Friday, 6 February 2015

Allepey Part 2, Kayaking and Co-op Coffee (and deep fried bananas)

So it's been a while since working internet was a regular thing: since we left Allepey about 3 weeks ago, actually. Last time I wrote about boating and eating freshwater fish from the canals. The day after that (hello, stupidly late blog post) we went kayaking on those same canals, which was infinitely better than the previous day's lounging in boats because we got to go down all kinds of tiny canals where the bigger boat wouldn't fit. 

Houseboats on the backwaters at dawn

Sampson, our guide and owner of the kayaking business, spoke excellent English and told us he had actually imported the kayaks from New Zealand about ten years ago (I guess no one in India is manufacturing kayaks…) for what sounded like an insanely high fee. He's been taking people out practically every day since. His experience became quickly evident as he was not only an expert at handling a kayak but he knew exactly what information we tourists would want to know. He pointed out various birds, mango trees, cotton trees, the nests of weaver birds, and other interesting sights. He also explained a lot about the village life we were seeing. The canals, he explained, are naturally occurring but have been reinforced and sometimes rerouted by humans over the years. They are divided from the rice paddies by dykes, and apparently each rice field has its own pump so the amount of water in it can be regulated. It wasn't the season, so there weren't a lot of workers in the field, just a few women doing work to prepare for planting, as well as hundreds of egrets and herons eating bugs that live in the shallow water. 

canals on this side, rice on that side

 Kayaking allowed us to see parts of the canal life we would have missed otherwise, because we were able to take routes through narrow canals or under low bridges, where the bigger tour boats wouldn't fit. As it was so early in the morning, we saw lots of people bathing in the canal, doing laundry, cleaning fish, and washing dishes. Kids in their school uniforms ran around and played while waiting for the boat that would take them to school. Some were still brushing their teeth by the water’s edge. We saw a man catching pearlspot (or karimeen)—the fish we ate on our last boat trip, and we saw a couple selling fresh caught mussels from their boat. 

The backwaters are also used for transporting materials to building sites without real road access:

I have yet to see anyone on a construction site in this country wearing a hard hat, or shoes.

After about an hour of kayaking, we had our breakfast break—this was more of an authentic, local affair than our last boating meal. A little building with a few tables, right on the edge of the canal, where we were served a big breakfast of Channa Masala (chick pea curry with gravy), flaky parottas, hard boiled eggs covered in a sauce of fried onions, and deep fried bananas.

Parottas are a bread made by stretching the dough very thinly and rolling it into a many-layered ball, which is then flattened and roasted.  

A feast! Yes, those are deep-fried bananas in the middle. 

The coffee, as usual in India—I don’t know if I've written about this yet—was thick, milky, and sweet, and barely tasted of coffee at all. It’s still a nice drink, if you're cold (when does that happen, to a Canadian in India?) but sometimes (aka always) I crave black bitter coffee.

SPEAKING OF COFFEE, we come to part 2 of this post. This would have been a separate entry but I'm too far behind in this blog to have that luxury...

The Indian Coffee House is a large restaurant chain with an interesting history—it was started in the 1930s as a privately owned series of almost 50 restaurants. In the 1950s, the owners began to close the coffee houses. This was around the time that a communist government was first elected in the state of Kerala—making Kerala the only place in the world to have democratically elected a communist government. In the definitely-not-enough-to-have-an-informed-opinion amount of reading I have done about the Communist party’s history in Kerala, it seems that a lot of Kerala’s successes are in some part due to that party's influence (successes such as having a 100% literacy rate, good public schools and hospitals, and the lowest rates of rural poverty in India). Anyway, the Coffee Houses: it was in the 1950s when the employees of these coffee houses took over ownership and management of the business. The Indian Coffee House is now the largest restaurant chain in Kerala, with branches in the rest of the country as well (almost 400 in total, according to Wikipedia!). It is employee-owned, and is run by several managing committees elected from (and by) employees.

So of course, I had to check it out. 

