Thursday, January 27, 2011

Kollam and Coconuts

So this is it, the end of the trip. Cameron is on the long flight back to Canada and -36 and we are left in Trivandrum in 36 degrees. Almost three weeks of non stop travel and good food, beautiful people and places.

After going to sunday church we waited to meet some members of the fishing community in Kollam, a medium size fishing town. It had had lots of money spent on it, three story flats and concrete, bars on windows and locks on doors. Its strange how money and so called progress makes such fundamental changes to the community. We managed to track down a local activist Andrews Ambrose who we hoped would open all kinds of doors for us but he didn't, he just closed his and said he would need to discuss our work with the committee, so we got in a car and found the local fish market just north of Kollam.

Sardines, millions of them, boat after boat, crate after crate, noise, smell and movement. It was amazing to see just how much in one small port, by just a few fishing boats could be landed. On an average day about 5,000 baskets each weighing around 30-40 kg are bought in, on a good day 10,000. These are big commercial boats that trawl the seas all night, from the beach after the sun has set it looks like a far off city of twinkling lights.

In the morning on Kovalam beach, I sat and watched around thirty local fishermen land their beach nets, from sunrise to about 9am they move across the beach with their ropes, singing rhythmically as they draw in the nets. The whole community working together then sharing what they bring in. This time as is now more the case, their nets were empty. Just a couple of crab, an eel and some small and terrified mackerel. There is such a disconnect with the business man who owns the boat and the people who work it to the resource they are harvesting. It merely becomes a financial transaction and is bereft of emotion, culture and respect. But hey, the fishermen have those wonderful tourists to fall back on!

On our way to Trivandrum, stopping at one of the wonderful Indian Coffee Houses. Puri bhaji and sweet milky coffee pulled us all together and we ended up in the kitchen to see what they were putting in the rather strange colored bhaji… it was all a bit suspect but turned out to be beetroot.

Then again to the amazing Laurie Baker designed Indian Coffee House in front of the train station. This circular building has a spiral dinning hall and over thirty tables, cool air and natural light, a far cry from the normal "hotel" eating joints we end up in.. blacked out glass a squeaky old fan blowing hot smoke and chillie filled air around the room while eliminated by the wonders of strip lighting. How simple it could all be if we though about more than just how to make a bit of money.

Coconuts seemed to be a good start so we headed off the main roads and stopped at coir villages. The book we will put together will be a combination of recipes and stories on food, the people the culture and the environment and how they are part of a whole. What has taken us ten thousands years of toil, understanding and respect is true sustainability, what we are being sold as food security and sustainability is little more than a resource grab. Its only when you travel deep into the villages that you begin to understand how it all works and how it needs to work. 

So coconuts would be a perfect story for the book. From its religious, cultural significance, its water and milk, its flesh and its shell, for oil to cook and oil to burn, wood and leaves for building, fiber for materials and so we could go on. One tree with endless possibilities. So this is very much were we need to go with the project the connection to the source of our food and our cultures. Thank you Cameron for starting this up. And thank you Chintan, you've been amazing.  Its going to work!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

God's own country

So finally we arrived in beautiful Kerala and it really seems to be god's own country. We just hope it stays that way. Almost 100% of the population are educated...and it shows.

Upon arriving in Fort Kochi, we made our way down to the main waterfront where the fishermen bring in their catch to be weighed and auctioned.  Kingfish, pomfret, mackerel, and rather large cuttlefish appeared to be the species in demand. Much of the kingfish apparently makes its way to north India, Hong Kong or even the Middle East. 

While living in Delhi, many times I had been told about the wonderful food served at the Philipkutty home stay.  We decided to make the hour and a half journey from Fort Kochi to meet one of the owners, Anu Matthew. Philipkutty’s farm is situated on an island in the ‘backwaters’ - a unique fresh and salt water ecosystem- interconnected freshwater rivers and canals that feed towards the sea, through a couple of larger lakes, that seasonally get charged with saline water, when the sea backs up. A system of locks and sluices keep the salt from the freshwater. Initially the farm practiced ‘modern’ rice cultivation.

However, Anu’s deceased husband Vinod realised the challenges of single crop farming and over time moved the farm towards a more sustainable inter crop system. During the last 10 years the farm has been undergoing a transformation towards using greater organic methods to grow and harvest the coconuts, fruits, vegetables, and assorted spices such as nutmeg, mace, pepper and vanilla.

As we boarded the kettuvallom, the traditional boat of the backwaters maneuvered using a single long bamboo pole, the warm scent of drying coconuts welcomed us to the farm. It was later explained that the farm made its own coconut oil for cooking and cosmetic purposes. 

Anu introduced us to the culinary authority in their home, her mother in law, Aniamma Philip, aka Mummy. For the next couple of hours, in the courtyard under the shade of a large mango tree, Mummy divulged some of her kitchen secrets.” If you add the crushed spices too early to a duck curry the flavour and colour of the sauce will become cloudy”, she said.  

