Look. There’s a Bengal Tiger in My Cappuccino.

P1060058We are staying in Nagarhole National Park part of the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that covers 5000 square miles across the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southwest India. To me it is wonder of human achievement that this park exists in the second most populous country on earth. It is habitat for over 100 different mammals including the majestic Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Elephant and Leopard.   It is late in the afternoon and we’re taking a water safari on Kabini Lake. It is calm, quiet and beautiful; the boatman cuts the motor often to stop and listen to the forest. Our guide, a certified parks naturalist, assures us that the animals go into the forest during the hot daytime hours but now that it’s cooler we have a chance to see some when they it come out to the lake to drink. We see hundreds of gentle, sweet-looking spotted deer, several huge gaur, wild pigs, lots of langurs (a large Old World Monkey with a very long tail) capering in the bamboo, a few elephants and a crocodile basking in the late afternoon sun.P1050950 P1050998               But wait a minute. Do you hear that? That is an alarm call. The monkeys are warning that danger is near. Now the forest is silent. A tiger peeks out of the bamboo, takes a few steps into the river to drink. P1050991 - Version 2Then her eyes meet ours.P1050989 - Version 3 And she slinks back into the forest. It’s thrilling for me to see a tiger in her natural setting but it is even more exciting to know and understand the natural environment she thrives in so that we can work toward preserving her natural space.   We return to our lodge full of awe. The sun is setting. P1060060The barista in the reading room overlooking the lake is very happy that we have been able to see a tiger. He shares his enthusiasm for conservation in Nagarhole National Park and makes us an unforgettable cappuccino to celebrate an unforgettable day.

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A Taste of Chettinad

“One is lucky to eat like a Chettinar” Ancient Tamil saying.

P1050031I’m lucky. A few weeks ago I received an email from Meenakshi Meyyappan. She wrote, “You probably might remember having stayed at The Bangala in Karaikudi in the Chettinad region of South India. At that time, you mentioned that you would be interested in a cookbook, if ever we did one. The Bangala Table a compilation of The Bangalas’ recipes has now been published.”

I bought the book that day and it is exquisite.

The Bangala is a small heritage hotel in Karaikudi one of seventy-six Chettinad villages deep in rural South India. And I will never forget it.IMG_7316

Ross and I arrived late for lunch our first day after a long, bumpy, hot drive through rural Tamil Nadu. Nothing prepared me for the feast of senses I was going to experience.

A calm, refined woman, Umma, greeted us warmly and handed us cool wet towels to freshen our hands and faces, served us tall glasses of lemonade and then invited us to follow her to the lunch area on the porch. They had been waiting for us and our places were ready at a long table set with the traditional fresh banana leaf dishes. A gentle water fountain nearby soothed my road weary head and the sweet scent of jasmine and roses from the garden filled the air. Servers, dressed in soft flowing saris, padded by and serenely spooned, one by one, dollops of the most aromatic and delicately spiced culinary creations I have ever tasted onto my banana leaf–fish curry, chicken Chettinad pepper masala, spinach Masiyal, mixed vegetable Kootu, drumstick sambar, yogurt. Then side dishes arrived. Vegetable fritters, coconut rice, mango. I was in paradise or was it home? It’s true. Home is where the heart is and the Bangala captured my heart.Image

Later Umma took us for a walk around Chettinad villages.Image 8 We talked about food and values, culture and art, family and traditions. We visited a home where a Chettinar family wove vibrant checked and striped cotton saris. IMG_7298

Image 1We shopped for vegetables and I bought a dozen tiny clay candleholders for Diwali in India or Christmas for us at our home in Canada.Image 4

Chettinad is known not only for its fine master chefs and cuisine, but also for its architecture. I listened to Umma’s stories about the eclectic historic palace homes we had never seen before that were built by Nattukottai Chettinar families. The palaces, ornately decorated with treasures–teak from Burma, coloured glass from Belgium, ceramics from Europe–reflect an exchange of ideas and merchandise that their trader/financier owners brought home from Burma, Malaysia, Ceylon and other parts of the world.IMG_7289

Image 5Now I too have a little piece of Chettinad to savour and treasure. The Bangala Table. Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad. The recipes, the photographs and writing are glorious. Thank you Meenakshi Meyyappan and all of you who worked hard to write this book and share your home with us.

Tastes of the Silk Road: Mulligatawny Soup

IMG_0080For me, travelling the old Silk Roads (between Europe and China) is all about immersion into the local culture–history, festivals, daily life, markets and food.  I keep two large, colourful hardcover books on display in my kitchen so I can have their beautiful photographs and delicious recipes by my side. One is Tasting India by Christine Manfield, and the other is Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey by Najmieh Batmanglij. I bought them for inspiration and for taking me back to my Silk Road travels, food being one of the greatest joys.

