Just over a week ago I was lucky enough to attend a very special evening of cooking, stories and good company at my local Neighbourhood Centre. The agenda: to learn to cook an authentic curry from Kerala in Southern India – how could I resist!
Being from a family with a reasonable amount of Sri Lankan ancestry, I have grown up with curries and other magical Sri Lankan foods from a young age. Some of my first cooking experiments when I moved out of home were various curries. However, the specific culinary traditions of the Keralan region of southern India was not something I was familiar with, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn some new tricks in the kitchen.
Our host, Mary, is a Melbourne local with a rich family history in Kerala. In addition to sharing precious kitchen secrets she learned from the women in her home town, she also takes small groups on intimate, authentic tours of Kerala during the summer months. (For more information on these cultural immersions visit the Pure Kerala Tours website at www.purekeralatours.com.
So – to the good bits! After introducing us to the region of Southern India her family lives in and giving us some insight into daily life in the remaining villages, Mary talked us through the key spices she uses in her kitchen.
Cumin seeds, ground turmeric & coriander, mustard seeds, green cardamom pods, star anise and cinnamon play starring roles, along with some beautiful shredded coconut used to make the base for a fragrant vegetable curry.
There was much interest in the beautiful wooden spice box Mary had been gifted from her grandmother’s kitchen, a lovely locally made piece that allowed her to bring a piece of Kerala home with her.
Teamed with fresh, carefully selected poultry (always organic for the best taste & texture) and produce, the result was a colourful feast of contrasting & complementary flavours.
My key takeaways:
- Take time to really let the onions cook! Mary uses red onions or shallots almost exclusively due to their higher sugar content. This makes them caramelise beautifully when cooked for long enough, and adds an amazing depth of flavour.
- Mary also often uses cherry tomatoes for their extra sweetness to add flavour to the curry.
- When using dried spices, add a little water to your mix to make a paste before adding to the hot pan. This protects them from burning and makes them easier to distribute more evenly (I am always burning my spices!!).
- Lightly toast your whole spices (star anise, cinnamon, cardamom pods etc) before adding to release their fragrance (I used to do this but got lazy… definitely going to start again, it makes a noticeable difference to the flavour)
- Don’t be afraid to improvise – when the cucumbers mysteriously went missing on the night, we just used chopped fresh tomato for the yoghurt raita instead – and it was lovely! Something I’d never have considered, but worked beautifully.
It was really refreshing for me to watch someone so truly passionate and knowledgable about her home and the traditions of her family, and to sit around a communal table with good company (and some good wine!) and enjoy the fruits of our collective labour.
If you’re interested in cooking, or feel like you might be if you only knew how, I’d highly recommend you check out your local community spaces for any cooking classes they may have on offer. It’s a great way to take the mystery out of preparing food, to have the opportunity to ask questions and to enjoy preparing a meal together with other positive and engaged participants.