Mahabalipuram lies about an hour south of Chennai in the state of Tamilnadu in South India. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the sixth to eighth century temples carved in great detail from rock and sand. They’ve withstood time. They’ve withstood Tsunamis.
The beach here is long, curved and cascaded upon by never-ending wave chasing wave. They’ve arrived in this little crook in the Bay of Bengal in a chaotic but somehow predetermined rhythm. They seem to collapse exhausted on the shore after realizing the futility of racing each other across the breadth of the Indian Ocean. Plunging into them at dawn you feel the strength the moon lends them in tidal force. They want to pull you to the ocean’s depths with them but just in time a bigger stronger wiser wave floats you safely to shore.
Temples and beaches are impressive attractions but my reason for being in Tamilnadu was to see a dear friend and meet and cook with his family. Read on for a crispy Tamilnadu lamb fritter recipe and a few photos from my recent visit.
In Mahabalipuram you can put your hand on stone carvings that artists chiselled 1500 years ago. You can get a feel for that time as many of the works depict what the daily life was like then. This was something new. Typically, Gods and Goddesses are the never-ending theme of sculptures and bas-relief in India but here you have a glimpse of yourself as a human being from another millennium. You see the shape and size of people, their clothing, a cow being milked and if a God is depicted they are double or triple the size of mere mortals.
The thing I love the most about milling around temples is the chance to mingle with Indian tourists. It’s easy to strike up a conversation. Almost everyone speaks a bit of English. Small talk suddenly becomes a bridge across space, time and cultures as you chat about where they are from and how they are enjoying their visit. They’ll want photos of you and you’ll take selfies with them. Laughter and Namaste or Vannakom are the greetings to exchange. These exchanges are the warm fuzzies that happen so often in India. They get lost in the shuffle in your efforts to explain INDIA and your trip to those interested but I hold those moments close to my heart.
Despite these pleasant encounters, by early afternoon, it’s still easy to tire of the persistent hawkers hassling you to buy their handicrafts. They are fierce business people trying to make a living and I respect that but – combine that with learning about Shiva cults in the steadily raising temperature and – a cool drink and chance to rest becomes paramount. The Golden Palate provided respite and the local lunch favourite – banana leaf thali.
I thought it would be a modest meal – something to tide us over – but we were seated and servers brought such a series of successive dishes I was reminded of the waves encountered on my morning swim. I think there were about 20 small items. No matter how you count it, 20 items don’t end up being small in your tummy. We were full and sinking in the waves of these delicacies – rice, chutney, breads, curries – all eaten with fingers as ladle and thumb for delivery in true Tamil fashion. The food was fresh, eating with our hands (once we got the knack of it) was fun and rolling out into the waning heat we were ready to go walkabout for recovery.
Some went across the street to have silk blouses made, some made a bee-line to local spas and I went home with my friend Charles to meet his family.
Two years before, I had promised Charles I’d visit his home town and he promised we’d cook with his family. Now here we were. His wife Julie and her brother Regan were preparing a cooking lesson and dinner feast for me and my friends.
I spent a lovely afternoon getting to know Charles’s daughter Sahana. It’s precious to meet people you’ve watched grow through pictures and stories from afar. A shy seven-year old she slowly came around from pretending to play on her Dad’s phone – while we talked – to bringing me everything she wanted me to see from her life and times. I adored her as I sat covered in stuffed animals and school reports.
Evening came. We gathered for a cooking demo in a small nursery school reimagined as cooking school as it was the only place they had to hold us all. The walls were a cheery pink, tables had been rented for the demo and chairs for the guests. We settled in for a lesson so professionally delivered by Charles’ wife Julie that my friends thought she had done this many times. It was her first time.
Julie could easily become India’s Julia Child.
She has a commanding but friendly presence and was able to teach with the detail and thoughtfulness that cooks learning a new cuisine need. She shared a lot of tips and most importantly – the food was wonderful.
If you go to Mahabalipuram you can contact Charles and Julie to arrange a cooking lesson or local tour. They work at Travel XS right on the main street. It is a South India phenomenon that they don’t have last names. But don’t worry, Mahabalipuram is small and if you go in their office – EVERYONE knows them.
