Tuesday, January 21, 2014

South Indian Cooking 101

On Monday I had my first foray into South Indian cooking. A local tour company Storytrails does a class they call "Spice Trail" and it is just a few blocks away. Paul had the day off so I took the opportunity to go learn a little about how to get started cooking this amazing food that we have been eating, the intense flavors of which remain largely a mystery to me. The aisles of the local markets are stocked with rows and rows of spices, tinctures and vegetables the likes of which I have never seen or heard of, but that have been collecting in my empty cabinets and waiting for the perfect recipe to try.

We started by wandering down the street to the neighborhood market to pick up the fresh vegetables we'd need for our meal. We only bought a few tomatoes, a few large, mild peppers and a few small ones that pack a little more heat. We bought bell peppers, onions and of course curry leaves, which are typically thrown in for free with your vegetable purchase. We scoped out a local coffee spot and I verified, what I already knew, but aim to change, that even though we are living here in Chennai alongside one another and surviving in the very same spaces we are living and cooking very differently.

The mantra of the day: "We believe what we see."

If Indians don't buy rice fresh from the "rice guy" (and there is one, there is someone for everything) and see it ground to flour, feeling the warmth from the grinder between their thumb and forefinger, they claim don't know where it came from and therefore don't believe it is fresh and won't buy it.

The processes of most conveniences that we take for granted like ready to use flour, pre-ground coffee and premixed spices are just plain religion to the Indian people. They are the ultimate DIYers, in the best of ways and for the very best cause, health.

Nearly every ingredient, with the exception of spices, is purchased fresh daily, so all the banter about India's lack of modern refrigeration, is simply not a factor here. Most homes, including some that you'd take for quite modern and wealthy are using very little refrigeration and cooking in this amazing traditional and market-to-table way. Things that aren't used for that days cooking are purchased with a motive, aged to perfection and used to create something in the following days meal, for instance sour milk for paneer, the Indian version of cottage cheese. Each and every ingredient is added thoughtfully and never without purpose. Each element of a meal has a very precise and sometimes individualized medicinal purpose. Otherwise known as an Ayurvedic diet, something I currently know very little about, but am very eager to learn.

We began by learning to make our own filter coffee (there is a whole post for this) and a refreshing "Buttermilk" drink, made with "Curd" or plain yogurt, water and spices sputtered in a hot pan of sesame oil.  This drink is said to be "cooling" and is essential in maintaining balance within the body.

We made our own paneer, straining it through muslin purchased at a local cotton market and sliced it fresh for our meal. The next recipe was Bhajii, a batter which, when deep fried, provides a delicious and spicy blanket for anything from paneer, mild chili peppers, plantains, onions and even a stalk of mint or curry leaves. From what I gather you could batter nearly anything in this and it would be delicious. 

To accompany we cracked and grated our own coconut, Brahman-style, respecting the "three eyes" and the "ponytail" of the coconut. Seriously. There seems to be nothing here that is done thoughtlessly, with the exception of throwing garbage from ones car window, and perhaps I just haven't learned the religious ritual behind that yet or I at least I'm hoping, for natures-sake, there is one. 

Next, we ground our own chutney on what looks-to-be-but-is-very-much-not ancient stone duo, much like a mortar and pestle, using water, roasted chana dal, fresh chili and a little muscle. 

Even though I am told that bread is not native to South India, it has become a staple in the Tamil Nadu diet, so we learned to make several simple variations of bread, including chapati, paratha and poori. 

For our main dish we prepared the vegetables we'd procured from the market hours earlier and turned them into a beautiful Paneer Butter Masala and Biryani rice.

Paul opted to spend a sweet morning with Clementine while the boys were at school (yes they had school on our American holiday and we were heartless enough to send them. Perks of third world living!), but he put her down for a nap, went for a quick run and picked me up just in time to join us for another cup of filter coffee and the feast we had prepared all morning. The icing on the cake, or the curry leaves on the biryani as the case may be.

I'll be toiling away perfecting some of these in my own kitchen with recipes and photographs to follow.

I am impressed and amazed each and every day at the simple ingredients and tools that are used to create meals, architecture and decorative objects fit for a kings. I'm recalibrating my senses to appreciate the possibility of more from less and reaping the rewards of welcoming another culture into our kitchen and our hearts.

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