Eighty per cent of travellers to India visit the Northern part of the country. They go to see the monumental monuments of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Old Delhi’s cramped hustle and bustle contrasting with New Delhi’s orderly and broad expanse is amazing. Agra’s Taj Mahal and Red Fort are breathtaking and Jaipur’s Amber Fort, pink palaces, ancient artisanal handicraft traditions and elegant conservatory delight.
So why go beyond? If you’ve seen the Golden Triangle you’ve seen India’s best have you not?
Well, if you are a cook, India’s real hook is less about her monuments and more about the reason that explorers fell at her feet in the first place. India’s spices are what set the world in motion.
When it comes to spices, South India – which is made up of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamilnadu – is a dream destination. Pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice thrive here. Cumin, coriander, mustard seeds and saffron are brought in from the North. Garlic, red onions, little shallots and chilies complement add depth and heat when desired. Curry leaves are plucked from bushes that are indigenous to the landscape. I’ll talk more about the spices I’ve found in South India in another post.
South India gave the world spices, Ayurvedic medicine and the star ingredient of this post – lots and lots of coconuts.
Here’s a few coconut basics I’ve found out so far.
The word Kerala means land of coconuts. India produces 16 billion coconuts for domestic use alone. Coconut is considered a miracle food and in South India every part of the tree and its seed – those dangling coconut pods – are used. Coconuts can be harvested every 45 days as new clusters are forming as ripe ones are maturing. Shells are used as bowls and tools, rope and rugs are woven, the logs are used in rafts, the oil is used for cooking, cosmetics, massage oils and as fuel in lanterns, the meat is grated or pressed for milk and cream and the water in a fresh young coconut is drunk and enjoyed for sweetness and its electrolytes and minerals. The people of South India have beautiful skin and by and large look younger than their stated age. Coconut is part of their daily life. For them it is the tree of life.
The people of South India can easily obtain coconuts from their own trees or at the markets daily. Opening a coconut involves a slick slit with a machete especially made for the purpose. Here in Canada we have to resort to a nail and hammer.
Once a coconut is opened, most South Indian homes will have a special seat come coconut grater to extract the meat with finesse.
Sadly, we cannot get such beautiful coconuts to crack and grate here in Alberta. I’ve had to resort to a frozen brand. As sad as that is, I’m happy that this frozen substitute – which originates from such a lush and tropical climates around the world – actually works quite well in the recipes I like to make.
Freshly grated coconut is used in a variety of savoury dishes in South India. Because of its predominance in much of the cuisine, the flavours of the South are remarkably different than the Northern Moghali influenced spicy cream and butter saturated food. This is a revelation to many because the Indian restaurants that dominate in North America reflect a cuisine of mostly North Indian origins.
Once you start to look beyond that great Golden Triangle of tourism and taste sensations in her North, India will reveal a much broader palate and change any ideas you’ve previously held about her.
The rest of this week, I’m going to share some of my favourite savoury ways to use coconut and because we are close to Christmas I’ll also be sharing a few sweet – not so Indian – treats that also star this versatile and healthful ingredient.
Turns out, going a little or a lot coconuts can help a cook savour it all. Stay tuned for a fun week of recipes and stories from my recent trip.