Travel changes us. It opens our eyes to a new window, a momentary glimpse on how people in other places live, what they eat. It offers us new observations based on what is provided for us to see in the scenery.
Beyond that, like a clean slate, we learn all that we are open enough to experience.
Perhaps we even return home and create things to share, such as, my Indian Inspired Cauliflower Steaks on Spiced Lentils.
A recent visit to the state of Kerala in India with my youngest daughter, Alex, provided just that unique sort of insight, a glimpse into Southern India. Kochi, Thrissur, Kumarakom, some of the stay places whose travel to and from each destination enabled viewing some additional cities en route.
Each location offered a similarity of food flavors prominent throughout the region including various spiced curries with a common focus on using coconut oil in many preparations. Today’s Indian Inspired Cauliflower Steaks are prepared using Coconut Oil thus part of my inspiration from Kerala.
The region of palms and coconuts daily served up coconut chutney as a common side dish for breakfast including alongside Sambhar, a traditional spiced dipping curry served with Idli which are steamed rice patties, or, assorted puffy Indian breads perhaps stuffed with seasoned potatoes as shown above. Bean dishes such as today’s Spiced Lentils are sometimes offered as a breakfast side but more often I found them served during lunch and dinner hours.
The Community Laundry.
Washing, hanging out clothes to dry or lying larger fabrics across the dried grass all take place here.
The man below certainly got his daily excercise swinging the laundry item before repeatedly slapping it against the wall.
Lovely cottages and homes intersperse with run down quarters.
Fruit and vegetable pop-up carts are found all around the cities.
Our both impromptu and well thought out tours over the course of nearly two weeks alternated between adventures of exploring side streets while also readying for the upcoming grand wedding of Sneha to Rohan.
There were culturally colorful pre-wedding festivities for Sneha, daughter of Jaya, one of my oldest friends from our twenty-three year Ladies International Group. Our daughters, Alex and Sneha attended high school together.
Also attending from our Ladies International Group was Carmina. She and I both wore the traditional Kerala saris for the Sangeeth. This design and style are worn by the women in the region. Hired women came in to ‘dress us’ for the festivity and believe it or not it took two women about fifteen minutes each to wrap us up tightly in this costume. It looks fabulous and is so much fun to wear, but at evenings end, trust me, I found myself in my hotel room tugging off the skin cutting tight blouse and pulling out those safety pins and wrappings while desperately trying to rip the thing unraveled. Free at last.
The Sangeeth was hosted at the home of the brides grandparents. Paul and Jaya are on the far right with Paul’s parents along with other family members.
Since the concept of the Sangeeth party means “Sweetness” besides providing a deeply religious component to the ceremony, the bride is fed ‘sweets’ from those family, friends, and neighbors around her ensuring a sweet life in her marriage.
I suppose it is only fitting that the elephant receives some sweetness too with his stately decorated presence and here it was my turn to feed a small banana bunch of ‘sweets’ to the elephant.
This gentleman created beautiful decorations for the Sangeeth using local palm leaves.
In the complex preparation process planning for this trip, I inquired our hosts Jaya and Paul what there was to see, places I should plan to visit with Alex, and later then, places we would be going after meeting up with the rest of the US visitors.
Paul patiently explained to me that although we would be seeing and doing plenty over the course of the visit that going to India was not like going to Europe armed with your tour book highlighted by stars of museums and parks and historical places of note. He shared that a big part of going to India involved the mere experience of literally just getting around. And within all the symbiotic chaos and contradiction absorbing the sights, sounds, people, and scenery. It was just that.
Amidst the narow winding, barely two-lane streets crammed with tuks tuks eagerly awaiting customers were those already occupied auto rickshaws swerving jerkily in and out. The signalled alert is communicated through relentless, rapid, horn beeping while closely beside or to the front and back of motorcycles and bicycles (many riders not even wearing helmets) assorted cars, and maybe small vans, all squeezed together avoiding a crash.
A good tuk tuk driver will negotiate a fair price and take you to interesting even uncommon places in the city. He will also ask you at some juncture for a favor. The favor always involves stopping off at a store where he likely gets a cut of the goods sold. Unless pressed for time Alex and I were good sports about it and visited the shop which generally offered nice products with no pressure sales.
For a little-added adventure a small slice of the road with the afforementioned vehicles additionally enables giving way to assorted roaming goats and pedestrians who within this chaotic scene calmly manage to avoid each other through some certain sense of collective understanding.