The menu is your typical Indian canteen-type food, done simply and well. Over the couple weeks we were in Allepey I tried the masala dosa, the masala curry (which is also what they use as the filling in the masala dosa), veg cutlets (sounds weird but are available everywhere--basically little veggie burger patties, often served with fresh mint chutney) parottas (delicious), various fresh juices (they mean fresh: the pineapple juice is about as filling as if you just sat down and ate an entire pineapple, because that is all it contains), and of course, the coffee.

masala dosa, masala curry, coffee, various chutneys and sauces, lemonade, Liam.
Oh and the waiters dress like this. 
This is actually from Kochi, not Allepey, but I like it. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Water Everywhere: Alleppey part 1

Since my last post, we’ve left Kodaikanal forever—its many many restaurants, its extremely foggy climate, and the bison that frighteningly wandered our front yard many nights. We are now joined by my aunt Linda, who is a photographer and has been blogging about her time in India. We traveled through Madurai, where I started 2015 on the roof of our hotel watching fireworks explode all over the city’s skyline. From there we stopped briefly in Trivandrum (full name Thiruvananthapuram huh wonder why on earth they shortened that) and then through a series of ridiculous train journeys (including crossing like ten tracks and almost literally dodging a moving train—which turned out to be our train) we arrived eventually in Alleppey (aka Alappuzha--in this case, the longer name is definitely more fun). 

Allepey has BEACHES!! The riptides are too strong to swim safely, but the beaches are gorgeous anyway. Right after this photo a wave came and completely soaked me--never turn your back to the ocean.
Allepey, and this area of Kerala generally, is known for its backwaters—a network of naturally occurring (but reinforced and sometimes rerouted by human work) canals, not far inland from the ocean. These canals also connect to a few lakes, and it is possible to travel from town to town through these backwaters. People who live on the backwater canals—rich and poor alike—use the canals in their front yards as a place for bathing, laundry, and transportation.

In many spots, the canals are separated from the rice paddies--this area is also known as the rice bowl of Kerala--by small banks. The rice paddies are actually below sea level, and the way the canals are diked allows the correct amount of water to be pumped into the paddy fields so they aren't too wet or dry for rice to grow. Women who work in the Keralan fields make rs 300 a day--less than $6, but 3 times what women in Tamil Nadu make for the same job.

We hired a Shikara boat, like this one (below) to take us on a tour of the canals.

These boats are hired for day trips, while bigger houseboats take tourists out overnight.

This woman is cleaning fish.

Standing right in the water to do laundry on a hot day.
At lunch, the captain of our boat pulled up alongside this restaurant, the owners of which are obviously in cahoots with the owners/organizers of the boat trips because it was exclusively tourists inside, and it seemed unlikely that locals would eat at these prices: we each got a typical thali on a big banana leaf, and then ordered freshly-caught fish and prawns as well: the fish, one for each of us, were Rs 200 each ($4) and the prawns were also Rs 200 each (they were enormous, and extremely fresh, but still…). The prawn was stuck on a stick and barbequed or something—tasty but nothing amazing. The fish, however, was delicious, and we picked it right off the bones with our hands.

Aaaand here is another photo where we see why I’ll never be a famous food blogger: forgot to take a picture before I started eating, and when you’re eating with your hands, off a banana leaf, and the food is dumped onto your leaf from above by the indifferent waiter, it gets messy…

I'm sorry...


The fish were small, delicious, and tender. It’s a freshwater fish, locally known as Pearlspot, and in 2010 was apparently declared the official fish of Kerala. It’s caught in nets in the backwaters—the next morning on our kayaking trip we actually saw a man catching some. The official name for these little fishies is Green Chromide, which sounds like the name of a spaceship.

photo source: flickr 

From what I’ve seen, we had it the way it is often cooked—sometimes the dish is called “Karimeen Pollichathu” (Karimeen is another name for this fish, and Pollichathu means grilled/charred—first the fish is slit on both sides many times, then marinated in spices and lemon juice and then fried. The other way I have seen it offered on menus, but have yet to try, is cooked wrapped in a banana leaf, in a masala gravy.

