Do you ever have a project you keep putting off? And putting off, because the project just feels too all-consuming with no easily defined beginning or end? Welcome to my world of trying to write this brief recollection of my extraordinary experiences in India during the fall of 2011.
This is one of 3 reflections regarding my time in India and my pleasure meeting Amie Inman and visiting two of the Raxa Collective resorts. This first entry focuses on visiting the markets of Cochin and Ernakulum.
Last October my husband Dave and I visited Amie Inman, with Raxa Collective, in Fort Cochin and Ernakulam, in Kerala. At the time, I was the Adult Lifelong Learning Coordinator for the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea around-the-world voyage. Dave and I had 6 days in Southern India and we didn’t waste a minute. Dave was returning to a region he loves while I was just being introduced, not knowing what to expect.
With Amie as our local guide, we had started in Fort Cochin and then moved on to Ernakulum’s famous Broadway, exploring the open-air markets and spice shops. There are far better writers than me to eloquently describe the exoticness of this experience. All senses are on overload with repeated assaults coming from every direction, into every pore. Some stalls were highly specialized: The Banana stall had huge banana stalks, as well as bunches of bananas available for sale, while another vendor artfully displayed just betel leaves. A neighboring stall had multiple mounds of rice covering a long table – each mound featuring a little different shape or color of rice. A blue tarp covered yet another section of the market, creating a surreal sapphire glow over the vendor’s piles of straw baskets and bundles of folded fabric.
But the prize for causing the most astonishment goes to the spice shops. As we entered Amie’s favorite store, the sheer quantity of spices were visually spellbinding. A mass of what looked like wildly funky pink skulls were actually mace, the husks of nutmeg. It was numbing and exhilarating to see all the wooden bins, burlap sacks and tin containers holding an endless amount of spices. I couldn’t choose so Amie helped me navigate and identify the seeds, pods and barks, while asking the storekeeper to create whole spice blends I could take home. My mind quickly calculated all my die-hard foodie friends and I ordered enough for them and a little extra for me. I left with half a dozen packages and five precious containers of saffron. Five not six because I thought I had purchased saffron in Morocco but soon discovered I had been “hoodwinked in Fez” with nothing more than red-dyed threads of something or other. Fortunately, one of my daughters relinquished her saffron to me, kindly claiming she wasn’t sure how to use it anyway.
Amie encouraged us to try her favorite “after dinner” treats – candied fennel and candied cumin. We were hooked instantly and now find ourselves fairly addicted to the candied fennel as an after-dinner treat. Thankfully, 4 months later, we are still snacking on these little sugar-coated white seeds. The colorful little cumin candies are long gone.
Now that I’m home, I regret not buying cinnamon – 4 inch long and fairly thick strips of what looked like thickly curled tree bark. But I did invest in a sturdy spice grinder to properly grind my spices (I had a chunk of that cinnamon in the spice packages prepared for me) and am now committed to toasting and grinding my own spices. The flavor (and fragrance) difference is pronounced.
After our shopping excursion we went to a wonderful restaurant for Thali, a traditional meal of incredibly delicious food served on a banana leaf. Being a cultural buff when it comes to dining etiquette, I particularly enjoyed how one indicates when you are done eating – by simply folding over your banana leaf, the veritable “plate” upon which you have eaten your foods. All vegetarian, generous dollops of various foods are initially placed on your leaf and with your right hand, with as much grace as you can muster, you scoop-up your food. When the food diminishes, more is automatically served until you reach your capacity. The cost of this veritable banquet in a beautiful setting, for three people, was a modest $6.00…total.
I’ve attempted, with limited luck, to recreate some of those flavors with the spices I’ve brought home. And even though I’m thousands of miles away from the original perfumed smells of these spices, I get a heady whiff whenever I’m cooking, instantly bringing me back to those memorable moments. Next time? I’m getting me some cinnamon!