Let’s go further south now, to the village of Munroturuttu (Munroe Island).
This wasn’t a cooking class per se but Saraswa was kind enough to let me into her kitchen to watch the preparation of a delicious feast.
Aviyal (or aviel, avial, vegetable stew)
The main dish (besides the fish) of this meal is avial (or aviel) which is a vegetarian celebration dish in Kerala. This vegetable stew may vary in composition depending on the cook and what’s in season. In this one, she put green bananas, carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, okra, potatoes and green chilies. The gravy is made of water, coconut, coconut oil and spices.
Slice or dice all the vegetables and place in a pot with water. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat to medium. While it’s cooking, prepare the paste that will make the flavourful base of the gravy.
In a grinder, put shredded coconut, green chili, cumin seeds, turmeric and a little bit of water. Grind to make a paste. Add some coconut oil and add everything to the pot of vegetables with cari leaves. Cook until the vegetables are tender then set aside.
A regular meal will usually feature 2 to 3 small portions of vegetables, celebration meals will feature 5 to 10 but if Keralites really want to make a big feast, there can be many more (also including non vegetarian curries)!
The first thing she made was green beans. Not plain old green beans though… The green beans and diced onions are cooked in boiling water and a flavourful paste is then added to the pot. The coarse paste is made by grinding together fresh coconut, garlic, cumin seeds and turmeric powder.
Spicy carrots: shred carrots and chop an onion and green chili very finely. Cook in a little bit of coconut oil with some cari leaves and fresh coconut but stop before they turn mushy, you want the vegetables to stay crisp.
Cooked cucumber: I never imagined you could cook cucumber but I found out you can! The cucumber will be softer, not as crunchy as when it’s fresh but it’s not that much different. It will absorb the flavours of the spices it cooks with but still bring a crisp and refreshing element to your dish. Saraswa cooked the cucumber with some onions and then added a paste made of fresh coconut, turmeric, cumin seeds and a little water (grind everything together, make an extra portion of that mixture and set aside to add to the green papaya dish later). The finishing touch is to add some milk curds to bring some sourness to this rather sweet dish. Quite surprising at first but I loved this!
Green papaya thoran: first you need to cut the green papaya into small pieces and cook it in a pressure cooker or a saucepan with a little water. On the side, make a coarse paste by grinding together fresh coconut, turmeric, water and cumin (you can use the same paste you made for the cucumber). In a frying pan, fry mustard seeds and cari leaves for a few seconds in coconut oil then fry diced onions until tender, add some red chili powder, then add the green papaya and coconut paste, simmer until the water is gone.
There is a very similar dish called Kappa (Tapioca) Thoran which I absolutely love. If left to cook too long it can be a bit dry but it’s so sweet and flavourful that I enjoy it anyway.
Coconut chutney: super easy and very tasty addition to any dish. It would be nice with some crackers as well! There are many variations of coconut chutney, some including milk curds, so this is just one example (red coconut chutney). The ingredients are fresh coconut, onions, shallots, a little bit of ginger, green chili, tamarind paste, salt and red chili powder, everything ground together to a coarse paste.
Other coconut chutneys I had were made of coconut, onions, shallots, green chili and salt (white coconut chutney). Both the red and the white coconut chutneys can be used as a base to make a gravy that will be served with breakfast items like idlis and dosas. To do that, you would just heat up some oil in a frying pan, fry some mustard seeds and cari leaves, add some urud dal (kind of soy beans), water and leave on the stove until cooked. The coconut chutney base is added to that hot mix before serving.
As per its name, Munroturuttu is an island. It’s set between a river and the Ashtamudi Lake. What’s funny is that the river carries both freshwater from the lake and the backwaters and saltwater from the sea. You can clearly feel it when you go swimming, the surface of the water is colder than the deep water even when the surface is warmed up by the mid-day sun! Due to this strategic position, there are plenty of fishes and seafood (like shrimps) available. Fish is a staple food of Kerala.
For the fish curry, Saraswa started by preparing the gravy. First she made a paste by grinding onions, coconut, tamarind paste, turmeric powder, ground coriander and red chili powder. (Step 1)
In a wok or saucepan, heat up a little bit of coconut oil and add mustard seeds (alone for a few seconds) then diced onions, dried red chilies, some beans and cari leaves. Add diced tomatoes, cari leaves and some green chilies and fry for a couple of minutes. Then add the paste from step 1, pieces of fish and a generous amount of water and some salt.
It is very liquid, like broth but you will bring it to a boil and let simmer and reduce for a while until at least 1/3 of the water has evaporated and the flavours are more concentrated. For added flavour you can leave the fish head and bones in the soup while cooking and remove them before serving.
Because we were treated to a real feast, we were also served some marinated grilled fish!
For dessert, we had some payasam (recipe here) which is also a delicacy served during celebrations (birthdays, temple festivals, weddings…). It is a sweet coconut milk rice pudding
with cashews and sultanas, flavoured with cardamom (although each cook may twist the recipe as they want!).
Everything was beautifully served on a banana leaf which is again the traditional “plate” used during celebration meals.
If you’re ever in the Kerala backwaters, I strongly recommend you spend at least a couple of nights in this family homestay to enjoy the activities (like the canoe tour that will take you through the narrow channels to the beautiful Ashtamudi lake at sunrise and sunset) and the food. Vijeesh the son speaks very good English and the other members of the family can speak a little as well.
Munroe Island Backwaters Homestay
Vijeesh & family
Whatsapp: +91 904 817 6186
email: vijimunroe @ gmail.com
Disclaimer: I do not get anything for recommending the guesthouse but I truly loved the place and the people running it and want to support their business!