That's all 4 now folks. 

 Coming soon: Kayaking in the backwaters and a very authentic breakfast feast. Also: the Indian Coffee House, a restaurant chain that has been run by a series of workers’ co-operative societies since the mid-1950s.

Other fun things if you're interested in my life: some of the art I've been doing in India got published on one of my favourite websites. 

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Fish Curry and Spicy Yellow Cabbage

If anyone is actually on this blog looking for recipe advice TODAY IS YOUR DAY: both the recipes in this post were genuinely easy and super good.

I decided to try and imitate 2 dishes that are sometimes a part of the crèche lunches. I finished my time volunteering there last week, and I already miss it, and the food--the women cooked delicious, simple, home-cooked food, every day. Plus, eating with your hands is so much better than eating with a spoon, once you’ve gotten the hang of it. You’ll never realize how much you taste the cutlery until you eat without it.

I made these recipes on Sunday, which means market day, which means FISH

a man and his fishes
Both recipes came out amazingly, although my photos of them came out terribly, so you will have to try them yourself to see how beautiful and delicious they are. 

The fish recipe is very subtle and simple--you make a rich base of spices (the masala) and tomato/onions, cooked down to the point where they barely resemble veggies, then you make it creamy with coconut milk. It's based off of this recipe, with a few minor adaptation, slightly changing the ratios of things, as well as saving us all from the terrible task of grating onions. On the plus side, the original recipe has very good photos of the steps. The cabbage dish I improvised, based on a side dish I've often had at the creche and as part of thali meals. Through some intrepid Googling of phrases like “indian cabbage mustard seeds food thing” I've discerned that it might be called Cabbage Thoran, but that also might be something else entirely. 

Okay prepare yourselves for the worst photo you ever will see:

I will never be a famous food blogger. Tragic, really.
Okay, so first the fish curry: 


  •           enough fish filet for 4 people. Try to get a firm white fish. Cut the filets into cubes (mine turned out more like thin strips because the fish man somehow left a million bone-bits in and I had to basically destroy the fish for half an hour getting the bones out. I am not cut out for the fisherman life, probably)
  •           1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  •           2 onions, cut very finely
  •           thumb sized piece of ginger, minced
  •           3 cloves garlic, minced
  •           3 diced tomatoes
  •           1 tsp garam masala
  •           1 tsp chili powder (hot)
  •           1 tsp salt
  •           lots of black pepper
  •           1 cup coconut milk or slightly more to taste
  •           ¼ cup water
  •           1-2 fresh chilly peppers, slit. (if you want SPICE)
  •           ¼ cup green onions, chopped

 What you do:
  1. Wash and dry fish pieces
  2. Heat oil in pan, add onions, garlic, ginger. Cook on LOW heat for a LONG time: at least 5 minutes, until you can’t tell the things apart from each other and it smells amazing. Add a leeeetle bit of water if you have to, so it doesn't burn.
  3. Add tomatoes and garam masala. Keep heat low, and mash the tomatoes with a fork. Cook until it’s all a kind of paste. You will know this when you see it.
  4. Add chili powder, salt and pepper. Stir.
  5. Pour in liquids, add the slit chilies if you're using them. Add more black pepper if you want. Bring this to a boil, and add the fish. PAY ATTENTION because fish cooks fast. In about 4 minutes or less, when the fish is white/cooked, remove from heat, it is done. Sprinkle green onions on top. 
 SERVE on rice and with this lovely cabbage thing as a side dish:

LOVELY CABBAGE THING (literally takes 5 minutes)

  • 1 cabbage
  • 1-2 tablespoons whole mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon oil/butter/ghee/whatever
  • 2 tablespoons garlic ginger paste OR 1 clove garlic, 1 inch of ginger, chopped finely
  • cumin
  • turmeric
  • chilly powder
  • salt
  • water.
  • fresh cilantro

What you do:
  1. Remove outer layer of cabbage, core know: cabbage things.  Chop it into thin strips.
  2. In a deep-ish pan or a wok, heat oil, put mustard seeds in and wait for them to pop
  3. Add garlic/ginger/the rest of the spices. Stir for a minute
  4. Add cabbage and salt. Stir until all cabbage is coated in spice/oil mixture.
  5. Add about a quarter cup of water, cover, and leave on medium heat, stirring occasionally and adding more water if needed—basically you are steaming the cabbage now. It’s done when the cabbage is at your preferred Cabbage Tenderness Level.
  6. Garnish with a whole lot of chopped fresh cilantro. 