Prior to visiting Kerala India I could not, or would not, ever, believe I could ride in a vehicle that was faced with being hit head-on about every forty-five seconds and not even feel nervous while experiencing it. Vehicles simply don’t hit each other in Kerala, at least from what I saw, making the rider free to enjoy the exhilarating feeling of riding along in this crazy, almost reckless manner. I can hardly think of more fun.
Kerala has provided a thriving spice trade since the 14th century and its history can be traced even before the pre-Islamic era eventually winding its way into Portuguese occupation beginning with the arrival of Vasco de Gama, later then being occupied by the Dutch and the British.
Today the city of Kochi (Cochin) is the home of the International Pepper Exchange. I had visions of visiting the large spice markets along with tea plantations neither of which in the timing of things came to fruition.
Nevertheless, when it came to purchasing spices, Paul directed the driver to take us to the common shopping area whose crowded streets were bursting with activity offering basic wares as clothing, cooking utensils, assorted household items and on most every block, spice shops.
Boxes and sacks brimmed entries with mounds of cardamom, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric. Once inside the long dark entryways large sized jars stacked across ceiling high shelves displayed what seemed like quite possibly every spice in the universe. Un-agressive but eager to please, market staff assisted in opening jars for a peek of the merchandise and a sniff confirming its highly scented freshness while offering ideas on spice combinations that were sure to please.
Cardamom was one spice I passed on since Jaya’s mother gifted me something like a five pound bag of the organic variety grown on the grounds of her home. I did get a nice collection of pepper along with other spices for an amazing price but nothing was more shocking than to pay a mere equivalent of five dollars and fifty cents for a box of saffron, even pricey for India, but not at a US equivalent. I purchased three.
When people asked how I liked India upon my return I found myself responding that I loved visiting the state of Kerala, India. For otherwise, given that India is a very large country, saying you went to India is like saying you went to the United States where every state from California to New York and all the states that lie between are distinctly different from their terrains to their food flavors, seasons, politics and collective preferences.
A mere peek, a glimpse into Kerala at least opens ones eyes to a side by side view of grand bridges, harbors, elegant weddings, trade, transport snd high-end technology existing between ongoing internet interruptions, community laundries, busy streets of common shops for daily needs, the hectic buzz along narrow streets and well-worn shacks. Between these, the people seemed healthy, well- fed, and with everyone busily working throughout this area which is recognized as the most educated in all of India.
Kerala backwaters and the harbor are other parts of the story. Like Indian Inspired Cauliflower Steaks they provide another slice of life and like the flavor of Spiced Lentils, more sameness in contradiction, all part of the journey and Adventures in Kerala.
- For the Spiced Lentils:
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 green hot pepper, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh chopped ginger
- 1/2 tablespoon each: ground coriander, cumin, turmeric
- pinch red pepper powder
- 6 curry leaves on stems
- 3 small vine tomatoes, chopped
- 1 pound lentils, rinsed, picked through, drained
- 5-6 cups water or chicken stock
- a few good pinches coarse kosher salt, more or less according to taste
- For the Indian Inspired Cauliflower Steaks:
- 1 small cauliflower, 4 one inch thick cauliflower slices for 2 slices per person (serving 2)
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil
- pinch each ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, garam masala, coarse kosher salt
- In a large sized soup pot melt coconut oil on low heat. Tumble in the onion, cook gently for ten minutes. Add in the hot pepper, garlic and ginger, cook another few minutes. Increase heat to medium low, sprinkle in the spices and curry leaves, cook around two minutes for the scents to emerge and for flavors to blend. Scrape in the tomatoes, stir, cook another few minutes. Topple in the lentils, stir to blend with spice mixture, cook a few minutes then pour in four cups of water or chicken stock. Increase heat and bring lentils to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally. Add more liquid one cup at a time as lentils absorb (you want the lentils to be a little thicker than soup.) Sprinkle a few pinches salt into cooked lentils, check seasoning and adjust to taste.
- For the Indian Inspired Cauliflower Steaks:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Melt coconut oil in a small heat proof bowl around thirty seconds in microwave.
- In another very small bowl mix together the spices then stir into the coconut oil.
- Lay steaks onto a small baking sheet. Using a pastry brush liberally coat both sides of cauliflower with the oil and spice mixture.
- Place into oven, roast around fifteen to twenty minutes using a spatula to turn once after ten minutes, until tender throughout but not falling apart.
- Ladle hot cooked lentils onto a plate. Top with roasted Cauliflower Steak, garnish with fresh chopped cilantro.
Note: Lentils may be prepared in advance, frozen in individual containers and defrosted before use.