May 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Flavour of the nation

By Gay Bilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

For our last breakfast on a tiny island in the Alappuzha backwaters in South Kerala, we had asked for kanji, a gruel of rice or millet. Mohan smiled in disbelief but promised us that simplest of dishes. For five days he had been bringing meals across the water from his home, where his wife would cook up to six dishes three times a day, pack them into a tiffin carrier and entrust them to Mohan, who rowed his slim, strong, wooden boat across a stretch of water clogged by water hyacinths and discarded plastic bottles.

The food was always good and consistently local: a bowl of Andhra Pradesh rice (a large, fat, inferior grain); a dish of pork, duck, chicken or prawns (spiced with the ubiquitous black pepper, red chilli powder, a masala made to suit each dish and fresh curry leaves); pieces of whole small fish, rubbed with black pepper, turmeric and spices and deep-fried in coconut oil; a dal that often included potato and peppers as well as lentils; a spicy vegetable dish, often okra or eggplant. Sometimes idiappam (string hoppers), appam (hoppers) or dosas, thin, fermented pancakes made of urad dal and rice, would accompany the dishes. A saucer of finely sliced Bombay onion and quarters of tiny limes was offered with every meal.

We shopped with Mohan, tagging along wide-eyed to the pork butcher’s, the chicken supplier’s with his live flock of fresh poultry, the impressive fish market and the grocer shop to purchase local Kerala rice, a thin grain with red overtones, for the kanji. And the kanji was excellent, although by Cantonese standards the rice was shockingly undercooked. Two garnishes were essential: freshly grated coconut, and a mixture of moong dal (split bean), grated coconut and finely chopped green chillies. Pappadums provided a crisp antidote to the sop of the gruel.

In the Alappuzha backwaters, the produce is local because the financial reach is finite. It is also mostly ‘organic’ because pesticides are not in the village vocabulary. Because we have strayed so far, we put a price on the organic and the local, treating both like jewels in the crown. Slow Food’s mantra – good, clean and fair – is a reaction to fast, adulterated, sprayed and cheap. It is a middle-class movement that, along with other ideals, recognises that biodiversity is central to our quality of life, be that cultural, philosophical or material. In most senses the produce we ate in Alappuzha was Slow Food of the old-fashioned kind, which is to say that it is grown and cooked unselfconsciously by people with very little money. Of course they use handed-down knowledge; it is not in books. Their kitchen practice is only recipe-less if you count recipes as lists of ingredients and instructions on paper.

In Australia, we who care about agriculture and food culture, produce and kitchen practice follow the constitutional rules of Slow Food because we can afford to, and because we have travelled and tasted. In Alappuzha, the food was ‘slow’ because of relative poverty, circumscribed lives and limited global culinary experience.

Returning home, I found my kitchen became a mere surrogate for the one that was thousands of kilometres to the north-west, despite the sophistication of its equipment. Mohan’s wife owned a blender and a non-stick pan, although for the most part the family cooked over a fire made by feeding wood between three stones under a roof with no flue, as common an unhealthy cooking range in their society as the spick-and-span Smeg is in mine.

Mad about dosas – with much amateur experience in Indian food-ways behind me, and curry leaves flourishing on the tree near the back door – I made the batter for the first time: skinned urad dal, added rice and a pinch of fenugreek. It did what it wants to do while it rests, which is ferment. But my dosas tasted of Australia. Something in the air, be it cultural or physical, had been lost. (South Australia is hot and dry; Kerala hot and humid.) Something miasmal, yet profoundly local and enriching, had been left in Alappuzha, and these dosas seemed out of place, culturally thin and poverty stricken.

Soon after, a young man told me that a South Keralan restaurant had recently opened; he knew the owners, and they would love to talk with me. Questions would be answered, puzzles solved and perhaps, just perhaps, authentic, trans-odorous South Keralan food would be eaten.

Dious and Gopi are gentle, hardworking and nervous. They had done “market research” and knew their clientele would ask for naan and butter chicken. They put the distinctively northern Indian butter chicken on the menu, and in the first weeks it has proved just as popular as they expected, especially for takeaway orders. The phone has been slammed down many times when they say they don’t have naan.

The night we ate there, the chef was absent and Dious and Gopi went back to the kitchen to help. We asked them to cook the dishes just as they would for themselves (in the best of all possible worlds this would surely be a tautological request), but the food was a timid, tasteless dilution of a fresh and robust cuisine. Only the thayir vadai (a dish of fried dal patties immersed and swelled in curd), which Sri Lankan Tamils love as well, almost came up to scratch. Things may improve.

In Alappuzha, we had watched Mohan marinade chicken legs (which had been walking only an hour before) with a marvellous, spicy, fresh green paste. He had promised them for our last dinner and arrived early to set up a barbecue, using local charcoal to make the fire. He brought whole potatoes, too, and something in a pottery container with a lid on it. The chicken legs were barbecued until so black that the coriander, mint, chillies, curd and spices had burned up and disappeared entirely. The potatoes were baked over the fire and the pottery container turned out to hold an incongruous pat of butter, barely holding its shape in the humidity.

Mohan had wanted to impress us with his knowledge of what he presumes to know about our culinary habits. Yet the food he knows – the food that is as much a part of his culture as his religious beliefs and the suitability of his boat to the backwaters – was wonderfully cooked with no adjustments made. In Adelaide, the South Keralan restaurant owners diluted the food they advertised as their cultural heritage, and cooked it ineptly. The chef will surely return, but his experience in European hotel restaurants – proudly related to us by Dious and Gopi – has nothing to do with his execution of an authentic cuisine.

I puzzled over the shifts in a single cuisine as it travelled from Kerala to Australia. The crux of the problem is contextual incoherence, but it is also compounded here by the artificial division between home cooking and restaurant cuisine. With home cooking, we labour to please ourselves, and compromise is only a matter of what produce might be available. Restaurant menus are fraught with the need to please an audience, whether the restaurateur is sophisticated or naive. The South Keralan restaurant I ate at in Adelaide suffered from multiple disorders: lack of experience, timidity and, not least, a missing chef. But central to the problem of its watery dishes was that, in an effort to offend no one, flavour and texture disappeared from the promise of the exotic words on the menu.

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

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