 Serve with the curry of fishes!

Saturday, 13 December 2014


This past week we voyaged to Mandapam, a teeensy town near Rameshwarem, a bigger town. Both are on that little peninsula that sticks out of India towards Sri Lanka, meaning in ten minutes you can walk from ONE OCEAN TO ANOTHER.

Ok, technically it's the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, which is, technically, part of the Indian Ocean. So technically it's not two oceans.

Mandapam is a tiny little fishing town, with no hotels. We stayed in an amazing homestay in a 150 year old mansion called BISON House (British India Steamship Oriental Navigation House?  ??). It looks insane:

and apparently it's made of CORAL?? which is horrible and weird and cool.
...and it acts insane. Or the grounds do. There are what look like bald eagles (actually Brahminy Kites, or what the caretaker/manager of the house called Vishnu Eagles) swooping all over the place. There is at least one goat every way you look. There are pieces of coral and beautiful shells sticking out of the sandy ground. Oh and peacocks...everywhere. Which sound majestic and wonderful, and totally is, but what peacocks literally sound like, especially at night when you're trying to sleep, is cats being strangled. For the most beautiful bird, they make awful sounds. Like a drunk cat trying to imitate a rooster but then being stepped on halfway through.

And oh yeah, fresh fish.

The first night we stayed there we had a vegetable curry, but we were told that the next night there would be freshly caught fish, because the boats were coming back in.

They came:

this boat's name is Kevin
And we ATE

The couple who run the house live downstairs, and Vasantha, the wife, cooks. And she is amazing (and she knows it. She was great.) This was prawns curry (and the prawns were incredibley soft and tender) with BARACUDA! I had definitely never tried baracuda before. A+. Also homemade chapatti and a cabbage/onion/peppercorn side-dish that I've had many times now but this was one of the best.

For breakfast on the first day we got homemade dosai and chutneys, also some of the absolute best I've had. For breakfast on the second morning she made Upma:

it looks like mush but really it is so much more
Upma is a weird food because it can't decide whether it wants to be sweet or savory and that is okay. The base is a kind of dry porridge, typically of Semolina or dry rice, mixed with green chilies, peanuts, cumin, ginger and onions--like a curry, except the proportion of grain to these things is big, so you end up with a mild but savory mixture. BUT THEN it is served with sugar, grated coconut, and sliced banana. The banana adds a more moist texture, and for some reason this strange mixture of foods is actually delicious.


bought some flowers for my hair in Rameshwarem.
I couldn't tell if this woman was amused or annoyed by how tall I am. 
this was my favourite goat

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sort Of Vietnamese Style Rice Noodle Bowl With Stuff

Rice Noodles and Stuff Bowl a la some Vietnamese restaurants I’ve been to: A Recipe

one day I'll get good at food photography maybe

For 4 people

You Will Need: 4 Bowls

You Will Also Need:
-          rice noodles for 4 people
-          coarsely chopped peanuts
-          1 big tomato, cut in 8 wedges
-          lettuce, shredded
-          fresh mint
For the stir-fried veggies:
-          6 carrots chopped VERY THIN or grated
-          1 or 2 red peppers, cut into strips
-          3 onions sliced
-          4 cloves of garlic minced
-          thumb sized piece of ginger minced
-          1 hot pepper (optional)
-          oil for frying
-          soy sauce
For the beef:
-          beef (tender, cut into small strips)
Marinated in:
-          soy sauce
-          apple cider vinegar
-          black pepper
-          honey
-          something crunchy and spring-rolls-esque. I deep fried okra the first time I made this, and the second time I totally cheated and bought an order of spring rolls from a restaurant and chopped them up. You can probably use corn chips, broken up pappadams, or your imagination.
OTHER THINGS: this meal is really easy to add lots of fun extra stuff too. Suggestions:
-          any pickled veggies, especially jalapeno peppers or carrots
-          bean sprouts
-          fresh herbs
-          egg or spring rolls
-          dumplings (easy addition if you have them frozen or pre-made)

