You know when you dream of going somewhere & you love it before you even get there. That is how I felt about Cochin, it was almost mythical to me. I have wanted to come here for years, it always sounded so exotic & full of stories. An old city at the heart of the ancient spice trade, fishermen, forts, ships and food are what I dreamed of & it has not disappointed me. I am going to have to be careful to get to the point & not post add a thousand photos on this post, I could really go on & on.
I Skyped with Becky a few days ago & we are already hatching a plan for a family trip here. It has many of our favourite things; art, food, birdwatching, faded grandeur, seaside promenades, massive trees, ice cream by the sea, boats, sunshine, beaches & goats. Firstly, I have to say I have no idea why there are so many goats but they are everywhere. Like cows in the rest of India they roam around eating everything but are a lot cuter. Cochin is a wonderful place to take a stroll & enjoy the randomness.
Before Vasco De Gama “discovered” this place there was already a small trading post here with Chinese, Arabs, Jews, Christian Syrians and the locals all haggling over fish & spices. Since then it has been in the possession of the Portuguese, Dutch & English and all these influences are obvious.
People talk a lot about multiculturalism in Europe these days as if it is some new phenomena, they should come to Cochin, it has been a feature of life here for over almost a thousand years (the Jews arrived in the first century AD). There are 39 different communities in a few square miles. I love seeing such a mix of people all getting along & (more or less) appreciating each other. In fact this pluralism is one of the many things I love about all of India but it is really condensed here. Ok I will post a few photos from Cochin at the end of the post but I really should get on to the food!
Leelu’s Cooking Class
I am a pretty rubbish traveller in that I don’t make many plans or research ahead very much & often miss things. I just sort of bumble about looking at stuff & talking to random people. However, I did have one plan before I arrived & that was to do a cooking class. I have made a few Keralan dishes at home & loved them but I always feel that you do not really know a cuisine until you have been to where it came from & tasted it.
It is all about the ingredients. These days it is hard to tell where things originally came from as trade has moved food around the world for thousands of years. A strawberry, for example, can taste very different depending on where you eat it. Here in India they are basically disgusting & not worthy of the name, in Peru they were ok but the flavour & texture were nowhere near as good as a proper European strawberry.
I now consider that I had never tasted a real avocado until I ate them in Peru, my God they are incredible, so creamy & aromatic. There are lots of factors which change the character of fruits & vegetables, climate, soil, transportation etc. One of the joys of travelling for me is to discover the food in its original home.
I wanted to taste some Keralan home cooking to know how I can make my dishes at home more authentic. Unfortunately most of the food in Fort Cochin is tourist fayre & I had to go to the mainland to get a decent fish curry. After a week I had still not tried any Avial which was one of my aims. I think it is a really distinctive dish, it could not be from anywhere else. It is all about coconut & curry leaves. Luckily a lovely lady called Leelu helped me out. She has held cooking classes here for the last 11 years in her home in the heart of Cochin. Thanks to the Lonely Planet she is now pretty well known & I am not the first blogger to write about her.
She was born in Kerala & grew up on a tea plantation. She lived in the Gulf with her husband for many years & they returned to “God’s Own Country” about 15 years ago. By then her sons were grown up & she wanted something to do so started teaching travellers how to cook some classic Keralan food.
The menu varies according to the seasons & what the fishermen have caught & always includes several vegetarian dishes. I mentioned my interest in Avial so she offered to teach us to make it. I was overjoyed. It was delicious & she said she would be delighted for me to share the recipe.
Before I do that I would like to say a few words about the other dishes we prepared. They were all fantastic. We made a classic fish curry with mackerel, I was so excited she had mackerel as it is such a tasty fish. The curry was gorgeous, made with coconut oil, garlic, chilli, ginger, fenugreek, turmeric & mustard seeds.
I also adored her Aubergine Masala which was rich with cinnamon from her homemade garam masala. Southern Garam Masala is very different from northern ones I have tried, fewer spices & lots of cinnamon. We also made Thoram which is a very traditional local dish. You can make it with any vegetables, we used unripe banana (plantain). The cooking was unusual as we mixed all the ingredients together, including the spices & covered it with water & boiled until the vegetables were tender. There was not frying or roasting of spices. The flavour was delicious, delicate with the vegetable really standing out.
We also made chapattis & the other people at the class were excited for my turn, hoping to see the chef burn hers – luckily I didn’t!
