- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

KERALA, India — “Coconuts are Kerala,” our guide says. I laterlearn that in local dialect, the words are one and the same.

We are bouncing along the pitted road to Cochin, commercial capital of this beguiling tropical province in southwestern India. I peer out the window and, sure enough, palm tree heads are clustered with green and yellow coconuts hanging like balloons.

I am not, frankly, impressed. My childhood contacts with the chewy shards of desiccated coconut scattered on cheap cakes never encouraged me to investigate further.

However, here coconuts are impossible to miss. Green semiripe nuts are piled at street corners, to be decapitated by a quick stroke of a machete to release the juice inside.

Drunk through a straw, coconut water is slightly astringent, refreshingly cool and healthy — a concern in regions where water can be risky to drink. The white, almost jellylike meat is eaten as a snack.

Tender green coconuts are just a beginning, as I soon discover. Coconut in some form or other features in at least half the local dishes I taste, but it is mild and far more versatile than the tough shreds of my childhood.

Kerala is the spice capital of India, and I enjoy its highly accented mixes of green beans, peas, shallots and bright red carrots, stir-fried with tender slivers of coconut.

The local steamed rice crepes, called palappam, are based on coconut milk and rice flour. No stew is complete without a coconut component, be it coconut oil used for frying, shredded coconut as a thickener or coconut milk extracted from the shredded meat to moisten the sauce.

Note that this is a third coconut liquid, quite different from the watery juice of unripe nuts and the milky, richer juice you’ll find in ripe nuts.

Coconuts are most useful when they are fully ripe and faded to yellow. First, the 2-inch hairy coating of coir is stripped off and saved for mats and ropes. (Untrimmed coconuts are a rarity in U.S. markets, so you won’t often see the coir.) Once shaved, the familiar tough brown coconut is revealed with its three eyes.

I’ve come across all sorts of suggestions for splitting a coconut open, including roasting in the oven, dropping from a height (make sure no one is below) and tapping gently with a hammer while listening for a fault line in the manner of a burglar cracking a safe.

The Keralan method is far simpler, as I learn from Raji Panachinkel, who cooks on a traditional houseboat that chugs beside the neighboring rice fields.

It’s important to start with a coconut with maximum juice. Shake it and listen. Polish the nut with your hands to remove any stray fibers. Set a bowl ready to catch the liquid, and grab a heavy cleaver.

Hold the coconut firmly on a board, and with the back of the cleaver, tap about one-third down from the eyes of the nut, turning it slowly. After three or four hits, you’ll hear a sudden crack, and the nut will split, spilling liquid to be caught in the bowl.

Now that the nut is open, Mr. Panachinkel goes for the crisp white meat. He shows me how to score it with the tip of a small knife in concentric circles, then he pries it from the hull, trimming off the dark brown skin.

The meat can be chopped or cut in slivers to add texture to soups and stews. Most often, it is grated. I’ve found that a food processor does well if you first cut the meat in chunks. If you’re working by hand, I’d suggest a rotary cheese grater.

Unfortunately, the simple little Keralan tool for grating coconut is available only on the spot. It comes anchored to a stool, and to operate it, the cook sits firmly at ease on the stool, happily scraping away.

To make fresh coconut milk: Two or possibly three batches of milk can be made from one coconut. The first extraction will be the richest. Crack a coconut, catching the coconut water inside and setting it aside.

Extract the meat, pulling or cutting it away from the shell. Trim and discard the brown skin. Cut meat in pieces and puree them in a processor, using the pulse button and working in 2 to 3 batches. Add 1 cup of the coconut water; process to mix. Set a strainer lined with cheesecloth over a bowl. Pour in coconut and milk, and squeeze the grated meat dry.

Replace coconut meat in processor, add 1 cup more coconut water, and repeat for the less concentrated second milk extract. Leftover grated meat can be toasted for cake decoration but is quite bland. Makes 2 cups milk total.

At dinner that night, Mr. Panachinkel served a zesty little chutney based on coconut, onion and chili. He had to grind all the ingredients through a hand grinder, but I simply throw them in the processor, all done in a few moments.

Coconut chutney (Arachukalakki)

Coconut chutney is deliciously refreshing with grilled fish or chicken breast.

1 cup grated fresh coconut

1 green chili, cored, seeded and cut in pieces

2 sweet onions, peeled and cut in pieces

1-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and sliced

2 teaspoons black mustard seeds

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup water

In a food processor, combine all ingredients. Work to a fine paste using the pulse button. Makes 2 cups chutney, enough to make 6 to 8 servings.

Next, to celebrate the memory of a hauntingly beautiful land, here’s the simple creamy spiced rice, rich with raisins and pistachios, that we sampled on our rice boat. As the sun went down, one by one, chanting rose from the mosque, the Hindu temple and the church across the waters.

Indian spiced rice pudding (Paal payasam)

You can use either fresh coconut milk or half canned unsweetened milk and half water for this recipe. Serve the pudding warm or at room temperature. I like to leave the spices in the rice, but I warn guests not to eat them.

4 cups coconut milk

1/4 cup basmati rice

1 cinnamon stick

4 crushed cardamom pods

2 whole cloves

1/4 cup sugar

½ cup golden raisins

½ cup blanched pistachios

In a heavy saucepan, stir together the coconut milk, rice, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Cover, bring to a boil, and simmer the rice 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the sugar and raisins; continue simmering, stirring often toward the end of cooking, until the rice is creamy but still falls easily from the spoon, 20 to 30 minutes.

Let the rice cool slightly, then stir in pistachios. Makes 4 servings.

Kerala vegetable stew (Pachakari istoo)

This stew can be made with a great variety of vegetables; the more the better. I like to include roots such as carrot, turnip, celery and potato; at least one type of squash, particularly pumpkin; plus green vegetables, including green beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and spinach. They should be as colorful as possible. Before measuring, cut the vegetables in 3/4-inch cubes (and shred the leafy ones).

The stew makes a satisfying entree when served with steamed rice.

If you cannot find Thai basil, regular basil can be substituted, although the flavor is different. A can of unsweetened coconut milk mixed with 1/4 cup water can be substituted for milk extracted from fresh coconut.

1 medium coconut

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

2 cardamom pods, crushed

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 green chili, cored, seeded and sliced, more to taste

1-inch piece of fresh ginger root, chopped

1 quart diced or shredded vegetables

1 teaspoon salt

GARNISH:

Small bunch Thai basil

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Make a first and second extract of milk from the coconut. Set aside separately. (See instructions above.) Heat oil in a skillet or deep frying pan, and add cinnamon, pepper, cloves and seeds from the cardamom pods. Fry, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the onion, chili and ginger root, and continue frying until onion is tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir vegetables into onion mixture until well coated with spice. Add second extract of coconut milk with salt, then cover and simmer until vegetables are just tender, 8 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, fry garnish: Strip off basil leaves, discarding stems. Heat oil in a small frying pan, and fry leaves until crisp, stirring constantly, about 30 seconds. Drain them on paper towels.

When vegetables are done, stir first extract of milk into stew and take at once from the heat. (Oil will separate from milk if it is boiled.) Taste and adjust seasoning.

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