There’s starving in India? Indian cooking class produces a feast fit for a village

Me after Melanie and I cooked a six-course Indian meal in two hours.

Me after Melanie and I cooked a six-course Indian meal in two hours.

VARKALA, India — The long menu looked intimidating to eat, let alone cook. Yet here I was staring at a menu that could feed an ashram. Forget the fact that I couldn’t pronounce half the dishes. How in the world was I going to prepare and cook a six-course Indian meal in two hours? It takes me that long to make pasta carbonara.

I’ve taken cooking classes in Malaysia and Italy but the class put on here by my Kerala Bamboo House is a truly gluttonous affair. Ever since I filled out the menu request the day before, I almost fasted. Hey, again, when in India …

Seriously, the menu I filled out included: starter, Indian bread, vegetarian dish, non-vegetarian dish, rice dish, dessert. The guesthouse has a recipe book the size of a Denny’s menu. Many of the dishes’ names sounded like something you’d chant during meditation.

Samosa mix.

Samosa mix.

But I fearlessly dove in due to one inescapable fact: Indian food is fabulous.

People come to India for different reasons but spirituality is No. 1. People come here for that horrible cliche: finding themselves. Yoga. Meditation. Massage. Everyone is trying to find another level of consciousness, happiness and fulfillment.

The main reason I came to India was to fill my belly.

There is nothing more hearty than dipping a big fat piece of naan bread into thick, orange masala gravy. I love the smell of tandoori chicken when it’s sizzling on your plate. Balsamic rice is the loner of the rice family. It’s good enough to stand alone. I’ve had fabulous meals every day in this cliffside village. From tandoori marlin to chicken masala to puri bhaji, a terrific breakfast dish of potatoes and peas in a brown gravy spiced with ginger, garlic and onion. Every meal is a sensual experience. That’s good. It’s the only sensual experience I’ll have in India.

But what I was undertaking was going to make my previous meals look like snacks at 7-Eleven.

Kneading the dough for the samosa pockets.

Kneading the dough for the samosa pockets.

Joining me was Melanie Seal, a 40ish India junkie from the isle of Jersey between England and France. She has done the whole India ashram experience. She also works in the exporting-importing business so comes to India for gems and textiles. This was her fourth cooking class at Bamboo House.

We were met on the sandy walkway outside the kitchen by the chef. He calls himself Ani Cook, the kind of handle you acquire when you work at the same kitchen for 21 years. Standing about 5-7, Ani is a wiry, clean-shaven man with burning dark eyes. He wore a long-sleeve dress shirt (How do Indians wear anything but tank tops in this heat?) under a beat-up Carlsberg beer ball cap.

The Bamboo House kitchen is decent size but seems as old as the 100-foot cliff on which the guesthouse rests. The concrete counters are painted a green color that long ago started to fade. The stove is black iron. The kitchen won’t land in Sunset magazine but it had plenty of room for Ani to dart around showing us how to prepare a meal that could feed half of South India.

The Indian spices at our disposal.

The Indian spices at our disposal.

You can always tell an Indian kitchen. In one corner is a rainbow of spices spanning the color chart and India’s entire geographical expanse. The orange corianders, the red chili powder, the yellow mustard seed. Indian spice markets are more photographed than Indira Gandhi just for their colors alone. The flavors, however, make Indian food explode.

But holy hell, the list of ingredients for a basic Indian diet staple is as long as the Mumbai phonebook.

We started with the preparation. Melanie and I chopped onions and garlic and ginger into tiny bits and placed them onto little individual plates. We took turns cooking and writing down the recipes. Our first dish was the samosa. If you’ve had appetizers at Indian restaurants, you’ve at least seen them. They’re golden-fried triangles of crispy dough filled with spices and herbs and vegetable bits.

While I held the cast iron wok by a detachable metal handle, Ani announced all the ingredients he was throwing in the pot.

