Due to my recent* obsession with all flavors Indian, it really should come as no surprise that the Central Market Cooking School class I chose for Sep-Pember was entitled Seasonal Suppers: A Feast from Southern India.
*Does the fact that I tried to make everything “chai-spiced” prior to the actually induction of curries and such into my life mean this really isn’t all that recent after all?
Kerala means land of coconut palms, and coconut–obviously–plays a huge part in the regional cuisine.* In Southern India, not a lot of oil is used, and the dishes are much lighter, not as ‘creamy’ or ‘saucy’ as the Northern Indian masalas and curries we’ve come to know.
*I’m not sure you really want to know how excited I was to hear that. But you can probably guessed based on the coconut cravings that have been heightening right along with my Indian fixation.Asha told us that the three major distinctions of Kerala cuisine are the trio of coconut oil, mustard seed, and curry leaves. Despite the common base, every dish we tried had an incredibly distinct profile and was its own unique flavor experience.
The theme of the evening, however, was not simply Kerala cuisine, but a celebration of Sadya, the harvest festival. The menu was entirely vegetarian…and entirely astounding in it’s incredible flavor and overall scrumptiousness. You know the night is going to go well when it starts off with a serving of sweetened rice milk. Puthiri–meaning “new rice” is a traditional first dish served to celebrate the harvest. Fresh, flattened rice is moistened with ghee (clarified butter) and milk, then sweetened with honey and topped with cardamom and raisins. [It's OK if your mouth is watering.]From there we moved on to the first course, which is a serving of Kerala red rice* and a simple dahl.
*If I could actually cook rice, this would become a staple in my kitchen. It is the best rice I’ve ever had. Seriously.
You spoon some melted ghee (yes, butter!) on top, and then add a pappadum–Indian flatbread or thin cracker…almost like a giant lentil or hummus chip.
And then you crush it with your hands!!!!*
*Don’t use your left hand. That was a mistake. Left is considered unclean, and I probably would be banned from the meal had I actually been in India. They probably wouldn’t have thought “but I needed to take a picture!” was a good enough excuse.
Trust me, I can definitely get behind any cuisine where eating with your hands is not only suggested, it is encouraged.
When in fake-India…do as the Indian culture does!We were eating family style, which was a new format for many of us who had taken cooking school classes before. It not only encouraged conversation and community (and made the entire experience that much more enjoyable), it meant we had as much of each dish as we liked……and I could devour the accompaniments at my leisure. The fried plantains were good, yes––but this Inji Curry (a sweet/sour ginger chutney)? Let’s just say I almost took the serving bowl and dumped the entire thing on my plate.The Sadya meal is traditionally served on banana leaves, and you use the same one throughout the whole festival, with the idea that the layering of flavors as you move through the courses is incredibly important. To that end, we ate from the same plate all evening. Moving into the second course brought Okra Sambar, a dish of okra cooked in tamarind sauce, thickened with lentils and featuring slight heat from red chiles. This dish could be made with other veggies, but realizing I had made it through the entire summer without once cooking okra, I was happy to see some Southern AMERICAN flavors entering the room.
Coconut came out full force in the Aviyal, a mix of seasonal vegetables cooked with pureed fresh coconut and yogurt, with coriander spice and curry leaves.The Fried Bitter Gourd (Bitter Melon) was a surprising delight, not only in it’s complex “why do I like this strange, sour, bitterness?” flavor..
…but also for the fact that it looks kind of like a lizard crossed with a mouse in its original form.Let me take a minute to mention that the Beets Pachadi was one of the most beautiful sauces I had ever seen.
Not only could I make this yogurt-based curry in perhaps ten minutes….…it tasted quite lovely, too. [Can you tell I was enjoying my meal?]
The last course feature Kaalan, a soup-like dish of mango cooked in coconut-yogurt sauce, sweetened with jiggery (Indian brown sugar).The fresh Thoran–which I likened to an American succotash–was an incredibly fresh tasting saute of green beans and corn, topped with coconut flakes.
And then came the best thing I ever ate*: Erisseri, a dish made from black-eyed peas, cubed butternut squash, and Indian spices that I pretty much never wanted to live without again.^
^You know your co-workers truly understand you when they say, “You really want to lick that spoon don’t you?” And then they hand it over so you can.
Just when you thought it was over…out came dessert! A plantain pudding that I for some reason had to eat with a fork. (Not that I minded.)