My India Trip – Local Cuisine

Dried okra on plant. Photographs by Sebastian John

It’s been over two months since I posted anything on my blog, and I didn’t realize that time flew so fast. I did get couple of queries from my friends – “what happened?”, “lost interest?” etc etc. The fact is end-November to mid-January we had a crazy…actually maniacal days. We moved to a new place in Washington DC area around Thanksgiving, and then soon we began to plan our trip to India in mid-December. I was going back to India after three years!!

We had a month-long whirlwind trip starting from Bombay to Delhi-Kerala-Delhi. My last part of the trip in New Delhi was spent more or less in government offices, helping my wife enroll at the university in Delhi and meeting some friends. We didn’t even get time to visit some of our favorite jaunts in Delhi.

I flew back to Washington DC in mid-January, and since then have been trying to get our new place in order . Then the fact that I am missing my resident food taster (aka..my wife) is kind of dissuading because I don’t have anyone to bounce of my dishes before I post them on the blog. I hope to get back into regular posting once I have all my stuff out of boxes and the new kitchen is set up.

Unniyappam

We reached Bombay on Dec. 16 dawn after about 15-hr flight. When we reached home my mom already had two of our favorite things ready!!! Erica’s favorite unniyappam, and for me – beef fry. Unniyappam are similar to aebleskivers. My mom makes them with a combination of rice flour, cream of wheat (sooji), all-purpose flour, jaggery and plantains. Unniyappams are also given as offerings at temples, and I have seen them are some churches too.

Erachi Varattiyathu (Beef fry)

I have posted my mom’s beef fry recipe on my blog, but the key difference between hers and mine is the size of the beef chunks. I cut the chunks to about 3/4 inch size. My mom cuts them less than 1/2 inch size. That gives the dish a whole different dimension. The dish is so addictive on me, it is akin to eating french fries. You know that you have to stop..but the fingers go back at it ..again and again.

I left for Delhi the following day in search of a place for my wife to live during her studies in Delhi. Of course while in Delhi making a trip to Jantar Mantar is mandatory. Jantar Mantar is the center for all protests in Delhi, and a hangout spot for photographers. The spot also has some of my favorite eateries.

Break pakora and samosa at Jantar Mantar

Bread pakoras are basically deep fried bread sandwiches. Mashed potato cooked with spices is sandwiched between two bread slices, dipped in a batter of chickpea flour and fried. Some vendors add a slice of paneer (Indian farmer’s cheese) between the slices. Break pakoras are a very popular street food, though I have seen some restaurants serve it.

Making naan at Jantar Mantar

One of favorite food during winter in Delhi is Makke-di-roti – flatbread made from corn. It is yellow in color, and less glutenous than naan made from flour. Makke-di-roti goes best with sarson-ka-saag (cooked mustard greens). In the photo above the yellow dough is for makke-di-roti, and the white dough is for normal roti.

Photographers at Jantar Mantar
Fruit seller at Jantar Mantar

Three days later I was in Kerala, for the first time in three years. We had lost most of our house because of the highway expansion, and what remained was basically a skeleton. My parents had got stocked the house with all the goodies that we liked. My dad had traveled about three hours to Thuruthipuram, one of the best fish markets in our area, to get prawns. There were some of the biggest prawns I had seen- each prawn was more than 1.5 inch in diameter.. My mom spiced them with paprika, turmeric powder and salt, and pan-fried them. She wrapped the prawns in banana leaves so that they didn’t burn or turn rubbery from the heat.

Pan fried prawns
Duck egg omlette
Chicken egg (left) and duck egg. Note the difference in size and color of the yolks.

Duck eggs omletes are a delicacy that I can have only when I am at home in Kerala. I have never seen a duck egg in a general US grocery store. For that matter, they were hard to find even in New Delhi. I am no food nutritionist, but from what I have heard one duck egg have more nutritional value, and lesser fat content than one chicken egg. And above that (this fact I can vouch for)..they are value for your money. One duck egg can make the same size omelet that two chicken eggs can make.

After two days of rest my wife and I embarked on meeting our relatives. We went to my dad’s ancestral village, and also to my mother’s sisters and cousins.

Paddy fields at my dad's ancestral village

Paddy fields are slowly becoming a rarity  in Kerala. Large stretches of rice fields are being converted into housing plots and other general use land because of high costs of rice cultivation and labor, and shortage of land. I did not recognize a neighboring stretch of rice fields close to the one in the above photograph – it had been leveled off, and at least a dozen houses built.

My cousin plucking yucca (tapioca) at my dad's ancestral house
Young coconut trees waiting to be transplanted

The young coconut trees are eventually transplanted into square pits that are about 2-3 three feet deep. The pits are filled with a mixture of soil,  sand, ash, coconut husk and salt. Young coconut leaves are a favorite of cows and goats, so the tree is cordoned off with cages made with coconut palms. Eventually the square pit fills out as more fertilizers, compost are added, and the tree grows bigger.

Mature and dried okra on plant.

My aunt’s bakery.  Her family has been operating the bakery ever since I can remember. She also runs a catering service, and on days can cater up to two-three weddings. An average wedding in Kerala has nothing less than 300 – 400 guests. Now do the math!! I learned a lot of basics of cooking from these kitchens.

One of the bakery staff icing a cake
Rows of plum cake for Christmas

Part II and III – St. Sebastian’s festival and spices from my parents backyard.

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3 thoughts on “My India Trip – Local Cuisine

  1. Wow…love the photos. I grew up in Guyana and some of these images remind me of home, like the coconut, dried okra and rice fields and yucca. It also reminds me of how festive our Christmas’ back in Guyana used to be. The food looks divine!

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