Here is the recipe for Julie’s Mutton Kozha Vurundai or what I call crispy lamb fritters. They are one the best things I’ve eaten in my ongoing Indian culinary odysseys with Indus Travels.
Crispy Lamb Fritters
Mutton Kozha Vurundai from Julie in Mahabalipuram
500 grams of ground lamb
¼ cup gram flour (also known as Besan or chana flour)
3 Tablespoons grated coconut (I suggest using frozen in Canada)
2 Tablespoons oil
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
6 fresh curry leaves (or dried)
1 cup finely chopped red onion
1 Tablespoon garlic paste
1 teaspoon Indian chile powder (or to taste – Julie used MUCH more than this)
1 teaspoon garlic paste
1 teaspoon ginger paste
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
Sunflower oil for frying
Put the lamb in a strainer and rinse it with cold water and leave it to drain in the sink.
Place the gram flour, coconut and cashews in a dry shallow pan and roast them on low heat until the flour is golden brown and the mixture becomes fragrant – about 5 minutes.Let it cool and then grind to a very fine powder in a food processor or spice mill – this is important as it affects the texture of the meat balls you are going to make – they should be smooth as silk with no residual grit detected.
Heat the oil in a large pan and add the fennel seeds, and curry leaves until they begin to sizzle.
Add the onions and cook till soft but not brown.
Stir in the garlic and cook till it becomes fragrant – about 30 – 60 seconds.
Add the ground meat and cook, stirring until it has browned and the water is absorbed. You may need to drain some fat. Note: In India mutton is used for this recipe and mutton can mean lamb or goat.
Transfer the meat to a food processor and pulse to a fine crumb.
Place meat in a large bowl, cool a bit and then stir in the Indian chile powder (never TexMex) teaspoon of garlic and ginger paste and salt.
Add the eggs and use your hands to knead them into the mix.
Form 24 walnut-size balls.
Heat sunflower oil in a deep wok on medium high heat, add the balls in batches and fry till crispy and reddish-brown on the outside.
Serve as a starter with your favourite chutney – mint, coriander and coconut all work well.
Julie also made us Mint Chicken, vegetable curry, daal, rice and breads. Here’s a tip – that is gut-bustingly obvious in hindsight – do not attempt a Banana Leaf Thali meal and a cooking lesson with Julie in the same day! Both are great but Julie’s food deserved keener appetites than we could muster with our jet-lagged minds and thali tired tummies. We tasted it all, however, and collapsed in a happy food travel coma.
My recent post on monsoons, had me thinking a lot about my friends in Tamilnadu. The sweet memories of that gift in time spurred me on to finally write about them. As I tested and prepared this recipe for you, I thought about all we packed into that one day in South India.
I remembered a ride sitting sideways on the back of Charles’s scooter as I nibbled on these fritters last night. The soft post monsoon air floated over my face as we slowly turned a corner onto a busy market street. At that moment it was as though I was forcibly struck. I had a sense of time stopping and of complete absorption in the here and now. In the same instant, I felt the flow of life eternal. I think I understand the surrender of those early morning breakers on the beach now. Frozen in the moment, all my senses came to life and I’m able to recall that day vividly.
Beyond the sweet barnyard-y smell of freshly dropped dung from the sacred cows that wonder where their bovine hearts’ desire – the air that day was truly pregnant with the fragrance of tropical frangipane, magnolia and their sweet scented sisters. The night’s rains had dabbed Mother India with perfume on her wrist. The vivid colours and tastes of that day’s Thali lunch pop in my mind’s eye and I see and taste them again. I remember the feel of midday heat on my body and the smooth touch of those subtle beige stone carvings. I long for the surge of energy that came from that early morning plunge into the tiger fierce Bay of Bengal.
All my sensory memories of this place have blended for me into this recipe shared by my talented friend Julie. The taste of her food is now permanently linked to time with her, Charles, their family and this place they call home.
I was sad to leave. I hope to return. There’s so much to experience in this world. I hope you might journey to Mahabalipuram and look up my friends. They are sure to help you savour it all.