“Six teaspoons coconut oil,” he said. “Two teaspoons ginger. Six teaspoons onions. Two teaspoons garlic …”

Vegetable biryani rice.

Vegetable biryani rice.

In all (a recipe will follow below), samosas took 14 ingredients and that’s even before we started the, um, heavy lifting.

Soon the kitchen filled with the aromas of India. I’m not talking sweat and sewage. I’m talking cumin and coriander and turmeric and curry. The end result was a deep hunger setting up camp in my stomach. The beauty of cooking is you smell everything you cook before you eat. By the time you sit down, the hunger pangs have turned into monsters. They must be released.

Cooking Indian food with so many spices filling the air is almost torturous. An overhead fan thankfully kept the kitchen cool as the late afternoon humidity socked in the village. The fan whipped around the spices’ aromas like delicious fairy dust.

The samosa pockets take some work. Ani poured 300 grams of wheat flour into a bowl, threw in a teaspoon of salt and added 400 milligrams of water. In very broken English, he told me to mix up the ingredients. I said, in perfect English, “Where’s the spoon?” He laughed.

“You use your hands,” Melanie said. “Indian style.”

So as music from Kerala’s Malayalam language filled the air, I dug into the big mess and turned it all into a bigger mess. I had more dough on my hands than on the black countertop. Ani, working with the hand quickness of a Benihana chef, turned his mixture into six quick balls of dough. When I finally got my flour into a couple of neat rolls, we flattened them out, rolled them with a rolling pin and cut out perfect round dough shells from small dinner plates.

Ani then mixed a small amount of wheat flour and water to make a thin paste, kind of like vanilla frosting. We cut the pastry in half and folded one corner up to the halfway point to the curved bottom. We took the other half and folded to the opposite corner to form a pocket. Ani’s pockets were nice and deep and wide. Mine were wimpy and shallow and saggy, kind of like some of my dates in Las Vegas. But that’s another story …

After a stifled laugh, Ani did a little minor surgery and we started stuffing the pockets with the samosa mixture. Using the paste as a light glue, we folded the pockets into nice big, fat triangles.

Melanie, Ani and I and our creations.

Melanie, Ani and I and our creations.

We set them aside and made one of the sweetest sounding dishes I’ve ever heard. Pineapple tomato yogurt curry. Doesn’t that sound like the perfect wake-up call? Sweet, sour and fresh while overlooking a perfect beach and clear blue ocean?

This is a Kerala specialty where pineapples grow wild in the forests not more than a kilometer from the Indian Ocean. Fruit is huge in South India. Meat is huge in North India. But all the regional cuisines of India’s 29 states intermingle with each region adding their own twist. In Kerala, long-grain white rice, about twice as long as what we buy in the U.S., is huge. Kerala’s green cardamom is considered the world’s best. When Christopher Columbus, stumbled onto America, he was actually looking for the black pepper that peppered Kerala’s coast.

Pineapple tomato yogurt curry is real easy to make. It just takes a lot of time — and a real good Indian grocery store. The ingredients are — deep inhale — 4 teaspoons coconut oil, 1 teaspoon mustard seed, one teaspoon fenugreek leaves, four teaspoons ginger, four teaspoons garlic, four stems curry leaf, four dry chilies, four tablespoons chopped onion, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, 200 grams chopped pineapple, a pinch of chili powder, a pinch of cumin powder, 400 milligrams of water, two tomatoes cut into eight wedges, six tablespoons chopped coconut, 200 milligrams plain yoghurt and — finally — a pinch of coriander.

Mix the coconut and yogurt separately and combine with the other ingredients in big, sloppy, lumpy, yellow delicious pile of goodness.

A few dishes later, the three of us gathered behind a table with 12 dishes. Ani managed to pour the vegetable biryani rice dishes into the shapes of hearts right on the plate. That was a nice touch even though South India’s humidity has crushed my libido into fine powder, similar to what I sprinkled on my food without nearly the kick.

