Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts, a vegetarian legacy from Kerala

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 Coconutsicon. 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:

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 Coconutsicon. 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!


Deepz said...

Nice to know about the book and the cook together event. I am sure it must have been loads of fun. Also I do agree about the pathetic state of Indian restaurants in and around Boulder. I am looking forward to your posts with the recipes from the book.


must have a look at the just released book, Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts

Nabeela said...

do you have a picture of the feast you all put together? I would LOVE to see that!

Anonymous said...

I just ordered this!

One of the highlights of my life was a recent cooking tour of Kerala. I loved the food there and attempt to recrate it at home, where it never fails to make me happy. I too am cultivating the way of cooking by touch/feel, but as not a Kerela native I can say it sure is great to have well-written cookbooks to give me a launching point.

The December meal sounds wonderful.

bee said...

dear manisha,

i too have seen ammini on forums and have some of her recipes and tips. this book is definitely coming to my home. thanks, and looking forward to your series.


Priya said...

Most of the books you have been showcasing on your blog sidebar have tempted me to buy them...and this one steals the show...I would soo love to get hold of this....especially since it is vegetarian...I have seen most books on Kerala cuisine dedicated to seafood (for a reason, I agree ;-)) I am just waiting to get out of school and land a job that can help me buy all these :P and until then I find solace in the public library ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Manisha for all that wonderful info on the new book. Are there lots of pictures in the book. I haven't seen a kerala food book with pics and would love to have one.
I hope this fits the bill.

Anonymous said...

Deepz, this was the first time that I was 'managing' 4 very accomplished cooks. I don't have half the experience or knowledge they do. It was a tremedous learning experience on all fronts. I've been told that the Indian food scene is better in Aurora or Denver so we need to do that soon!

HKG, you must! It will resonate well with you because Kerala food is a lot like Maharashtrian food in its simplicity.

Nabeela, my friend Lee took a few pictures. I was just too busy to take any. I will upload them as I post the recipes. Lee was cooking right along with me so they are at best, point and shoot pictures. But I am so glad she did!

Diane, congrat! I am sure you will enjoy it. I've been learning so much from the book, too!

Bee, I keep saying I am on a Kerala food high. And this is vegetarian cooking at its best!

Priya, initially I thought Ammini's book would focus on seafood but she opened up a whole new dimension to Kerala cuisine. The public library is an excellent resource. If your local library has a suggestion box, you could put in a request for Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts. :-D

Gini, Ammini's strength lies in her writing and her knowledge of Kerala's culture and traditions. The book has some pictures but it is not a recipe book with glossy pictures alongside each dish. She has pictures of ingredients and spices, wherever relevant. Her writing evokes visuals that are very powerful and very honestly, this is the first book in which I have not missed having pictures.

musical said...

Hello Manisha,

Thanks for your suggestions regarding the sue of farina :).

This is my first time on your blog-loved this post.


Anonymous said...

And now I'm late! (Well the Airtel broadband went under last evening, not to surface till now, 20 hrs later) And you're on a spree!

Anyway, I wanted to say...
Denver used to be quite bad...there was this place downtown with the same food you mentioned - 'Indian' in a very loose way. :)

I too have little knowledge of Kerala food beyond avial and appams - and how I love those. I was happy to see Mallugirl's blog! (Thanks Shaheen). I wish I had a public library to put in my requests...I pay correct taxes, but damn the lot tht does not!! @#$$@

So, you think four women can cook together in the same kitchen? Hmmm...I used to find two too many! :) But, jokes aside, I wish my friends lived close and I could do this. I have just two friends ,other than the ones I have acquired virtually very recently :), and both of them are great cooks.

Anonymous said...

Musical, welcome! I prefer farina to regular rava. I generally use farina or cream of wheat to make upma. Recently I found cream of wheat with barley in it. It tastes just a little different but we loved the flavor.

Anita, it's never too late to hear from you! Ammini's book has me cooking and enjoying vegetables! What can I tell you? The recipes are quick and the results very flavorful! I love avial, too! I haven't ventured into making appams. I will soon be getting a puttu maker to make puttu.

Four women? We were five, including me! Two were very new friends at that time - we met because of my lemon pickle! The other two are women I have known longer. But that really didn't matter as we all got along so well together. We worked very well together, too. I have a 5 burner gas stove but we couldn't use more than 3 at a time because the pots we were using were large. Lee brought her induction burner with its special magnetic pots and that turned out to be a life saver.

Everyone pitched in with grocery and supplies. I didn't have enough katoris so Lee and Charlotte brought rice bowls and ramekins. My dining table hadn't yet been delivered so we put tablecloths, courtesy Lee, on two 6' picnic tables and my guests brought extra chairs to sit on! We split the tasks and each one had a dish they were in charge of or coordinating. Everyone tried their hand at making rotis. It was a blast!

I want to have another cook together soon. And, this time I will have enough katoris!

I think it worked because each one of us was eager to learn from the others. There were no egos that needed to be fed so we didn't get on each others' nerves. It was a very productive environment. It was also the closest I have come to a meal with extended family - my friends are my family - in a long long time.

Shammi said...

I totally agree - cooking the okra on high heat without covering the pan ensures non-slimy results :) And that cookbook looks like one I'll want to add to my collection tout suite!

Anonymous said...

Shyam, glad you concur about okra! I am sure you will enjoy the book. It is not a glossy coffee table recipe book. Instead its pages are filled with recipes, stories, festivals, traditions and history of Kerala.

Anonymous said...

Just had a question does farina taste like semolina in upma or is it more coarse? and would you have to follow the same procedure as one makes for upma. thanks

Anonymous said...

Resham, farina is the same thing as cream of wheat. It is more coarse than semolina or rava or sooji. There is a slight difference in taste but we like it a lot so that hasn't been an issue for us. I follow the same procedure for upma with rava but I use less water. The amount of water also depends on how many veggies I tossed into the upma so I just eyeball it and add water accordingly. I don't go by the instructions on the packet.