Similarly, as she made the beetroot pachadi (a lightly cooked vegetable or fruit mixed with grated coconut, yogurt, and spices) she described how the last minute tempering of fragrant curry leaves, chillies, mustard and fenugreek seeds provides a more complex layer of flavour. Anu shared with us her favourite thoran (stir fried vegetable with grated coconut and spices) recipe made from banana blossom. Mummy also showed us her version of a red snapper curry with lots of curry leaves and red chillies. The finished dish has a wonderful balance of heat and sourness from the local sour kokum fruit.

Over lunch, they said that we were quite lucky to be visiting while ducks were available in the market. Anu explained that after the harvest of rice farmers bring in ducks to clean up their paddy area by eating the remainder rice and in the process fattening them up to become a tasty seasonal treat. As we drove back to Fort Kochi we came upon a farmer who was selling some of his paddy-fed ducks by the side of the road.

We travelled southward to the community of Kollam. This coastal area of south Kerala is made up of small fishing hamlets of the three predominant faiths: Christian, Muslim and Hindu. Since it was the day of rest, there was limited fishing activities, we decided to visit the various churches within the communities.  We are looking forward to the next few days of being back on the water and in the kitchens learning more about the fishing families of Kerala. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Udupi and onwards

It's been a few days of hotel, train, bus, rickshaw and no internet but we have finally arrived in the beautiful Kerala. God's own country. The following is from our last few days on the road, some pictures and some words.

From Karwar we took a relaxing train journey along the scenic Konkan railway to the temple town of Udupi. Unbeknownst to us is was a festival day at the temple and tens of thousands of pilgrims had convened to celebrate. Music played in the streets as firecrackers burst from the alleyways. Late in the evening the idol of Lord Krishna was escorted by a well trained elephant for his evening walk.

The temple bells ringing in the morning pooja (prayers) acted as our alarm clock. Being the birthplace of the famous South Indian breakfast we wandered around in search of a masala dosa (crisp lentil crepe with spiced potatoes) and coconut chutney- along with the much needed wake up from a cup of South Indian filtered coffee.   

Discovering that Sundays were quiet at the temples (as Lord Krishna is fasting) we decided to go to nearby Malpe beach. All along the beach were friends and families enjoying each other’s company; boys racing each other along the damp sand; children playing in the waves of the warm waters of the Indian Ocean; and grandparents itching to get a turn guiding the family kite.

The following morning we spent some time in the main temple kitchen used to produce the food for the over 10,000 daily pilgrims. Hindu pilgrims from all over the country visit the temple to offer prayers to the boy deity, Lord Krishna. In order to keep Krishna happy the temple priests feed him his favourite food.  Visitors to the temple believe that this same food served to them will fill their souls with the divine. They feel that it will bring them closer to Lord Krishna.

After a long journey via train, bus, and taxi we made our way to the home of Raju and Nethra Hegde. They live in a very small village in the Nellitotha Forest located in the interior of Karnataka. With some help of a local NGO they have set up a basic, yet comfortable, home stay. The next morning we awoke to a simple breakfast of Neer dosa (rice crepe), two variations of coconut chutney and some sweet and sticky palm sugar syrup. 

Raju then led us on an hour long hike deep into the forest to visit a tiny community consisting of just a few families. Close to 70 percent of Indians still live in a rural setting. Many of them live a subsistence lifestyle off of the local resources. Ganga and her family live in a four room house made out of mud and with no electricity. Spending time in and around their home and discussing their way of living we learned that almost everything they need is in the forest. It is their grocery store, hardware store and pharmacy. Ganga showed us the laborious process of husking rice and grinding it to flour.
He son led us to a tree in the forest which he proceeded to climb and cut down a branch with a nest in it. When Raju asked us if we ate meat I assumed that perhaps we would be treated to a local egg or forest chicken dish. Little did we realise that it was a nest of red ants and their eggs. Ashwini, Ganga’s daughter, sifted the ants and their eggs with a little salt and then proceeded to make protein rich chutney with coconut and green chillies. For lunch we all sat around eating Ganga’s hand ground rice rotis, Ashwini’s ant chutney and a fiery red chile coconut chutney. Surprisingly, the ant chutney was extremely tasty with a pleasant tamarind like sourness. 

It was explained that one of the ways the community celebrates a harvest is by playing their drums and singing local songs. Several male members of the community seemed eager to share their drumming and singing skills with us.

As I sipped my last cup of tea of before leaving the forest I thought about the people we met on this leg of the journey. Food should be not just for the body, but for the mind and spirit as well. The land from which we get our food needs to be valued. We must perform our everyday actions carefully, and mindfully, in order to contribute to the well being of our entire ecosystem.

and today we arrived in Kerala and Fort Cochin...