What you do:

I think in real Vietnamese restaurants this is often made with pickled veggies but this is MY version so we’re doing it MY WAY. So there. Fry onions, carrots, garlic, and ginger, with oil and soysauce, on low heat for a long time, so that the carrots get nice and soft—add water if you need to so they don’t stick.

(If you are doing okra, cut it into inch pieces and put it in a pan with a lot of oil, and leave it there on medium high heat for about 20 or 30 minutes or until it is crunchy and brown, then pat off grease with paper towel and salt it.)

While the stuff is frying, marinate your beef. I used a lot of honey and pepper, because that is delicious. The soy sauce and cider vinegar are mostly for liquidification of the marinade. You can also add crushed ginger and garlic to it if you are not lazy like I was.

When your veggies are almost cooked, throw the beef on a hot pan with a teensy bit of oil—sear it on both sides, make it tender, you know what I’m talking about. I am not an expert beef-cooker but this was surprisingly (to me) not difficult.

Cook the rice noodles.

Now make your bowls. In each bowl, layer in this order: rice noodles, lettuce, fried veggies, beef. Top with lots of chopped peanuts, mint, tomato, and whatever else you’re adding. EVERYONE WILL BE SO IMPRESSED. Also, this seems complex but really there isn't much cooking, so it’s an easy thing to throw together for yourself, for lunch or whatever, especially if you have pre-cooked any of the ingredients.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

STREET FOOD (part 1)

I'm sure I'll have much more to say on the subject the longer I live here--especially since for the first few weeks we were here I barely touched street food, following the advice of a well-meaning Travel Clinic nurse who clearly does not have a food blog.

Because street food, in general, is the best.

But I haven't eaten THAT MUCH of it yet so I'm sure there will be a Street Food Blog part 2 coming up.

Liam ordering breakfast from our favourite street stall near our house

Yet another time my camera doesn't show how delicious things are. This is the amount of breakfast you can get for LESS THAN A DOLLAR at the stall in the previous photo. 3 really soft, delicious warm idly, and 3 crispy vadai, with yummy sambar and chutney.
Chili bajji! My favourite. Bajji is basically deep fried anything, and for the chili bajji they use long green peppers that aren't crazy hot. At real street stalls this kind of food is served in newspapers. Also it was raining when I took this photo.
Ok so technically NOT streetfood, but this lakeside cafe differs from street stalls only in that it has a seating area. It has all the same food. This picture depicts chili bajji in a somewhat more beautiful form than the previous image. Also samosas.

Same cafe. Fried noodles. Also, this cafe bizarrely serves ketchup with literally ANYTHING YOU ORDER. 

Okay, also not street food. Muncheez is a takeout place where you order wraps at a window. You can eat there if you perch on this ledge with a table, looming over the people selling stuff on the street next to you, as you can see in this beautifully framed photo. ALSO in this photo: Mehndi on my arm that was done on Diwali by the niece of one of the teachers at
the school I'm working at. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Where I'm Volunteering (and What We Eat There)

If you've been wondering what I've been doing for the past (almost two!) months, besides eating...the answer is mostly eating. But! I've also been volunteering several times a week, since arriving in Kodaikanal, at Grace Kids Centre, a crèche (like a preschool, kids ages 3-5) run by the non-profit organization Help-Kids-India (p.s. to anyone who found this post through searching for Help-Kids-India, I apologize most deeply for the profanity in my blog title).

