The Irish TV presenter and journalist discovered a love of spice when she was a hotelier in South India
Indian recipes are too damned long. That’s why I never cooked Indian food before I moved to Kerala in South India some 15 years ago. Now that I’m back in Ireland, I have created my own shortcuts, so my recipes are more suited to the busy life of us Westerners rather than the Indian housewife, who lovingly spends most of the day in the kitchen. Also, I’ve had to make some compromises because of difficulties finding ingredients here.
And the dishes still taste good.
One of the first things I did when I moved to Kerala was to buy a cooker, because the house I rented didn’t have one. But I had forgotten about when in Rome do as the Romans. Indian cooking in general is done on the hob.
The next challenge came from another direction. The spices. Acquiring an understanding of the vast array of them used in every single dish was a task in itself, but luckily all of them were grown in the hill stations up the road from me, so I could see the process from farm to fork.
I learned their names firstly in Malayalam (from locals), then in Hindi (from cook books), and even today I struggle with the English in some cases. Methi is fenugreek, urad dhal is, well, urad dhal (a kind of black lentil) and hing is asafoetida.
But the biggest challenge of all is to get the masala right, the blend of spices which you can make your own. In fact, not only will all Indian chefs have their own personalised masala, with their almost secretive blend, but every housewife will too.
On the other hand, I cheat. I bought a small hotel, the Raheem Residency in Alleppey. So now I bring big jars of my hotel’s garam masala back to Ireland. Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin and more besides, all blended by my own chefs. You can make them too, but I’m a spoiled brat. Then I add in the other spices. And here’s a tip: you daren’t rush cooking the spices. If they are undercooked they will be sharp and rough. I always said India taught me patience.
In the South Indian kitchen, spices are a way of life. But outside of that they have been a valuable commodity in the history of India. It was in May 1498 that Vasco Da Gama landed at Calicut in north Kerala, thus creating the first ever sea voyage from Europe to Asia.
Legend has it that as his men raced ashore they knew they were on to a good thing because they shouted “For Christ and spices!” And indeed they chose well because Calicut was the gateway to the world’s most fruitful pepper-growing hills and thus black pepper, piper nigrum, became a valuable trading commodity, eventually known as the black gold of Kerala.
Today, a wide variety of spices are still grown and exported from Kerala. If you take a trip up to the misty hill stations, you will see and smell cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla. And of course, the beloved black pepper.
The dishes I have chosen to share my recipes for, chick pea curry (kadala) and carrot/cabbage thoran, are the bacon and cabbage of where I lived. And like bacon and cabbage long ago in Ireland, I never once tire of it. The Malayalees, as the natives of Kerala are known, serve these curries with puttu, steamed rice rolls, or with the soft, velvety large-grained rice native to their own state, simply boiled. You can rarely find it in Ireland and you need a puttu machine, like a kind of meat mincer, to make the rice rolls. So we’ll keep it simple. You can get basmati rice in your local supermarket.
Now, back in Ireland, these have become my signature dishes for dinner parties. I never tell friends the real reason. It’s because I am so out of practice of cooking the traditional Irish way.
Living in India is a charmed existence in many ways, despite all of India’s problems. It is especially so if you’re middle-class. And so from the day I rented a house, I had a cook. It was expected of me to give employment to a local, widowed housewife.
My cooking experience was similarly limited by circumstance when I bought the hotel. Now I had qualified chefs who, naturally, didn’t want the boss in the kitchen. But I would sneak in now and again and watch the cooking process at a professional level.
Of course, there was no bacon and cabbage, no boeuf Bourguignon. But there were plenty of the most marvellous spicy flavour combinations that teased my palate and my imagination endlessly. It still continues for me today in Ireland, but without my teachers. And I’m still stealing the garam masala.
Raheem Residency is in Alleppey, Kerala. See raheemresidency.com
See the full article on The Irish Times here