Melanie and I took our haul to a picnic table outside. The bowls of food covered every inch of space on the table. When I tell people about cooking, I say I’m a good cook. But in Rome, I’m a really good cook. In India, I am, too.

The food was absolutely fabulous. The samosas were crispy and the vegetable mixture was a warm kaleidoscope of spices that mixed perfectly. I dipped the cheese paratha (shredded Indian bread) into the yogurt sauce for a nice sweet and sour jam. The chicken masala was a big thick soup packed with chunks of fat, juicy chicken. The meal was topped by a bowl of coconut payasam, a light, warm coconut pudding.

It was all too much. I told Melanie, “I can’t believe there are people actually starving in this country.”

It was so much, we nearly hogtied and dragged a passing couple to join us. It didn’t take much convincing. Hugo, a Brit, and his Japanese wife took one look at our spread and slowed down their pace. Then they smiled. We asked them to join us and we didn’t have to ask twice. They blew off dinner plans and dug in.

The whole event cost Melanie and I 750 rupees each. That’s about $12.50 for a meal that would cost $30 at any average Indian restaurant in the U.S. or the U.K. But it wasn’t the tastes that sold me. It was the ingredients. It was the smells. It was the tradition of a culinary culture that goes back 4,000 years. Some of the ingredients we used have been put into food since the Indus Valley first began a civilization in 2,600 B.C.

There are so many Indias. There are so many Indian foods. Kerala is just one slice of it, a sliver on the huge banyan tree that is Indian cuisine.

6 teaspoons coconut oil
2 teaspoons ginger
6 teaspoons onion
2 teaspoons garlic
3 stems curry leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons coriander powder
2 teaspoons masala
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
200 grams mixed vegetables: carrots, beans, potato, cauliflower
1 teaspoon coriander

Hike through Lipton’s tea plantation a cool climb into another cool culture

Lipton's tea plantation employs about 400 tea pickers, mostly Tamils originally from South India.

Lipton’s tea plantation employs about 400 tea pickers, mostly Tamils originally from South India.

HAPUTALE, Sri Lanka — She waved at me from behind a bush. Her smile revealed teeth so white they looked like sparklers in the dark night that was her face. She put the stem of a long tea leaf in her mouth and smiled. I walked over a few steps and snapped a picture that may end up on my wall or in the Los Angeles Times. Her light pink sash over her brilliantly turquoise sari made her look more like a fashion model than a tea picker. Her red dot, the Hindu eye, seemed larger on her forehead than most.

When she rubbed her fingers together afterward, I didn’t hesitate. I enthusiastically nodded and pulled out my wallet. I looked cautiously both directions and put my index finger to my lips. She did the same. I handed her a 20-rupee note worth about 12 cents, low, in between the tea leaves into her hand. I whispered, “Is-TOO-tee.”

This tea picker won my  heart and about 12 cents.

This tea picker won my heart and about 12 cents.

“Thank you,” she whispered back. Her smile was more revealing of a perfect cultural exchange than the come-on to a love-starved solo traveler.

It came near the end of a 14-kilometer hike up through one of the Lipton Tea plantations. Sir Thomas Lipton, the Scottish tea baron who founded the most popular tea in the English-speaking world, owned this land from about 1890-1930. It covers some 2,500 acres, stretching up to over 5,500 feet into the clouds. Today, tea contributes $700 million into the Sri Lankan economy, the fourth largest producer in the world. Tea plantations cover 727 square miles, about 4 percent of Sri Lanka’s landmass.

The landmass I’m on is an absolute mountain, a green, undulating garden of tea. It also has some of the most breathtaking views in Sri Lanka.

Sir Thomas Lipton built the Dambatenne Tea Factory in 1890 and it's still in operation.

Sir Thomas Lipton built the Dambatenne Tea Factory in 1890 and it’s still in operation.

