There I was… in coconut country going gaga over fermented rice and lentils. After years of loving Indian food from afar, my introductory trip to the country was nothing less than a gastronomic awakening.
A friend’s wedding brought me to the state of Kerala… southern, coastal, bucolic (in parts). Touching down in Kochi, I couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming growth of coconut trees. Throughout the drive from the airport, they dominated the scenery, breaking the skyline with their slender trunks and starburst fronds. I finally had an ‘aha slash duh’ moment when one of the chefs my hotel told me Kerala translates to ‘land of coconut trees’.
I became chummy with the hotel chefs because I couldn’t stop eating their food. The breakfast buffet spread at the Taj Gateway in Ernakulam was disgustingly delicious. I mean repulsively addictive. On my first morning, I tried about six curries (potato bharji, vegetable stews, sambar and such) as well as chutneys made from beetroot, coriander, tomato – all coconut based, of course.
A voracious lover of dosa, imagine my expression when I walked up to the live cooking station to see them making the grilled flatbread of fermented rice and lentils in eight different ways… stuffed with potato masala, sprinkled with flaxseed, made of wholewheat or whole grain, among others. I had four that morning, and then another three orders of appam.
Appam — my new discovery and obsession — is made from soaked raw rice that’s ground with coconut, boiled into a batter then left to ferment overnight. It’s finally cooked in curved pans to either be thick and fluffy like a pancake or much thinner to resemble a paper-like crepe. I kept asking for mine to be extra thin, extra brown, extra crispy. After three hours of indulging, the chef came over to ask if I enjoyed my meal. I may have gushed just a bit, or quite a lot, that he offered cooking lessons with his team (for free, no less!).
The next morning, I donned a toque and began the skills course to perfect the art of dosa spreading and appam twirling. Talk about frustrating fun. For three hours behind the griddle I stood, using a metal cup to spread the dosa batter in a clockwise, circular motion. The moment the batter met heat, it began taking shape. Getting it to the thin, even consistency I enjoy took a few dozen tries.
I had more luck with the appam, which gets its signature round shape with one single twirl of the cast iron pan. Mine looked pretty decent… or so my dozen friends whom I served breakfast that morning told me.
Dabbling in the kitchen with chefs is an eye-opening experience. Day in, day out, they get requests from fussy foodies like myself to get their appams extra this and extra that. But mostly, I wonder how they abstain from nibbling on the food they’re preparing. I certainly didn’t.