The smell I find the most comforting is the one that filled my mom's kitchen - starchy steam rising out of a pot of parboiled rice. Nearly every night, she scooped a heaping cup of granules from the 25-pound bag in the pantry and boiled them in a pot of water (much like Italians prepare pasta). While the rice cooked, she moved on to more daring feats like chopping onions in her palm and whacking open a coconut with a frightfully large cleaver. My mom insisted on two rules when it came to rice: it should never be sticky and it always had to be served hot. So when she placed the plump granules into a colander to drain, I knew it was time to set the table.
Jolly Auntie's Iddiyappam, Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
Rice forms the cornerstone of the Kerala table. So much so that when you want to know whether someone has eaten, you ask, "Choru undo?" which literally translates to "Have you eaten rice?" On most days we consumed Uncle Ben's parboiled rice paired, like a blank canvass, with other highly spiced dishes. However, rice takes on numerous other forms among Malayalees (making the region a gluten-free paradise).
I savored many rice-based dishes on my recent trip. For breakfast, I sat down to servings of putu (rice flour steamed with fresh, shredded coconut) paired with chickpeas or iddyappam (steam rice noodles) formed with a copper press. My auntie paired the noodles with boiled eggs that she cooked with coconut milk, coriander, and a mix of other spices. When we took day trips, my relatives and I lunched at vegetarian cafes. At Mummy's Restaurant, we ate ghee roast dosas, prepared from a rice-based batter. The dosas were cooked on a large griddle and layered with a pepper-onion chutney. We also enjoyed steamed idlis (rice buns) served with sambar (vegetable stew) and coconut chutney, that added zing to the meal.
Mummy's Ghee Roast Dosa, Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2001)
My Auntie Iysha tracked down toddy, an alcoholic beverage prepared from the sap of coconut blossoms and used it to prepare kallappam. A Syrian Christian specialty, the fluffy pancakes get their lift as the alcohol ferments in a rice-based batter.
Iyshakochamma's Kallappam (Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)
Iyshakochamma (kochamma means aunt) also introduced me to pidi. Together, we stirred up a rice-based dough, set aside a pinch, and rolled the rest into an army of one-inch circular dumplings. We seasoned a large pot of water with shallots, curry leaves, coriander, and salt and thicken the broth with the rest of the dough which had been liquified with coconut milk. Then we set the dumplings in the broth to boil. When they firmed up, each of us rounded up a plate full and smothered them with chicken coconut stew for a mid-day snack.
Iyshakochamma, (Abe Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2010)
When people ask me to describe Kerala, my memory takes me to the plush paddy fields that once covered the region's fertile plains like a vast ocean. Unfortunately, the low profit margins associated with growing rice has made it untenable for many farmers. So many have receded. However, rice continues to dominate the table in one form or another.
(COPYRIGHT CARDAMOM KITCHEN 2009)
This pilaf features my favorite spice trio: cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. Their flavors become weak in the knees yummy when combined with basmati rice. (So you can skip the saffron if your jar is empty.) I use basmati rice from the foothills of the Himalayas, which has more floral flavors than any domestically produced rice I've come across. Be sure to let the onions soften completely. Also, take time to "fry" the rice as it helps to keep the granules from sticking. This pilaf pairs beautifully with fish mappas and will appear again in a recipe for chicken biryani.
1 cup Indian basmati rice
3 tablespoons butter or canola oil
1 cup diced onion
4 cardamom pods
1 stick of cinnamon
2 cups of water
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
Pinch of saffron (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
Soak rice in water for 20 minutes.
Rinse rice until water becomes clear. Drain. Let sit for another 20 minutes.
Heat butter or oil in a saucepan on medium-low heat. Add cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. Saute for 1 minute.
Stir in onion and cook until it becomes translucent.
Add rice and stir to coat granules with butter or oil. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly to "fry" rice.
Add water, lemon juice, saffron, and salt. Stir. Bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to low. Cover and cook until rice is tender (10 to 15 minutes).
Remove cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon before serving.