Saturday, June 28, 2008

Syrian Christian cooking

The Syrian Christians are an old community in the state of Kerala, on the southwest coast of India. Christianity came to Kerala from the middle east; in the old days, the Kerala Orthodox church fell under the control of the Patriarch of Antioch in Syria -- hence the name.

Kerala cooking has received its share of kudos recently, but most people would be surprised by the consistency of its values -- perfectly cooked, tender fish and meat, vegetables with bite, short grained, unpolished red rice, and a variety of breads. Many Indians are careless about texture and bite -- does that ring true about your favourite local Indian restaurant? -- but not in Kerala. The spicing is in some ways characteristically Indian Ocean. Usually, one starts curries by thoroughly cooking the spice base, which is turmeric and red chilli that you find in most of India, plus coriander seed in place of the cumin that they use in North India. Usually the ratio is turmeric:coriander:red chilli as 1:2:4. After the spice base, comes the fresh base: ginger and garlic made into a paste. On this foundation of spices and fresh aromatics comes whatever makes a dish different: the fish or meat and the special flavours -- very often coconut milk is used as the liquid and thickener.

The fish curry shown above is the emblematic meen vevichathu, commonly known as Kerala
Red Fish Curry. I took the photograph from a good recipe at (Saira's sauce is slightly lighter in colour and thinner than you would find in my family.) The characteristic ingredient in this dish is kudam puli -- the large black pieces in the photo -- a fruit which imparts a somewhat taramindy taste to the curry, giving it an attractive complexity of flavour -- it's a hot curry, with a characteristic back-of-the-mouth sharpness. (I don't know where one would get kudam puli in North America.) The fish is generally dense, not flaky -- a big fish like sea-bass or halibut -- the local equivalents, of course -- not a flat fish. Syrian Christians are good at cooking fish just right -- it's cooked (not raw, as in Japan), but still tender and moist. (Grilled flatfish is divine in Kerala -- I am sorry to my Croatian friends for saying so, but Dubrovnik doesn't have anything to match it.)

This is a Syrian Christian banquet:

You get a glimpse of the red rice on the right edge of the table, three dishes from the bottom. The meen vevichathu is at the back: here is a closer look -- in the long dish:

It's served with a dense fibrous starch, often kuppa or tapioca, but here breadfruit (just above the fish).

Below we have a bread known as appam -- the rice flour is raised with fermented coconut milk and yeast, and eaten with a light coconut milk chicken curry:

Kerala cuisine is complex and varied. Syrian Christians have the best of it, I think -- though the dishes are closely related to those other Malayalis make, there is a refinement in their flavours which surpasses the rest. It is probably not the easiest cuisine to get into -- the flavours are unfamiliar, and the routines and rituals of combination and order and what to eat when are complex. (For instance, you never eat yoghurt until right at the end -- you use it to sop up the left over gravies on your plate.) As a child, I preferred other things. Now, I think it's one of the best country cuisines -- i.e., it's not to be compared with the showy metropolitan cuisines you find in Delhi or Instanbul or Paris -- the world has to offer.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Is Hundred the New Eighty?

A recent New Yorker article remarked on the fragility of health and well-being after sixty. You're not surprised that one of the US presidential candidates is seventy, but you are also not surprised to come across somebody, who at sixty finds it difficult to walk a trail that's a bit uphill and downhill. True, we are not surprised by different kinds of outcome after a longish life, but as we have recently begun to find out, the generation that was born in the years following WWI (1918-1930) is proving remarkably durable.

My grandfather had a tough independence movement: he was a political leader among Kerala Christians, and when the administration of the state decided to fix things so Kerala would be dominated by Hindus, he found his business under attack. He spent time in jail, which shattered his health. Though thoroughly rehabilitated after Independence -- a member of Parliament and India's ambassador to the Sudan -- he suffered from diabetes and insomnia and died in his early seventies. No doubt he very much missed his wife, my grandmother, who died in her early fifties -- she had a weak heart, and it was overstrained by taking care of a large brood in difficult circumstances when her husband was in jail.

Their children, who, like their mother, shared in my grandfather's distress, are nevertheless very well. Six survive, the oldest (my father) and the youngest having succumbed to cancer. They range between 78 and 87 -- very much changed, of course, from when, as a child, I first formed my impressions of their characters and intelligence, and when they were young, glamorous, and in charge.

On a recent trip to India, I found it surprising how well these people, and others, seemed, into their eighties and nineties.
I visited ten or so people of this generation, many of whom I hadn't seen in many years. I was struck by how much the same they were mentally as before, and how little affected by age in quickness of mind, mobility of body, and vitality of spirit.

