For me, a big trip needs to be four things at once: extensive, authentic, educational, and pampering. Sticking to these requirements, I've been able to sail around Perth, Australia; ride through Paris at midnight on the back of a motorcycle; and sip Champagne at the top of Schwartzman Pass in South Africa.
When it came to India, a place I had always wanted to go, the ubiquitous yoga retreats or backpacking routes didn't strike my fancy. But then I discovered Route to India's culinary tour of Kerala, and I knew I met my match.
Nalini Mehta, the tour organizer and teacher, focuses on ayurvedic cooking. The trip includes travel to five locations, cooking lessons with professional chefs and teachers, exploration of mountains and coastal areas, and posh accommodations at CGH Group properties.
In the port city of Cochin, we had a lesson in the airy bungalow of famous cooking teacher Nanni Paul. These days, Mrs. Paul's classes are must on cooking pilgrammages to India (her recipes are referenced in Raghavan Ayer's 660 Curries). In her immaculate kitchen, the gracious and generous Mrs. Paul taught us how to make several vegetarian dishes, as well as Kerala prawn curry. We admired her extensive herb garden and walked away with a small book of recipes to try at home. She told us that it's her goal to leave "a treasure in the heart of each student." She stood on the porch waving until our car was out of sight.
While the ten-day trip was impeccably organized, there was lots of time for exploration. In Munnar, our driver took us to a small rustic roadside coffee shack where a sari-clad woman prepared drinks and snacks over a wood fire. We ordered coffee and relaxed as workers coming in from the fields gossiped in Malayalam about the strangers in their small town. Gesturing toward ingredients, we asked our hostess to show us how to cook over the fire. She made a sweet and nutty toasted rice cereal with coconut and wrapped the extra in newspaper for us to take on the road.
In our travels, we talked to cooks and diners about unusual ingredients and cooking techniques. Southern Indian cuisine features coconut oil and tends to be lighter and less spicy than Northern cuisines. I tried tomato fruit, seer fish, and black chickpeas. I smelled recently dried cardamom pods and cinnamon bark. I learned to scrape the meat from a coconut on a houseboat in the backwaters. Breakfast was idlis with sambar and a doughnut-like vata. The food was fresh and exotic. Even a jar of clarified butter was almost unrecognizable with its bright yellow color.
Our hosts were proud of local specialties like thoran (a chopped vegetable and coconut stir fry we sampled many times), and they went to great lengths to share Kerala's bounty. At Coconut Lagoon resort, the head chef even cut down a banana tree from the property to show us how to cook the heart of the trunk.
A combination of persistence and luck led to the most amazing experience in Marari Beach. I really wanted to cook a community meal with Brahmins, the holy men. It is considered an honor to serve food at a Hindu temple, but many ban foreigners from entering the compound.
The original plan was to relax on the beach, but we decided to explore a temple recommended by someone on staff. We made our way to the temple in the late morning and found a Brahmin preparing an enormous pot of food over a fire in the cookhouse. Clearly overheated in the tropical weather, the holy man was thrilled to have volunteer relief. We took the long paddles and stirred the mixture of sweet potatoes, trying to keep the smoke from burning our eyes. Young assistants brought us cups of coffee and translated for us.
As the day wore on, we discovered that we had stumbled on the temple's annual festival day. Although no one outside the village had been invited, we were welcome to join in the pujas, the rituals honoring the statues of gods and goddesses, with hundreds of devotees. That evening, there was a performance of Kathakali theater by a local troupe and a fireworks display. At the end of the night we shared the meal we had prepared with 300 members of the temple community. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Route to India's next trip is February 2012 and includes accomodations and transportation but not airfare.
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Learn how to make an Indian dosa for your next lunch. (FATHOM Postcard)