She draws you into her childhood memories. She walks you into her world of culture and traditions. She leads you deeper into the history of her land and her people. And, she regales you with vegetarian recipes from the royal family of Kochi and from the people of the bountiful Indian state of Kerala.
She is Ammini Ramachandran and she does this through her just released book, Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts. The title itself evokes visuals of lush landscapes, rich produce and delightful recipes! And the book does not disappoint.
Morning begins before sunrise in India. I still remember, from my childhood in lush, tropical Kerala in southwestern India, the sounds of a large joint-family household coming alive before daybreak. I could hear the clatter of brass pots and copper pans being washed and the rhythmic creak of the granite grinding stone pureeing coconut and green chilies for fresh chutney. Temple bells rang in the distance, announcing predawn prayers. The fragrance from the wood-burning stoves and the aroma of fresh decoction coffee permeated the entire house. Soon, the sizzle of dosa batter falling on the hot griddle would entice everyone to get up and get ready for breakfast.
Wouldn't you want to read more? I sure did. And I am still finding new gems in this just released cookbook, for example, Ammini's thoughts that resonate with healthy, environmentally sound food.
The two most important aspects of this vegetarian cooking are seasonality and flexibility. This cuisine is all about creating the tastiest and most satisfying dishes from a few fresh, seasonally available ingredients.
It's the perfect kind of book to curl up with and experience Kerala cooking at its best. A little bit of a paradox, that! But yes, it's entirely possible!
Ammini writes with a lot of passion and attention to detail. Most recipes are accompanied by a snippet of history or a personal anecdote. Every recipe has been catalogued through careful testing to convert from 'a pinch of this' or 'a fistful of that' to precise measures, suitable for those who need exact instructions. As for me, I was totally sold when I read:
Back home, we are taught to cultivate a sense of smell and color, and we try to accomplish perfection in cooking through exploration. Almost every ingredient is measured only by hand—a handful, a little, a pinch, and so on. Cooking is an expression of the cook’s personal tastes and preferences. The joy of it is in experimenting. The delight in cooking is not necessarily derived from the end product alone, but from the endless possibilities available for flavoring a dish. I urge you to use these recipes for ideas and suggestions. Improvise, but never let a cookbook order you around.
If eating by the season did not strike a chord with you, surely this last excerpt must!
This is no ordinary cookbook. The recipes have been adapted for modern kitchens, with suggestions for substitutions and variations. There is a comprehensive glossary that provides the origins and history of each grain and spice. There are a mind-boggling number of recipes, 175 to be precise! There is an amazing section on the spice trade in the Indian Ocean and Kerala's cultural history. It's no surprise then that Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts was selected to be Publisher's Choice!
Ammini is the grand-daughter of the Maharaja of Kochi and was brought up in a large joint family of matrilineal Nayars. She has delved deep into her past and her roots over the last seven years to put together this masterpiece. A natural at culinary arts, it was a surprise to learn that Ammini had made her career in finance before this. She is an accomplished writer, having contributed to several food journals. I first found her on Pepper Trail, her web site where she chronicles the history, traditions and culture of Kerala. I was therefore thrilled to find that she was an active member of the food forums that I frequented. Never flippant, always cordial and extremely forthcoming, interactions with Ammini have been both enjoyable as well as educational.
On December 3 last year, I invited four of my friends for a cook together. We couldn't meet over Thanksgiving so this was the next best time, before everyone became busy with the upcoming holidays. I was looking for recipes for this rather ambitious, never-before-attempted-by-me event and I wasn't quite sure what kind of a menu to put together. I was thrilled and very honored when Ammini agreed to let me use some of her recipes for this cook together.
My friends love Indian food but it's been mainly restaurant fare for most of them and quite honestly, the Indian food scene in and around Boulder is non-existent. The most mediocre restaurant stands out as the best. There is so much more to Indian cuisine than bland samosas, standard North Indian curries, chicken tandoori, aloo-gobi and that extra spicy red curry that is brought out and paraded as vindaloo. I wanted to share recipes from different regions of India. The menu I came up with was more than a little overly ambitious but I really didn't know any better at the time. This is what it looked like:
- Spicy Shallot Soup**
- Nutty Green Beans
- Okra Kichadi**
- Gujarati Dal
- Paal Paayasam**
- Boondi Raita
- Phulkas or rotis
- Steamed Basmati Rice
- Lemon pickle and carrot pickle, both homemade
The menu was entirely vegetarian and was met with hearty approval by all my friends. I left the door open for a meat dish and sure enough, Hyderabadi Marag was added to the list by popular demand.
Ammini's Fresh Tomato Chutney was also on the menu but we dropped it as we had too much going all at the same time! (I will be sharing the recipe as I've made it several times since.) Think about it: 5 women, one a little sick but who wouldn't miss this event, bumping into each other in my little kitchen! We were cutting, chopping, stirring, talking, laughing, tasting...oh! it was so much fun. A little disorganized, but a lot of fun!
It was a good thing that I made the desserts the previous day! I made Gajjar halwa and SH's delectable Coconut Burfi. Chai, red wine, sparkling cider and beer flowed freely.
We started cooking at about 3pm and dinner was finally served at almost 7pm - over an hour late! There were 10 of us for dinner that night as the men were invited to join us for the feast. And a feast, it was! It wouldn't have been possible to share so much of India with my friends if it hadn't been for Ammini's help and guidance.
Stay tuned for a peek at the recipes that Ammini so graciously shared with me, marked with ** in the menu. And while you're waiting, go check out her web site, read an excerpt from the introduction to the book, let your eyes be pleasantly surprised by the fantastic contents and, if you're convinced, order Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts. If you need more cajoling, wait a bit, see the recipes come alive on Indian Food Rocks and I am sure you will be convinced that this book is a must-have. Remember that there are very few books on vegetarian Kerala cuisine and even fewer that are well-written. This is a very special cookbook that I hope to pass on to my daughter, especially since she is already enjoying the results so much!
Update: Whoops! Comments were not enabled for this post earlier! That was not by design but a mistake. They are now enabled again! Thanks, Anita!