When I was much younger, we thought it very fortunate when somebody lived to be eighty. Now, we are all familiar with individuals who at eighty and much older, continue to function at much the same level as they did twenty or forty years ago, and even to thrive in conversation and debate.

The post-WWI generation is going to surprise us. Once, we hardly knew anybody older than eighty: soon we are going to know many who function pretty well at a hundred. (I just hope Robert Mugabe isn't one of them.)

First Class/Business Class

Recently, I flew three long legs (Frankfurt-Bangalore, Bangalore-Frankfurt, Dusseldorf-Toronto) on Lufthansa First Class (on points, I might say). The first leg of the trip, from Toronto to Frankfurt was on Business. There is a difference.

Back in the seventies and early eighties, flying economy was quite pleasant, even for long distances. You'd be served a drink (on Canadian airlines, usually a double) -- during the recession of the early eighties, you'd usually have a seat open next to you, and drinks were free. Then, you'd get a hot meal, with a choice between two main courses. Wine of a mediocre standard would be served. And then they'd come around with brandy.

(That was in the seventies and eighties. Back in the thirties, there was only one class, and here is how it looked (on three different airlines):

The New York Times, from which I got this illustration, points out, however, that flights were much bumpier in those days -- with smaller aircraft and lower altitudes. Indeed, I remember flying prop planes in the fifties -- when you boarded, you hit an olfactory wall of eau de cologne, sprayed to cover the smell of airsickness upchuck.)

When bigger aircraft were introduced (747s), their length demanded an extra galley and toilet station in the middle, and so the plane was divided into separate cabins. Soon airlines started reserving a small cabin in front for people who wanted a little quiet -- no children, no movie, that kind of thing. That was the start of Business Class. Gradually, it became quite a bit fancier, as economy class slid into greater and greater squalor. To compensate for the steep price of full fare economy, airlines introduced some perks, primarily fancy seating and good leg room, and somewhat better food.

Today, business class inside North America, or Europe or Asia is very little different from the economy class of the early eighties. It is attractive only because utter misery prevails behind. Lufthansa's business class from Toronto to Frankfurt was a lot better than even ancestral economy, but it too bore the stamp of its origins. Meals came from a cart; you could get a drink only when the cart passed by; the main course is loaded pre-assembled and heated up on board.

First Class is a different matter altogether, starting with the airport lounge, which is sumptuous, has luxurious meals, bathrooms with a tub you can soak in -- the works. Above, you see a tray in one of Lufthansa's Frankfurt lounges: malt whiskies from Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and Austria. Now who would have thought of that?

First Class too has its origins in the old days, where it was an experience quite distinct from the pleasant but plain fare in the back. Here, there is service. You are addressed by your name, usually by charming, more senior stewardesses, who know how to entertain in the grand style. Meals are assembled in front of you, or in the on-board galley, and brought to you individually; you taste the wine before it is poured; you are not tied to your seat -- there is a bar from which you can serve yourself and chat with the other members of the elite. And there is luxury. Today, brand names are a kind of currency of hospitality, a way somebody knows how much an arms dealer or lobbyist paid to entertain them. This is how it is in First. The champagne is vintage; the wine is from a well-known chateau; the Scotch is 18 years old; caviar is always one of the entrees.

And there was something I thought quite unusual on a plane: soup!

And that most German of delicacies -- fresh white asparagus, which happened to be in season:

By the way, Air Canada has something called Executive First on intercontinental flights; it is a mixture of both. It has the service of First, but not the luxury. The flight attendants address you by name; they are charming senior staff; and included in the crew is a cook who assembles each main course plate on board; there is a stand-up bar. On the other hand, the champagne is Drappier; the Scotch is 12 years old; neither caviar nor fresh white German asparagus is available. But you get a good appetizer, and a main course "cooked" for you on board, and served individually.

A while ago, Joanne Kates wrote a column in which she strongly preferred Lufthansa's Business class food to Air Canada's. I find this hard to believe. (Was she actually flying Lufthansa First?) How can a meal assembled off plane and heated up in a closed container be better than something assembled on-board? Moisture and pressure are the enemies of airline food, and that's why this procedure has mediocre results -- in Economy you have no choice, of course. The Business Class service on Lufthansa's Toronto-Frankfurt leg was almost comic. Everything was served from a cart. When I asked for another glass of red wine, I was told to wait for the next cart -- which happened to be when dessert came through. They had the cheese and nuts on the meal tray, but whisked it away when the main course came -- Did the others eat cheese before meat? The first was nice enough: a warm duck salad, but the main course came with the foil cover on: it was a over-soyed Chinese-"inspired" meat dish with plain white rice and mixed vegetables, which had been steamed under the cover.