Inspired by Haputale’s cooler temperatures, not to mention my sloth-like existence through my first week on the beach, I needed to hike. I need to sweat somewhere besides an Internet cafe. I first went to Heputale’s tiny train station and inquired about the famous one-hour train ride to Ella, just to the north. It is supposedly the prettiest ride in Sri Lanka. But the train station was a disaster. Only two people were there: a distinguished, round-faced Tamil with a salt-and-pepper moustache who told me I had to wait 90 minutes before someone would arrive and reserve me a rare seat in first class. Ninety minutes? It was already 9:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, a random-toothed fossil with a torn robe and wild look in his eyes kept mumbling something to me in what I assumed was Tamil. Maybe he was rattling on about the Civil War or channeling some Hindu god. Maybe he wanted my Clif Bar. I don’t know. I just had to get out of there.

Not wanting to wait until the heat of the day to hike. I bargained a tuktuk driver from 500 to 425 rupees (about $3.50) and took off toward the tea leaves. We climbed for 25 minutes before he dropped me off at the foot of the Dambatenne Tea Factory. Lipton built the plant in 1890 and it’s now run by the Lankem Tea and Rubber Plantations.Surrounding it is a village with a small collection of roti shops across the crude tuktuk stand from the factory. A narrow road cuts through some small wooden houses where the 400-plus tea pickers live.

The teacher in the middle is about ready to whack a male student.

The teacher in the middle is about ready to whack a male student.

As I started to climb, I passed the village school. A short, young male teacher in his 20s was surrounded by little boys and girls. All the boys were sharply dressed in white, short-sleeve shirts with black ties and blue shorts. The girls all wore white dresses. It all looked so preppy and formal. Then, as I turned to continue my climb, I heard a “WHACK! WHACK!”

I turned around and the teacher was holding what looked like a stick. A little boy was holding his ass. He had been spanked. Apparently, this was common. He didn’t utter a sound.

A rare person I saw during my hike.

A rare person I saw during my hike.

From there the only people I saw were women up to their waists in tea leaves and men supervising them from afar. At one junction, I saw a long line of women, all carrying giant white bags filled with tea leaves. A man in front weighed them and wrote numbers in a ledger. The sun was out. So was a cool breeze. The view of the green landscape was stunning. As far as manual labor goes, this seemed like one of the better gigs.

The tea pickers’ job isn’t easy, though. They all hung giant baskets on their shoulders. From a distance, they look like giant insects. The women would tear off the leaves with both hands and toss them in the basket over their heads. It was one continuous flurry. They moved down the narrow paths between the hedges. They make $4 a day. Nearly all were Tamil. During the 19th century, unable to find Ceylonese to work the plantations, the British imported a million Tamils from South India to do the job. They’re still here, all living in very rudimentary quarters at the foot of the hill. The women all wore head scarves and long sleeves. The weather was perfect, maybe mid-70s but I didn’t know if they covered up for warmth or religious modesty.

Tea pickers make about $4 a day and live in rudimentary housing.

Tea pickers make about $4 a day and live in rudimentary housing.

Tea picker blackTea picker purpleTea picker smileTea picker, sticks
While on the job, the only times their eyes came up was to smile at me as I walked by. For once, a manual laborer-photographer relationship was not confrontational. We’d make eye contact, I’d hold up my camera, they’d nod and I snapped away. Only one other time did a woman ask for money and I did not hesitate to break the photographers’ cardinal rule. I don’t care. I’m invading their privacy. Screw the pros. I’m a hack photographer, and I want a picture for my wall.

About halfway up, a man stopped me. He was burly and had a safari vest over a white polo shirt and a white Ben Hogan hat. Completing the odd ensemble were knee-length shorts reaching the top of knee-high blue socks with horizontal orange stripes. He looked like he borrowed them from the 1965 Chicago Bears. He said he ran the place and his name was Moorthy. He told me he has 400 people picking tea leaves for him and they make a minimum wage of 18 rupees a day. It wasn’t until later that I calculated 18 rupees as about 70 cents a day or $20 a month when I realized he was full of shit. So was his claim that he wrote all the environmental messages that are printed in big signs all along the path. They say things like, “The fate of animals is indissolubly connected with the fate of men” and “Water is the one substance from which the earth can conceal nothing. It sucks out its innermost secrets and brings them to our very lips.”
Tea plantation sign
If he wrote this environmental poetry, I wrote the Koran.

