There is much to be said for simple fare

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 19, 2008

After a quiet night on the houseboat, we had coffee, then breakfast. We then motored up Vembanad Lake for two hours landing at the Phillipkutty farm, our next homestay, across the river from Vechoor, Kottayam. What a way to arrive!

Phillipkutty farm consists of 45 acres of reclaimed land from the backwaters, as are a lot of the farms and homesites in the area. They even have a pumping station to get the water out of the canals that line the farm plots since they are below sea level. Unlike New Orleans, hurricanes are not a problem in Kerala, but the monsoons can bring a lot of rain. Their most lucrative crop is coconut: sold fresh, dried as copra for oil, and the fiber is used to make coir.

On our first afternoon we got a tour of the plantation which grows also cocoa, vanilla (the seed pod of an orchid growing up the coconut trees), black pepper (a vine also growing up the coconut trees. The green peppercorns are dried and turn black forming the spice we know. White pepper consists of the seed only, with the fruit removed. This is accomplished by allowing the fully ripe berries to soak in water for about a week, during which the flesh of the fruit softens and decomposes. The naked seed is dried. Green pepper, like black, is made from the unripe berries but treating them with sulfur dioxide or freeze-drying to maintain the green color. Pink or red pepper consists of the ripe red pepper berries preserved in brine and vinegar), nutmeg (a fruit a bit smaller than a peach ripens on the tree and the outer flesh splits and the nut is exposed with its bright red lacy covering of mace), cinnamon (the bark of the cinnamon tree), and pineapple. They also kept chickens, ducks and geese. A kitchen garden was not at its prime due to the monsoons but long beans and bitter melon were still on the vine.

A few years ago Vinod Mathew had Karl Damschen, a Swiss architect who still lives and works in Cochin, to design the first villa in a traditional Keralite design. There are now five cottages facing the river, each around a courtyard with a sitting sala and separate spacious bedrooms with adjoining baths. The center of the courtyard has a stone tub that has a flower arrangement designed by one of the staff every morning. Just the blossoms are floated on the water: a ring of yellow alamanda, around a ring of white jasmine, around a single large hibiscus flower. Other designs included green leaves floating on the water circling some exotic blossom.

Vinod died a couple of years ago at age 37 of a heart attack but Anu, his wife now capably administrates the operation including Mummy (Vinod’s mother as the cook), a staff of 20 to 30 on the farm and in the villas as well as taking care of her two young children: Phillip and Anya. Phillip was named after his grandfather Phillip as was the farm. Phillipkutty means “little” Phillip and was the elder Phillip’s nickname. Anu and Mummy leave with the children each morning at 6:30. The boatman poles them across the river where a car and driver await to drive the children to Cochin about an hour away. Anu and Mummy then attend mass at the Syrian Orthodox Church before coming back to attend to guests. Most Christians in Kerala are Syrian Orthodox. Christianity is said to have arrived in South India and the Malabar Coast in the 1st century with St. Thomas the apostle. More credible sources suggest that it was in the 4th century that the Syrian merchant, Thomas Cana who with 400 fellow travelers brought Christianity. A branch of this church survives today with the Patriarch of Baghdad as the sect’s head.

Meals are often served in an open-air pavilion but we had some in the main house with the family when the rains were bad.

Meals are eaten with the right hand scraping up bites of various dishes with a pinch of rice or bread. Often banana leaves were used as plates. We were always given knives and forks but I never saw family members using anything but their fingers.

Anu and Mummy are publishing a cookbook the end of the year but I did cook with them one evening and got the following two recipes. Nothing was measured, but just cut up and put in the large pan.

Chicken Curry

Heat several tablespoons coconut oil (you can use vegetable oil) in a large sauté pan or wok and add 2 large cut up red onions. Stir these until they are very soft, about 10 minutes. Then add curry leaves (about 10), some chopped ginger and garlic (about 2 tablespoons of each), chilies (about 4), salt and pepper and stir again for about 5 minutes. After this add about 1 tablespoon of turmeric and then add 4 carrots and 4 potatoes cut up. Add cardamon and cloves that have been smashed up. Stir this together and add more pepper if necessary. Add one whole cut up chicken. Cook for 30 minutes. Add 1 cup thin coconut milk after the chicken is cooked. Heat for 10 more minutes, and at the end of the cooling add another cup of thick coconut milk. This served about 8. Of course rice and nann were served with the meal.

Fish Molee

Heat 3-4 tablespoons coconut oil, or vegetable oil in a large sauté pan .Add about 10 curry leaves. Add 3 large red onions cut up and cook for 10 minutes. Add garlic and ginger paste, chili powder and turmeric. Use as much or little of the above ingredients as you would like for hotness or coolness. Then add 3 tomatoes cut up, fresh tomatoes if possible. Add the fish, probably 6 fillets cut about ¼ inch thick. Any white fish will do. Spread the fillets out in the pan and spread sauce over all. Cook for about 10 minutes, since the fish will cook quickly. Add more curry leaves at the end. Serves 6. We ate this with rice in contrast to the fish molee soup we ate at The History in Cochin.