Friday, 29 November 2013

Prawn Mappas in Kumarakom

I am gradually getting into final-paper-writing mode. This means that the general health and well-being of my room will be neglected for the next week or two, as papers fly everywhere in a last ditch attempt to push assignments past the finish line. My computer will have little rest as I type away feverishly, trying to complete papers of varying lengths - the longish 12 assignment, the brief 2 page reflection paper, the 5000 word essay, to name a few. It also means that I will likely pay little attention to appearance, with a hurried ponytail being the hairdo of choice for this depressing season. 

I will also end up spending much less time than I would like in the comfort and warmth of my kitchen, tending to the oven or stove, being forced instead in the direction of the library.  It helps that the sun now sets at the otherwise cheerful hour of 4 pm, effectively excluding a range of distractions that are ever present in the summer: a walk in the sunshine, chilled bubble tea from the tea shop across the street from school, and other such happy things.  

Before I descend fully into the kingdom of gloom, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I decided to dedicate this post to the few pleasant, sunshine filled days that we spent holidaying in Kerala earlier in the year. 

I have only superlatives (of the good variety) to use for our stay at the Kumarakom Lake Resort. Given my obsession with good food that you might now be well acquainted with, although Kumarakom was a true feast for the eyes, I was far more taken by the feast for the stomach that we were presented with throughout the day.

One of my favourite parts of the day was chaya and kadi, which loosely translates into "tea and little bites" from Malayalam, served by the waterfront in the shade of coconut trees. A highly sanitised version of a thattu kada (Malayalam for a roadside tea stall) had been set up by the water, with a pot-bellied man supervising a pan full of vadas bobbing up and down in hot oil, and a large pot of brewing tea. 

Waiters dressed in pristine white mundus and starched white shirts made their way to the tables, filling and refilling glasses with tea. In the picture, you can see vadas, freshly rescued from hot oil, pazham pori (batter fried bananas), and a version of kozhukkattai carrying a hint of cumin powder, which I am embarrassed to admit was alien to me (the cumin in the kozhukkattai that is, not the kozhukkattai themselves). 

Of the lot, vadas are my favourite snack. You can either be a vada lover or an idli lover. I fall squarely on the vada side of the fence and find it difficult to empathise with those who favour the bland, fermented, slightly sour taste of the spineless idli over the crunch of a good vada. I do believe that my newly acquired husband likes his idlis, but in a brilliant show of tact that I am sure bodes well for us, I have chosen to gloss over the matter, focussing instead on a shared love of seafood and masala chai.

The other memory that is still fresh in my mind is that of our pottery session (free for guests, in case you were wondering). The man in charge had a very pleasant way of deluding you into believing that you were crafting pots from mere clay all by yourself, although really, his expert hands were moving the wheel this way and that, moulding the clay into pots of varying shapes and sizes, which were then left to dry in the sun. On the right is a finished product that I was allowed to deceptively claim as my own creation. 


But the winner was the seafood restaurant that we visited as often as we could during our stay. The chef was obliging enough to allow us into his kitchen and share with us his surprisingly easy recipe for prawn mappas, a traditional Malayali seafood preparation. While I can vouch for the chef's version, which was delicious, I reproduce the recipe below with the caveat that I am yet to try it out in my own kitchen. Prawn mappas will have to wait. I am too busy fighting with paper in my room in the next week or two.

As an entire nation emerges from Thanksgiving induced food coma, let me end on a cheerful note. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I hope you have much to be thankful for.

Prawn Mappas (serves 2-3)

roughly 200 gms prawn
a pinch of fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp saunf
1 tsp garlic paste
5-6 juliennes of ginger
1 sliced onion
1-2 green chillies chopped
4-5 springs of curry leaves
1 small piece of kokum soaked in 200 ml of hot water
50 ml coconut milk

2 heaped tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp chilli powder

salt to taste
coconut oil

Heat coconut oil in a pan. Now add the fenugreek seeds, and saunf. Once the raw smell disappears, add the ginger, garlic, onion, curry leaves and green chillies. Saute till the onions turn golden brown. Now add the powders, mix well. Add the kokum and the water, followed by the prawns. Once the prawns are done (which shouldn't take long, the cardinal rule being that prawns should not be overcooked), add the coconut milk and salt to taste. Mix well. Do not boil. Drizzle a little coconut oil on top and garnish with curry leaves.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Giving Soap A Chance

Do you like avocados? I first encountered them as a child during a brief stint in the UK several years ago. The buttery texture did not appeal to my childhood tastes. It reminded me of soap. More specifically, it reminded me of the squishy mess that soap becomes when left too long in water. If you have ever struggled with the seemingly easy task of peeling and slicing a ripe avocado, you might agree with me. 

My brother tells me that I have a worrying tendency to distort childhood memories. Apparently, he was not quite the wild, pesky younger sibling who appears frequently in my film reel of childhood memories. Maybe there is some truth to what he says, for I certainly did distort my memory of avocados. For many years, based on our brief interaction, I rather unfairly associated the fruit with soap not just in texture but also in taste. This is not to say that soap was ever a dietary staple in our household, but I did have a sense of what soap might taste like if I were ever to nibble on a bar of the stuff.  

Avocados being rare and exotic in India, I hardly ever bumped into them after we returned to India. I saw them every now and then, in their individually packed glory, peeking out of wooden boxes, as we walked past posh fruit stores in Delhi's expat friendly Khan Market. It was not until years later, when I moved abroad, that I started coming across them more frequently. By this time, I was willing to reconsider my childhood food hangups and was much more open to exploring unfamiliar tastes. Even if it meant giving soap a chance. 

In the years that have followed, I have never fully overcome my disdain for the fruit in its raw form. Mashed into a chunky guacamole though, it is one of my favourite things on a brunch menu. I forget the first time I made my acquaintance with guacamole, but I have been a woman in love since. I order it every time I am in a Mexican restaurant, and if I can help it, in every other type of restaurant too. Do you have strong feelings for guacamole too - good, bad or ugly? 

Although you can find prepackaged guacamole in every US supermarket, like all other types of prepackaged food, it comes nowhere close to the real stuff. The best things about a good guacamole - soft chunks of tomato, bits of pungent red onion, and an undertone of lime and garlic - are typically missing in the prepackaged versions. I had to come up with a homemade version of course. 
Photo credit: Uttara Gharpure

I am particularly happy this afternoon, having tucked into a hearty homemade brunch with guacamole starring in an "item number" (apologies, Bollywood illiterates). I followed Alton Brown's recipe for guacamole on Food Network, but only loosely. I had no jalapenos or cilantro, so I left them out, ruling out a trip to the grocery store on account of the nippy weather in Cambridge today. I would advise you to play with the measurements for salt, lemon juice, cumin and cayenne, depending on your tastes. I also added a pinch of sugar and a few drops of olive oil, but I am certain that you could leave them out with fairly happy results. 

Regardless of how you choose to adapt this recipe, I urge you to try it. If my long association with avocados has taught me anything, it is that everything (and of course, everyone) deserves a chance. Even soap.