Suppiah Thirugnana Sambanda Moorthy

Suppiah Thirugnana Sambanda Moorthy

Not thinking how it would harm his fake identity, he asked if I had a spare pen. Then he wrote his full name in my notepad. Suppiah Thirugnana Sambanda Moorthy is his name, allegedly. I walked away and made a subconscious feel for my wallet.

I kept climbing. It’s 7K to the top and each switchback offered a more breathtaking view of Lipton’s place. Neat, individual rows of green tea plants climbing steep hills and fading into mist. Villages of little shacks and red clay roads surround a pagoda sticking above the plantation. It was so peaceful I could’ve sat down and napped.

When I reached the top, I saw Kristiana and Jana next to a snack shop sitting down to a lunch of tea and roti. They paid 1,000 rp for a tuktuk driver to haul their cute little behinds up in about 15 minutes. They passed me as I was sweating up the steepest set of switchbacks. When they saw me, Jana screeched, “Kristiana you win.”

Sir Lipton's Seat is where he overlooked his empire and entertained royalty. Then I showed up.

Sir Lipton’s Seat is where he overlooked his empire and entertained royalty. Then I showed up.

Huh? Kristiana bet I’d arrive in 45 minutes, Jana in 90 minutes.

“Jana!” I said, “have ye little faith?”

We sat and talked for an hour. I nibbled on the collection of hot, Hot, HOT rotis and we all waited, cameras locked and loaded, for the sun to break through the fog. All we could see was the perch from which Sir Lipton would sit overlooking his empire while entertaining royalty. It is quite a view. With a cup of tea, I imagine it’s as peaceful as any spot on earth. Too bad I think tea is one of the most vile swills known to man. Too bitter. Too hot. When it cools, it’s even worse. I don’t get it.

Jana, me and Kristiana at Lipton's Seat.

Jana, me and Kristiana at Lipton’s Seat.

We all reunited back at the guesthouse where, bored before dinner, I perused the guestbook. Hashan, the young guesthouse owner along with his pretty sister and her mother, the great cook, has made quite a name for himself here. Huests called him, “The Prince of Haputale.” One Danish couple gushed, “Hashan, you are the best. Don’t ever change. Be yourself. You have a wonderful gift.”

Hashan seems a little light in the loafers but he turned pretty macho when I asked him about the war. I mistook him for a Tamil. I shouldn’t have. He’s quite black but this is Tamil country. He was not offended. He likes the Tamils.

“It wasn’t Singhalese versus the Tamils,” he said. “It was the Singhalese versus the Tigers. I never insulted the Tamils by calling them the Tamil Tigers. It’s only the Tigers.”

I asked him how the Tamil Tigers emerged.

“It’s like you live in a home and you can’t leave the home,” he said. “The people in the house tell you all the horrible things outside the house. You grow up thinking they’re horrible people and your children think they’re horrible people.

“My friends, the Tamils, they did not want an independent state.”

I had to talk to Hashan. No one else was talking. In what would be a great cover photo on a story about how modern technology has returned the art of communication, I was joined at dinner with eight other people. The two Czech women, another Czech couple and a French-Chinese couple were all pecking away at their iPhones, barely acknowledging each others’ existence except when they showed something on their iPhones.

Cell-less, I instead ordered a cup of tea. Maybe I developed a taste for it while spending an entire day within its roots. Maybe I wanted to drink like a local. I was not thirsty. But Hashan brought out a cup and I drank it Sri Lankan style: with milk and sugar. It wasn’t bad. In fact, I really liked it.

In Sri Lanka, high among the mist and the tea leaves and the gentle tea pickers, how could I not?