I took two cooking classes, a basic one in Fort Kochi with Rasiya and one with Saraswa, one of the best cooks I’ve met in Kerala, in the village of Munroe Island. She’s not giving cooking lessons but I stayed at the family’s homestay for a few days and she agreed to let me watch her and her niece cook a meal. She explained a few things in broken English and because I took the other class before it helped me understand what she was doing.
Here are a few recipes that were demonstrated during the classes. What struck me the most is how long it takes to prepare a meal and how many different elements they prepare at the same time. When I watched Saraswa, I counted no less than 13 different steps to make the main dishes (not even counting prepping steps like cutting the vegetables or cleaning the fish…).
Let’s start with the recipes from the first cooking class with Rasiya (vegetarian). No exact measurements, everything is freestyle: one spoon of that, one pinch of this, a handful of onions, etc.
Let’s start by grating some fresh coconut! There’s a special tool in every kitchen in Kerala, like a serated blade used to grate a coconut half. It can be attached to the worktable or encased in a piece of wood that you place on the table (or the ground).
Green beans with chilies and onions
This is a classic vegetable side dish served with meals.
Green beans (the ones she was using were very long skinny green beans that I’ve never seen in Canada. I found they tasted a little sweeter than “classic” green beans but less than butter/wax beans but the recipe would be good with any kind of green bean)
Red chili powder
Cut the beans, onions and chilies in small pieces.
In a frying pan or wok, heat up 2 tablespoons of coconut oil and start by adding the mustard seeds. Gently fry for about 30 seconds then add the onions, green beans and chilies. Add the spices: salt, turmeric, chili powder. Cover and gently fry for about 5 to 6 minutes.
Add some water and simmer until everything is cooked.
Pineapple coconut curry
Green chilies (1 to 5 depending on how spicy you want)
1.5 cups of water
Put everything into a pot and bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer to reduce.
1/2 cup fresh grated coconut (replace with shredded coconut that you previously soaked in coconut milk or water if you don’t have fresh coconut)
2 Garlic cloves
A handful of diced onions
Milk curd (you could substitute with yogurt or cream)
Grind all the ingredients to make a paste. Add to the “step 1” pot with a little bit of water, bring back to a boil then set aside.
A little bit of dried red chilies
Heat up a little bit of coconut oil and fry all the ingredients for about 30 seconds (don’t let them burn) then add to the pineapple curry.
1/2 head of green cabbage, shredded
Green chilies (start with 1/2 and add more if you like spicier)
In a frying pan or saucepan, heat up some coconut oil and gently fry the mustard seeds for about 30 seconds. Add the cari leaves, green chili then the cabbage and coconut. Add some water and simmer until fully cooked. Add salt to taste.
Fresh grated coconut
Roughly chop all the ingredients in a grinder to make a chunky paste and add to the pot with the cabbage while it’s simmering (towards the end).
Green Dal (moon dal pulses)
Red onion (diced)
Red chili powder
2 cari leaves
Rinse the dal thoroughly and place in a bowl with just enough water to cover it. Set aside, let soak for a few minutes while you prepare the rest.
In a pressure cooker, heat up some coconut oil and gently fry the onion then add the tomatoes, turmeric and chili powder and cari leaves.
Add the green dal and water and cook for about 15 minutes in the pressure cooker.
Of course no meal is complete without a generous portion of rice. To spruce up the traditional boiled rice, why not add some ghee and spices!
Use 2 volumes of water for 1 volume of rice.
Heat up some ghee in the saucepan and fry cinnamon bark, cardamom and cloves then add the water you need to cook the quantity of rice you’re making.
Rinse the rice thoroughly and add it to the spiced water. Bring to a boil and cook on medium heat until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender.
If you’re using a rice cooker, just do the first step in a frying pan and use that water to put in the rice cooker.
Another staple of south Indian meals with the rice (or instead of rice in the evening): chapatis. A typical lunch would typically be served with pappad (also know as popadum or papadum in other parts of the country) which is a very thin flatbread made from lentil flour and fried. You crush it on the rice and it brings some crispy texture to a lunch made of rice and curries.
They look easy to make but the secret lies in the cook’s skills to know exactly how much water to add and how long to knead the dough.
Whole wheat flout “atta” (it’s whole wheat but I found it a lot finer than our Western whole wheat flour, not very high in gluten. If you’re interested to know more about it, Kannammacooks’ post explains clearly why)
A little bit of salt
If you manage to find atta flour, the package will give you guidelines as to how much water you should use and then you can fine tune.
The dough shouldn’t stick to your fingers. If the dough isn’t right, your chapatis won’t fluff while cooking. They’ll be dense but edible, don’t worry.
The process is easy. You just add the water to the flour and knead until you get a ball of dough. For the final minute or so of kneading, brush your hands with a little bit of coconut oil then roll the dough into a ball.
Let rest a few minutes then make small balls (slightly smaller than a ping pong ball). Flour your worktable and a small rolling pin and flatten the dough, rotating it by 45 degrees between each contact with the rolling pin to increase your chances at making a perfectly round disc (let me tell you, it takes some serious practice!). Brush off the extra flour from the disc and set aside on a plate until you finish flattening all the chapatis you need.
Then, heat up some ghee in a shallow frying pan (same kind used to make crepes or pancakes) and place the disc inside on medium heat. If you made the dough correctly, it will start to puff from the air trapped inside. Cook until golden brown then flip it and cook until golden brown on the other side. You can add more ghee to color the second side if you want (just life one half of the disc to slide the ghee in the pan).
Et voilà, bon appétit!
Cooking lesson number 2 in the next post…