Rollin’ On The River

Our second excursion in India was heading from Fort Cochin to the backwater region of Kerala called Alleppey. (The actual Malayalam name is Alappuzha, the ‘zha’ letters forming the same sound as the Hungarian actress who I’m sure to date myself by mentioning.) Just the sound of these Indian names invoked a sense of the exotic and we weren’t disappointed. After a little adventure finding the River Escapes dock (a determined taxi driver made sure we arrived at the right location), we were welcomed with a refreshing drink of tender coconut and sipped away along with four other guests – a young Indian couple (honeymoon perhaps?) and an older English couple. As Dave and I began to settle in, we felt ourselves slipping into a lazy relaxation underlined with an excited sense of anticipation.  After a brief orientation, each group was escorted to the dock, where a row of beautifully maintained wooden houseboats waited for boarding.

The houseboat held a casual elegance with spotless wooden floors, wide wicker chairs and large open-air windows. The dining table had a bowl of fresh fruit and before we even got our shoes off, the staff of three – the captain, first mate and chef introduced themselves, integrating a slight nod of the head, a typical Indian gesture indicating friendship or often agreement (depending upon the exchange at the moment).  With the captain comfortably seated at the helm, the steward pushed the houseboat away from the dock and the chef headed to the galley.

Having been a chef on the high seas myself, a highlight for me was following the chef to the galley as he prepared our lunch. (At the end of this blog, I’ve included some of the culinary tips I learned and have repeated, with great success, at home.)  The chef, a tall, slender man in a clean white chef’s coat and tall toque (making him all the more imposing in height) was shy but friendly, explaining his preparations as he skillfully cooked with a deliberateness that conveyed training and personal pride. Our fish, a favorite on the Kerala backwaters called Pearl Spot or Karimeen, was trippy looking, resembling more of a skeleton than an edible item, but it was delicious – crunchy and spicy. As the chef cooked, the captain remained attentive at the helm, navigating through the waterways that would eventually (for someone else) lead to the Arabian Sea. And we were not alone. There were dozens of other houseboats meandering their way down the river  – some had two levels with expansive balconies while others stood out with ornate window frames and decorative wood designs. And we all just moseyed along, with passengers waving to one another as we passed modest homes on the shore with clotheslines holding colorful saris. As the waterway became narrower, we found ourselves being led off the houseboat and into a long motorized canoe.  We had arrived at the backwaters.

Think Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in the African Queen and you can imagine this tropical paradise (minus the storms and snakes). No houseboat of any size could get through the thick carpet of aquatic plants. The tightly packed vegetation gave way to the small boat and we slowly entered a whole new living world with people modestly bathing or washing their pots and pans in the water.  Children played on land or in water – appearing equally at ease no matter their age. We were experiencing daily living where boats and bridges replaced cars and roads.  It felt like a dream that we reluctantly awoke from when we found ourselves back in the open waterway with a delicious dinner waiting for us on board the houseboat, including hand sized tiger prawns!

Soon the sun was setting and we watched as fishing boats set course for home.  A string of small boats would catch a ride with a larger boat towing them to shore, easing the end-of-day commute for the fisherman.  As the sun set, we docked along a canal; Dave and I quietly watched the last of the day’s light slip beneath the horizon.  We moored with other boats and found ourselves talking with the English couple we had seen previously at the boarding point. After a friendly chat and a full day of experiences, Dave and I were ready for an early bedtime.  The bedroom, unlike the rest of the boat, was air-conditioned.  After a warm, humid afternoon on the water, the cool air was a nice change; the room was quite lovely with crisp, clean sheets and an immaculate bathroom fully equipped with a hot shower that provided full water pressure. Admittedly, we were self-conscious that the crew slept on the floor in the main room; we could only hope that any discomfort was felt from our end alone. However, the evening chatty conversations heard outside by our crew and their colleagues from other houseboats, assured us that their time off was as enjoyed as our time onboard.

After a tasty breakfast of fruit and local cuisine, we found ourselves returning to civilization as we walked to a nearby bus station outside a small village. The bus ride to Thekkady was our choice.  I can’t say we returned to “reality” quite yet because another memorable, and mesmerizing, adventure awaited us once we boarded that bus. (How’s that for a “cliff hanger”?)

CULINARY TIPS FROM KERALA

  • Heat oil in a sauté pan; once the oil is hot, add mustard seed, cumin, curry leaves and chopped hot chilies. Cook for a little bit and then add onion and turmeric (for color).  When the onion is translucent, add diced tomatoes, cooked potatoes and cilantro; if the mixture looks too dry, add a bit of water and finally, a pinch of salt. You can add chicken but our aboard boat experience was vegetarian.  You can expand upon this dish by adding grated (unsweetened) coconut and cooked red lentils.  (I use canola oil, but in true Kerala style the chef used coconut oil, adding a more pronounced coconut flavor)
  • Another delicious mixture was similar in preparation, heat oil and then add mustard seed, red dry chilies, sliced onion, chopped garlic, curry leaves and then grated beets.  To that, add grated coconut, turmeric and if needed, a little water. Put the cooked mixture in a blender and then add 2 cups yoghurt – this makes a great beet side dish.
  • There were more dishes but I found the main trinity of ingredients were mustard seeds, turmeric and curry leaves. Thankfully, I have found frozen curry leaves in my local Asian market.
  • Another base mixture was grinding cumin seeds, tumeric, garlic, green chilies and curry leaves . Grind these and then you can add to coconut or yoghurt for the base of a dish.
  • Fenugreek was used for a fish curry (along with the aforementioned “trinity”) and a saucy side dish called Sambar was made with mixed vegetables, dahl (red lentils), tumeric, red chilies, cumin and tamarind.

2 thoughts on “Rollin’ On The River

  1. Pingback: A Great Finale To Our Kerala Experience « Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Pathiramanal Island – Alappuzha, Kerala | Raxa Collective

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