccessfully for the challenger apparently). But no elephants. It is, however, a lovely walk, with just enough challenge to keep it interesting (a bridge over a small river made only of four bamboo poles, for example), and the occasional langur for variety.

20120324-123637.jpg Formerly an elephant

We return to the hotel for breakfast, and then there is the chance to try an Ayurvedic massage, a Kerala speciality. My therapist, Celia, trained for a year as an Ayurvedic nurse and has been practising now for nine. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between Ayurvedic massage and the regular variety, except that the strategic use of towels to preserve a modicum of modesty doesn’t feature, and the oil has the distinct scent of camphor – though whether for the benefit of my cold or for Celia’s, it’s hard to say. Other than that, it is relaxing and soporific. The treatment finishes with a steam bath, which turns out to be the slightly Victorian apparatus in the corner: a wooden cabinet in which one sits on a small stool, head poking out from a hole in the top, while steam is pumped inside. It’s not an unpleasant experience, though being dried from top to toe by the therapist at the end, in the manner of a small child at bathtime, is a bit much.

20120324-124029.jpg The lovely Celia

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After a relaxing afternoon, during which I forget entirely to buy any spices, I finally have a chance to see a demonstration of Kalaripayattu, the Keralan martial art that I had read about in the Dutch Palace in Fort Kochi. For a mere 100 rupees, we file into the gallery around the dirt arena.

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To the beat of drums (which turn out to be canned, causing some unintentional comedy during the performance), the performers enter the arena and bow their heads at the shrine at the far end. This obeisance is repeated at the beginning and end of each demonstration, and the religious element appears to be an inextricable part of the art itself.

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There are a series of moves, progressively more daring, and various weapons are introduced, from wooden staves to curled flexible swords unfurled with a flourish. For the finale, hoops wound with rags and doused in something flammable are set alight and held aloft, as members of the troupe somersault through them.

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Afterwards, the audience is invited to join the performers in the arena, to pose for pictures with the weapons. I’m playing paparazzi with multiple cameras when our trip leader rushes in – there’s no time to lose: we have a cooking class to get to!