Help-Kids-India, an organization which runs Grace Kids Centre and 3 other preschools in and around Kodaikanal (which I hope to visit soon) provides education, as well as 3 meals a day, healthcare, uniforms, and lots of love, to kids ages 3-5. Each creche has a current enrollment cap of 50 kids--and all are full. These kids come from Dalit families—that is, what used to be known as "untouchables," the lowest caste in India’s caste system, systematically discriminated against for years. Although the caste system is "officially" no longer legal, people from these communities still face very real discrimination all over India. Parents from these communities are often financially unable to put their young kids in school. These parents are often working labour-intensive jobs, with long hours, for little pay. Not only do the crèches provide valuable education, nutrition, healthcare, and community for these children and their families, but having the younger kids in school often means that older siblings are able to attend school also, where before they might have been kept home to look after younger siblings while parents worked.

I've been helping out with daily activities--with kids this age it's important that there are lots of adults so that everyone gets plenty of attention--and sometimes leading crafts and activities: drawing pictures, teaching letters and numbers, and making paper chains, and handprint art. 

These kids (and their teachers) are pretty much the best:

morning activities...butterfly song? I follow along with the actions but I don't understand Tamil so I can only guess.
duck-duck-goose/dance. where the tagged person has to go in the middle and do a dance! This dancer is Leya, the daughter of Selvam, who is the caretaker of the house we're renting.
And now, of course, to stay on-theme of this blog, I'll tell you now about the completely delicious food at the crèche. The kids eat first (I always eat with the kids for some reason) and then the teachers eat while the kids take their nap. 

always rice, with veggies, proteins, and a sauce. Here it was cabbage, okra, potatoes, and chick peas.

Another thing that I have yet to mention on this blog is how Indians eat. I find it weird that I didn't know this before coming here, but maybe you all already do and I'm just ignorant (very possible). Anyway, in general, Indians eat entirely with their hands. With their right hang, specifically. Eating with the left hand is considered impolite and unclean, the right hand is used for all eating--and there is a technique so that you never actually have to stick your fingers in your mouth. All the pictures I'm about to post are of children, but I promise you adults manage to make this look pretty graceful. This method of eating is partly why every restaurant in India has a handwash station--even food stalls on the street will often have a bucket of water for this purpose. 

on my first day at the creche I felt pretty proud that I was at least less messy than the 5 year olds. 
At the crèche, kids get breakfast--usually a variation on porridge, and milk. One of my favourites is kesari, a sweet wheat (rava) based porridge made with cardamom and cashews. It's often considered a festival food, so we had it last Friday morning at the crèche as yesterday was Diwali (they had the week off).

in this highly flattering photo, I'm helping teachers Thilaga and Selvi (the head teacher, an amazing woman) distribute the breakfast--bowls of kesari. 
The meal plans for the crèche are clearly well-thought-out, and emphasize veggies and protein. No child is refused second helpings, and food never goes to waste. Some of the food they cook with comes from a garden in the backyard, tended by the same women who teach and cook. 

Different day, different meal: curry with potatoes and tomatoes, and a hard-boiled egg for each person. It's the rainy season now, so we often have to eat indoors.
right hand only! 
Hygiene and healthcare are also heavily emphasized at the crèche. The children are taken frequently on field-trips to the local hospital's medical centre, where each child is weighed, measured, and has an individual check-up with the doctor. Medicines are administered to the children at school by a nurse who works with the crèches. On a more day-to-day level, basic health and hygiene practices are taught: handwashing, brushing teeth after breakfast (I am now a pro at the dispensing-of-toothpaste-to-excited-children), coughing into a sleeve, etc.

After meals, some of the older kids help out with cleaning and putting away the dishes, as well as sweeping stray rice off the straw mats and the floor. 

If you'd like to read more about this incredible organization, or to donate to a very worthy cause, please visit! There's lots of great information on the website, including explanations of the other projects besides the creches (like the smokeless cookstove project--visit the website to learn what that is!).

COMING SOON: street food, rice noodle bowl recipe, and lots of pictures of animals eating!