It snowed again last night. Tomorrow will be May 1. Almost summer and a cold icy white blanket covers our lawn. I want to go back to India. What could be a better way to take me there than making a nice Mulligatawny Soup for our supper tonight?IMG_0092

Mulligatawny, translated from Tamil, means pepper water and I can use the succulent savoury spices I brought home from South India a few months ago–red chilli pepper(cayenne,) cumin, turmeric and coriander. I’ve been making this soup for so long I know it by heart and use a dash of this and that. I don’t where the original recipe came from but, as Dr Seuss says, I’ll capture them wild and I’ll capture them scrawny and I’ll capture a scrapple -foot Mulligatawny.

So here we go. Bon appetite and happy Silk Road memories.

                                    Nancy’s Carrot Mulligatawny Soup

P1000310

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 large onion chopped

2 cloves garlic chopped

2 tsp each dried cumin and coriander

1 tsp turmeric

¼ tsp red chilli pepper (cayenne)

1 pound carrots, sliced (about 4 cups)

4 cups vegetable or chicken stock and 4 cups water

¼ cup cream or milk

Chopped fresh parsley or coriander

P1000302In a big pot gently sauté onions and garlic in oil until transparent, then add the spices and cook another 3 minutes. Add carrots, stir and sauté another 3 or 4 minutes. Pour in the stock and water and simmer 40 minutes. Cool. Blend until smooth then stir in the cream and reheat. (Carefully. Do not boil.) Ladle soup into pretty bowls and garnish with coriander or parsley. Serves 6-8.

Do you have any Silk Road recipes you’d like to share with us?

P1060308Just click on “comments” at the right, below and let us know.

Delicious Kerala

I love this place. Mohan, our trusted driver these past few weeks travelling slowly through South India, told us Kerala was “God’s Own Country.” I understand now why he couldn’t wait to show us his home state.

Kerala means land of coconut in Malayalam, the local language. But Kerala is not only about coconut.

It’s tea plantations, hills, backwaters, beaches along the Arabian Sea and Mohan’s favourite, “Kerala Fish Curry.” He has it almost every day with thali, a creative compilation of small tasty local dishes. Traditionally thali’s served on a banana leaf. Wholesome and inexpensive thali includes Kerala brown rice, vegetables, chutney, yoghurt and pickle.What better place to learn how to make Mohan’s fish curry than Cochin or Kochi as it has recently been renamed – it ‘s been a centre of fishing and trading in India for centuries.

Today a visit to Hindu temples, mosques, churches and a synagogue tells the story of Kochi’s long history. With a population of about one and a half million, it is not the sleepy port we first visited in 1994. At that time we could hear explosions off the coastline. “Dynamite.” We were told then. “For fishing.” The illegal dynamiting has been stopped but the renowned Chinese fishing nets in Kochi now “are mainly for catching tourists,” our guide tells us. I’m glad the fishing nets are still there. They are a beautiful reminder of the past and a way of living in Cochin.

Many of the chefs in the small hotels we are staying in South India are pleased to share their recipes and happy to help make changes to avoid allergens, even the much-loved coconut that is in every “Kerala” dish. Chef Kardhik at Brunton Boatyard Hotel near the fishing nets taught us how to make fish curry. I’ll make it at home and maybe post the recipe.We left out the Kerala and substituted cream. Delicious.

Like most things in this beautiful part of India.

Coming Next: Sama. Equanimity 

Sambar. A Cooking Lesson

Sambar is not an elephant. It’s soup. A wonderful spicy fresh vegetable soup. The vegetables in India vary from place to place so the soup varies a little but there are always yellow lentils and tamarind in it, lots of spices and herbs. Millions of South Indians love it for breakfast and so do I.

Ross’s allergy to coconut and nuts has actually been a bonus here. Everything on the menus has coconut or cashew in it, so the waiters often ask the chef to come and help us figure out what to eat. You could say that we’ve been talking our way around the kitchens of India. It’s been fun getting to know the staff. The chefs are always proud to prepare something especially to suit us.

Binot, the chef at Windermere Estates near Munnar, invited us to come into his kitchen for a cooking lesson. I wanted to learn how to make Sambar (without nuts). I’ll have to experiment with our vegetables at home but here are a few of the dozens of photos we took that day to help me create a written recipe at home.

Coming soon: Special guest post. A Beach of Two Tales by Ross Hayes

Idli and Dosa

Why do you go to India, people ask. It’s so far away, they say.

I go because so much is new and exotic, especially the mornings. Beautiful birds, I don’t even know their names, sing sweet songs in the garden, just outside my window. The sun creeps over the mountain and shines on the east slopes across the valley, bringing to life tea plantations that go on for as far as I can see. A comforting smell of wood burning to fuel fires for breakfast blends with a faint aroma of simmering curry. It’s time for breakfast. 

I’ve never been a big fan of breakfast at home but reluctantly I down some wholesome cereal or a boiled egg every morning.It’s different here.

Breakfast is a food-lovers delight. I love Indian breakfasts. Dosas, pizza-size, paper- thin rice flour pancakes, are served with sambar, a spicy, thick, yellow lentil and vegetable soup served with chutney, coconut, tomato and/or my favourite, coriander chutney. For variety, instead of dosa I ask for idli, an uncooked-looking feather-light rice dumpling that I dip into the mouth-watering sambar.

