In a four-day endeavour to master Indian cooking with her mother in south India, Lottie Gross learns so much more than just how to serve up the best masala…
“You know why I call this a cooking holiday? Cooking for you, holiday for me!” Jacob laughs as he watches me squeeze out rice noodles through a brass press. We’re sweating through the last cooking session of our four day residency at Pimenta Spice Farms, and by no means has it been a holiday.
Sprawled on the slopes of the Maniyanthadam hills in Kerala, about 55km inland from Kochi, Pimenta (or Haritha Farms as it’s also known), is a haven away from the touristic hub of Fort Cochin and the chaos of Ernakulam city. The nearest town to the farm, Kadalikad, isn’t exactly on the backpacker trail but is just as – if not more – fascinating than anywhere you might explore in this green and humid region of southern India.
We arrived on Thursday to a delicious egg masala lunch in the communal living/dining room at Pimenta, and a tour of the local supermarket to familiarize ourselves with the ingredients we’d be sautéing, toasting and boiling over the next few days. We picked up some veg from a roadside stall with a rather impressive array of greens, and headed back to the kitchen to start our first lesson in Indian cooking.
Without his assistant – who had left to get married just days before we arrived – to help with the prep, at first Jacob seemed unorganised; chopping onions wasn’t exactly his forté and he didn’t appear to know where anything was kept. But it later became clear that he is actually an incredibly methodical man, and he enforces some strict rules in his well-equipped kitchen.
Jacob taught us how to treat the different seeds and spices, what each one is used for and what to do when it all goes wrong. Even for a seasoned cook (my mother of course, not me), there were new lessons to be learned and hurdles (much like these pesky rice noodles) to overcome.
Collectively we’ve spent about fifteen hours in the kitchen, chopping, frying and stirring hard to serve ourselves the most flavoursome and rewarding dishes, the leftovers of which were later passed onto Jacob’s mother for further scrutiny – and apparently they weren’t all bad!
But this homestay hasn’t all been about the food. While Pimenta markets itself as a cooking holiday, there is so much more to it than slaving away over a hot stove. For starters, the farm is actually an eco-haven – from the solar-heated water which comes from Pimenta’s own natural spring, to the home-grown coffee and bananas we had at breakfast. Jacob has a passion for all things sustainable; he buys pineapples directly from the local farmers and even has the bathroom towels for his exquisite guest bungalows made to order by one of the few remaining cotton factories in the area, where men in a small warehouse sweat all day over hand-operated looms.
Having lived in the area for most of his life – the farm was his family home which he inherited from his father at a young age – Jacob is well connected, so he showed us a side of Indian life we’d never even thought to question. We saw rubber being tapped from the trees on plantations, and visited a small production plant where thousands of colourful elastic bands lay drying on the floor, ready for packing and distribution. We met the people that made our favourite Indian snacks, from banana chips to Bombay mix, and spent an entire morning chatting to the men who paint those famously colourful vehicles that honk along all Indian roads: cargo lorries.
Each state has its own truck-painting design, and Kadalikad is the birthplace of Kerala’s intricate, colourful style. Started by accident in the 1960s, when the owner of this paintshop was late to deliver a truck and wanted to impress his client, this garish design can now be seen on most trucks in the region.
“This has to be done every year,” explained Jacob. “As with the law it’s mandatory to paint the truck. But it’s also a pride thing. Like to have an elephant is a pride thing, to have a big, beautiful and bright truck in your household is also a pride thing.” The trucks come into the shop as a blank canvas, and two weeks later will be driven away by proud owners – eager to show off their new colours to other drivers on the highways.
Back in Jacob’s kitchen, I finally turn out the last of the rice noodles, exhausted and aching, and we steam them for 20 minutes before serving. Jacob kicks us into action, setting the table for our final meal together, before we have to make the drive back to Fort Cochin, which now just seems like a tourist town sporting a false exterior compared to the everyday life we’ve experienced here.
As I tuck into my hard-earned lunch of steamed rice noodles with coconut, dal and sauteéd cabbage I realise how much we’ve learned in the last four days. While it hasn’t exactly been a relaxing break, I’ve come away with what most other people have after a holiday: new friends, fond memories and a couple of extra inches on the waist.