A FIRST TASTE OF INDIA
“Did you get ill then?” seems to be the first question that comes to mind when you tell people you’ve just come back from India. It may not be an actual medical condition but it seems as if everyone knows about the dreaded Delhi Belly. It was with that in my mind that I made the decision to avoid meat (and Delhi) on my first trip to the country.
Fresh seafood bookended the trip, starting with red snapper from the giant fixed fishing nets that line the shore at Cochin and ending with catch-of-the-day lobster at a beachside cafe in Kovalam. Whilst breakfasts of mild curries and hot freshly-baked flat breads (porotta) kick-started each day, lunches and dinners were less predictable.
On the busy main street of Munnar, nestled in amongst the seemingly never ending tea plantations that stretch out in every direction, we discovered street-side vendors dispensing Ulunthu Vada wrapped in the previous day’s newspaper.
Yesterday’s Indian Premier League Cricket results and local election gossip were not of much interest to me but the warm savoury doughnut-like dough with curry leaf, chillies and finely chopped onion they were wrapping certainly were.
For those with a sweet tooth, Munnar’s other speciality is homemade chocolate – large slabs of thick crumbling chocolate which more than one member of the group dismissed as tasting like a dog treat. Having never tucked into Fido’s box of Winalot, I can’t attest to how true that might be!
In Madurai, after exploring the temples and having my fortune told by a parrot (one of the day’s least bizarre encounters), I celebrated discovering I’m to have a “long happy life” and “two, maybe three children” with a plate of paneer (fried cheese) washed down with cold beer. Given the relentlessly hot weather, frosty bottles of Kingfisher or freshly squeezed melon juice were far more my cup of tea than, well, hot cups of tea.
On our houseboat in Alleppey, the boat’s staff worked miracles in the cramped kitchen and served-up fish molly (large chunks of fish marinated in coconut milk and spices and served with rice), followed by a dessert of banana fritters.
At the serene Coir Village Resort, we broke-up our day of lazing around in hammocks with a walk to meet some of the resort’s neighbours. As well as smiling kids rushing from their homes to ask for treats (either that or “one pen, one pen” is a mantra I misunderstood), we met an old man trying to prod mangoes down from the trees lining the grounds of his house with a long stick. We volunteered the services of our tour leader to assist and were rewarded with a bag of ripe mangoes to go with our biriyani dinner that evening.
From fish caught that morning and cooked by lunch, to ripe fruit picked (or prodded) out of trees for dessert – the freshness of the food in this region is never in question. As if to illustrate the point, we got an impromptu demonstration on separating rice from husk when we took a brief roadside stop on the drive to Kovalam.
A group of locals standing in the shade of the roadside trees worked in unison to toss the days’ rice crop into the air; allowing the afternoon breeze to carry the indigestible rice hulls away from the rice before it lands. Once separated, the rice is bagged and sent off to that day’s market. It’s probably on someone’s dinner plate the same evening.
The trip ended in Kovalam, where the restaurants lining the beach display the catch of the day on trays of ice and the waiters beckon you in with promises of fresh fish and cold beer. It was whilst trying to work out which of the enticing places to eat in, that I realised in just over two weeks of my Indian adventure I had gone from worrying about what I would eat to worrying about what I might not get time to eat!
Travelling for 16 days from Cochin to Kovalam, not only did I not suffer one upset stomach but I found the food (and drink) en route to be one of the many highlights of this beautiful region.
By Kai Aylward, Sales Consultant