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Learning to cook this wonderful food …

Haggling over today’s catch

Green cardamom pods are better than the black ones. Never use the stuff in the spice rack labeled “curry” back home. There is such a thing as a curry plant and it can be found in the US – or at least the dried leaves are available.  Garam masala is actually the main masala (spice mix) for meat and now I’m lucky enough to have a homemade recipe.

I went to a cooking class in Ft. Cochin. I love food- I organize a supper club back home and to me India is one of the world’s premier cuisines and I’ve loved tasting my way through the country.

The class was nicely done – more of a demonstration than hands on except we did get to make chapatti. On the menu were all Kerala curries and style cooking (aka lots of coconut milk and coconut meat), including fish curry, fish in coconut milk, okra curry (I now know how to keep okra from getting slimy when you cook it),lentils (dal)and a veg dish. It was a great introduction to Indian cooking.

The food is generally very similarly based with subtle differences that make it work for what you put into it – vegetable or meat. Garlic, shallot, ginger, turmeric, curry leaves, and mustard seeds make repeat appearances in the base sauté. Masalas vary by the dish but generally include chili powder (she like medium heat, recommends Kashmiri), turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and coriander.

In India it seems most of the cooking is done at home. There are various places that have coffee or chia with baked goods or snacks. And some little restaurant you can sit down for a thali or dosas.  We were in hotels often where it’s in many ways a false scenario for eating. In tourist areas there are restaurants catering to tourists of course.  Out in villages and cities off the beaten path a restaurant as we think of it is hard to find barring little open stands where there are cooking limited things (that are also delicious).

The woman who ran the class, Leelu, also has a homestay house and rents rooms out and she teaches classes right out of her kitchen.  She has a servant (her word) who is new and she is training him to replace the one who worked for the family for 25 years and died recently. She still openly grieves for him. She and her husband will see to the education and care of that man’s three children. She says her new servant is Christian and fled the state he lived in further north (sorry, didn’t catch the name) because Christians are being persecuted there. She is testing him by leaving 100 rupees lying around to make sure he is honest and to be trusted with her home.  And she says all this when he’s in the next room assuming I suppose his English is so poor he won’t understand.

She’s incensed at the “tuk tuk mafia” that has arranged commissions and treats visitors dishonestly and aggressively and is trying to organize other business owners to do something or pressure the police to act.  And she says when the Lonely Planet guy knocked on the door and asked her a lot of questions she didn’t know what LP was (it’s become the traveler’s bible, basically, and anything listed in there will see their traffic increase dramatically- and usually increase their prices accordingly.)  When Rough Guide knocked she had figured out she should show them her rooms, too and so her lodging and class are listed in Rough Guide. But NEITHER actually took the cooking class … hmmm.

The other five students in the class were pretty typical of the backpacker crowd-basically those who travel through India from major destination to major destination by train and immerse from one tourist filled center to another.  They started a conversation about how they felt that the only people in India who they interacted with wanted them to come in their shop or take their tuk tuk and how they almost dreaded interactions with Indians. And that made me realize how great it was to be traveling the way we are – into areas where travelers are so unknown that we would draw crowds and barring a few incidents I happily presume everyone will be kind and helpful.

Leelu’s homemade Garam Masala

1 cup cinnamon sticks
½ cup whole cloves
½ cup fennel seeds
5-8 pods cardamom (green)
1 tbl black peppercorns

Grind it all into a fine powder. Keep airtight.. Will last 8 months to a year.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA