On the morning of my departure, the signs did not look promising. As I flicked through the delicate black paper of a 1970s photo album from my dad’s overland trip to India, I came across pictures of an emaciated 18-year-old’s frame, tales of suspected malaria and dodgy roadside eats. When you tell someone you are travelling to this exotic subcontinent, a common warning is drummed into you, “Watch out for Delhi belly!” But I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve been here a month and I’m pretty confident that I will be returning home at least 5 kilos heavier because ladies and gentlemen, I have a new found love: Malabar cuisine.
This story begins in a kitchen so hot and humid that you can’t quite tell whether your chin is damp from sweat or saliva. In that kind of muggy people oven, all you want to do is strip your clothes off but that would be a huge mistake – The mosquitos that bite every inch of your feet and toes until they become a scabby mess would inevitably spread to the rest of your bare skin and we are here to eat, not be eaten.
So why would we happily risk denghi fever and torturous itching just for a mouthful of this beautiful food?
If you can’t find fresh coconut, soak the same amount of dessicated coconut overnight.
The Malabar coast hugs the west side of India from Mumbai to the tip of Kerala. Sea-farers have been visiting these shores from afar for thousands of years and it is reflected in the food. Think raisins, an abundance of coconut, chilli so hot it makes your eyes water, sweet meets sour, Arabic meets Indian.
This particular dish is so unusual, my host Sumi assures me with the exciting phrase, “You will find this recipe nowhere else.” It is a pie and a pudding all at once, the Indian answer to lasagne or tortilla, layered and eggy but steamed. Strips of chicken rest between crepe-like pasta sheets alternately spread with thick, sweet coconut paste. Every single tastebud is satisfied from this balanced yet crazy melange. I can’t decide if it’s a spicy curry or a dessert but I’m so wrapped up in elated love for it that I simply don’t care.
Warm, comforting rice pudding. Another example of sweet yet spiced.
I must admit, I have occasionally missed the comforts of European cuisine but when it comes to food, monogamy has never been a strong point… and what’s a holiday without a little romantic fling?
THE PASTA/CREPE SHEETS
- 1 cup flour
- 1 egg
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- Salt to taste
Mix everything together and gradually add water until it forms a smooth batter. These have the taste and texture of pasta but you fry them like crepes.
FOR THE SWEET FILLING
- 6 eggs
- 1/2 cup shredded coconut (or desiccated coconut soaked overnight)
- 1/2 tbsp cardomom powder
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tbsp raisins
- 1 tbsp ghee
Melt the ghee in a frying pan and cook everything in it for 5 minutes as if you are making coconut scrambled eggs.
- 4 medium onions
- 2 cups shredded chicken (cooked)
- 1tsp garlic paste
- 1tsp ginger paste
- 2tbsp coriander leaves
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp chilli powder
- 1/4 tsp coriander powder
- 1/4 tsp gharam masala
Heat the onions in some coconut oil until they become soft. Add the spices and then stir in the chicken until it becomes well mixed.
In a large pan (about the same diameter as your crepes) place a pasta sheet, then the chicken mix, another pasta sheet and then the coconut paste. Continue to alternately layer until you run out. Whisk up an egg and use it to seal the sides and coat the top. Cover with a lid and steam gently for 20 minutes.
THE DELECTABLE GUIDE TO AVOIDING DELHI BELLY
- Worrying only compromises your immune system, enjoy your food.
- Use your intuition to scope out the best food choices. Don’t eat it if your gut is saying “no”.
- Don’t drink the tap water, even if you’re thirsty.
- Always sanitise your hands before eating. No soapy goodness available? Use vodka.
- Take a strong daily probiotic, it’s just good sense. I chose OptiBac Probiotics because they have a species developed specifically for travellers’ tummies.
I diligently follow these steps and take probiotics religiously. Usually, I am the first to get ill but when we all ate something a bit funky, the rest of my party came down with an awful sickness and somehow, I managed to survive almost completely unscathed. Optibac are a lifesaver, fingers crossed I won’t run out before the 5 months is up!