If you are ever in Cochin & fancy learning from Leelu then it is pretty easy to do, everyone seems to know her. She also has 4 rooms to rent in her house on tranquil Quiero’s Street. It is a lovely place & I wish I had stayed there (not just cos they had Nutella on the breakfast table). It is just a few streets away from the fishing nets & beachfront just near the action but still really quiet. Leelu & her husband Roy are wonderful, charming hosts.
You might need to book in advance & you can find her details in the Lonely Planet or online. Most hotels in Cochin advertise themselves as homestays but as far as I am concerned if you never meet the family & there are 15 bedrooms that is not a homestay. Leelu’s is one of the original ones & they have not extended or tried to go for the big money like so many others. I would like to say a huge thanks to Leelu & Roy, it was a pleasure to meet them & learn from them.
Tips for making Avial outside India.
Avial is usually made for weddings here which I guess is why you don’t see it on menus all the time. It is rich & tastes extravagant even though there are not that many ingredients. Now I have eaten it here I realise that is due to the coconut. Both freshly grated & coconut oil are used & the flavour is intense & (if you love coconut as much as me), magical. If you live in a cold climate this presents a problem. I have never managed to get my hands on fresh coconut which tastes like this in England. However, Leelu had a solution she said that an English chef she knows uses, dessicated coconut soaked in coconut milk.
To try this you should pack a cup tightly with dessicated coconut & then just cover with coconut milk & leave it for an hour or two. If too much coconut milk is used then it will probably be too liquid. I intend to try this when I get home but if anyone gives it a go in the meantime I would love to know how it turns out. I also think a good quality coconut oil in is order, this is widely available these days or you can order it online. Keralans use it in most dishes.
The other thing is the curry leaves, they really should be fresh. Unless you live on Mars it should be possible to get them – I have no idea if this is true but I usually go with the idea that if you can get something in my hometown you can get it anywhere. This is also a great way to use up bits of leftover veg in the fridge, pretty much anything goes in Avial.
Ingredients (serves 4 as a main course with rice):
- 5 cups vegetables (you can use pretty much anything, in Leelu’s there was plantain, potato, carrots, aubergine, bitter gourd & cabbage)
- 2 onions
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- chillies (to your taste)
- 1.5 cups fresh grated coconut (or dessicated soaked in coconut milk)
- 1.5 tsp cumin seeds
- 4-5 cloves garlic
- 2 tsp mustard seeds
- 2 sprigs curry leaves
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 1/2 cup yoghurt
1. Prepare the vegetables & cut them into finger sized pieces, like chips. Try to make them the same size.
2. Slice the onions 3-4mm thick & chop the chillies.
3. Place everything in a large saucepan, add 1/2 tsp turmeric & add enough water to come halfway up the vegetables. Boil gently until the vegetables are tender. Leelu covered the pan loosely to stop all the water evaporating. Once they are cooked there should still be some water left (about half) to make the sauce.
4. Meanwhile you can make the masala (spice mix). Put the coconut, garlic cloves & cumin into a blender or food processor with a little water. Grind to a coarse paste. Then add the mustard seeds & grind briefly to just break them open.
5. Once the vegetables are just soft make a well in the middle & add the masala, cover it with the hot vegetables & leave it for a few minutes to begin cooking the coconut & spices.
6. Meanwhile chop the curry leaves & add those, yoghurt & coconut oil & mix everything well. Be careful not to overcook the veg or at this point it will all turn to mush.
7. Season with salt to taste.
Keralans eat this with rice as a meal. I have always served it as part of a larger meal with other curries & breads or rice.
There is a lot to see in Cochin but I think my favourite place was the boardwalk. Watching the fishermen, chai sellers, ice cream guys, Indian tourists, foreign tourists, beautiful sunsets, massive tankers coming & going while snacking on sour mango, masala pineapple, kulfi & fresh roast peanuts was a fab way to end the day. The Chinese fishing nets seem to be more of a tourist attraction than anything else these days but it is fun to hang out with the fishermen & take photos of such a unique place.
There is also some interesting foodie stuff to see, old spice markets, fish markets, you can buy a fish from the market & there are stalls which will cook it to your liking. My favourite was the ginger factory. They get fresh ginger from the hill regions & dry it & ship it out. The place smelled incredible & the buildings of the old port area are beautiful. It is also really great to taste spices when they are so fresh, I am not sure how I am going to deal with the spices in England when I get home, they are going to seem tasteless.
There is also lots of art in Cochin, street art, galleries, crafts & Kathakali – the strangest dance I have ever seen.
and for Becky, a goat