“How is everything this morning?” Ali, the chef, asks.

Ross is eating his omlet and toast. He loves his Canadian breakfast that is also served here.

“OOOO I gush. I love this. May I ask you a question? You don’t have to answer, you’re so busy now. But I really need to know how to make it.” I slurp up more sambar. “It’s sooo good.”

“Dosa and sambar are very, very traditional.” Ali says. “Also idli. Have you tried idli yet? People love idli too. We make everything from scratch here. It’s important.”

“First you need to soak the grains. Then you grind them like this” and he rolls his hands together. The dosas look easy to make but to be tasty you must carefully prepare the mixture.

“From scratch.” He says again. “For the sambar also. You must always use fresh curry leaf and coriander.” I’m thinking about some of my spice jars at home that have been sitting in the cupboard for fifteen years. Ali continues, “We never use pre-mixed curry powder here. We mix each special spice for every dish we prepare. And we always use tomato, onion, lentils for the sambar.”

I’m in awe and make a secret vow to reform my cooking practices. But I need to let Ali know that I can make some things well, although maybe not sambar and dosa. “Have you tied Angel Pie I ask? It’s our family’s favourite dessert. You can get it on my blog. In fact if you email me your recipes for dosa and idli I can put them on my blog too.”

Ali is thrilled.

And so, dear friends and family here is Ali’s recipe for idli and dosa.

I’ll make it for you some day.

IDLI

Boiled Rice

750 gms / 3 cups

Raw Rice

250 gms / 1 cup

Urad Dal

250 gms / 1 cup

Salt

To taste

STEPS TO PERFORM

Step 1 : Soak the rice and dal seperately for 2 hours
Step 2 :  Grind seperately, the rice should be coarse in texture and the dal should
be light and fine texture.
 
Step 3 : Mix together, add salt, blend.
 
Step 4 : Keep covered, ferment overnight.
 
Step 5: Next morning boil water in the pan of the idli steamer, place perforated idli
tray lined with muslin cloth on top.
 
Step 6: Pour idli batter into each cup
 
Step 7: Steam until done.
 
Step 8: Check if done by prickling with a fork.
 
Step 9: To remove idli, turn upside down on a platter, sprinkle water over the muslin
and slowly remove the muslin.
 
Step 10: Remove idli and keep it warm in a casserole.

DOSA

 

INGREDIENTS

QUANTITY

Raw rice

125 gms / 1/2 cup

Par boiled rice

625 gms / 2 1/2 cups

Methi seeds

1 tbsp / 12 gm

Urad dal

250 gms / 1 cup

Salt

To taste

STEPS TO PERFORM

Step 1 : Soak rice and dal seperately for 4 hours. Grind seperately to a fine batter.
 
Step 2 : Mix both batter together with salt to taste.
                  
Step 3 : Set aside overnight to ferment.

 

Step 4 : Next morning, spread dosa mixture thinly on a heated and greased tava.

Pour a teaspoon of oil around dosa. Cook and fold.

 
Step 5: Serve with sambar and chutney.
 
Step 6: If masala dosa, keep the potato filling in the centre and
fold.

Coming eventually: It is very difficult to write when the warm breezes are blowing and the sun is shining. My posts will continue to be erratic. I want too be outside all the time where my pencil and notepad work but the computer doesn’t. Thank you for your comments. I love them.  As soon as I can I’ll tell you about my cooking lesson with Binot, the chef at Windmere. We made my favourite, Sambar.

Angel Kisses

Yes Sarah, it’s true. We don’t have to travel far to find angels with hearts of gold. Especially at this time of year.

One walked in my front door this morning.

After she said hello, she went straight to the kitchen. Without a word, she opened the cookie jar, grabbed a freshly made Angel Kiss and gave one to her niece who was with her.

“Here try this. It’s Nancy’s Christmas baking,” she said to her niece.

She popped the cookie in her mouth and broke into a beautiful smile.

“Will you teach me how to make these things?” She asked with wonder in her eye. “I just love them.”

So for my dear friend and all of you,  here is my simple recipe for Angel Kisses.

Artwork by Ava

Angel Kisses                                      

2 eggs whites at room temperature

8 tablespoons white granulated sugar (superfine if you have it)

1-teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 250° F. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Beat eggs whites until stiff but not too dry. Then add sugar, SLOWLY, a tablespoon at a time, beating constantly. Add the vanilla about half way through the beating.

The eggs white should now stand up in little peaks, like angel wings. Drop the mixture by teaspoonfuls on the prepared cookie sheet. Sprinkle with stardust (coloured sugar.)

Bake for about an hour until they are a very pale golden. WATCH carefully (timing depends on the size.)

Turn OFF the oven and leave the cookies in the oven to dry out for two or three hours.

Enjoy the season. It’s the time to look for hearts of gold, and angels. I’ll look forward to your stories and comments.