Masala Magic #1

by Jeanne

Stepping off the plane from the West to the East is not as easy as I thought.  Delhi International will shaken you awake.  Even with eyes wide open and all the preparation that you think you’ve done to anticipate what you’ll see and experience nothing will knock the Western orientation like 90% humidity and what I call Delhi Dizziness. You consider yourself an informed, well-read citizen of the world.  But once you travel outside of Europe your world changes.  And well I don’t believe there have been a lot of solo Western red-headed women in these parts.  In my mind overcoming the Delhi airport, securing a taxi to the hotel represented my first test of cultural integration. 

Fast forward two days, a 10-person check-in, a dozen wandering cows and 1 working elephant moving trees and rocks and I am in Kerala with the culinary tour.  It’s late Monday night and the day has been filled with many scents, sounds and sites.  Today in Cochin, the port city of Kerala we spent taking a handful of must-dos: JewTown, St. Thomas, and the Chinese Fishing Nets.  Two unexpected detours held the best surprises. 

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One was the dried ginger auction house where these men, who spend their days breathing the most gingery-citrus fragrant air tried to convince me in their local dialect that the dried ginger was good to smoke.  Perhaps it was my overzealous breathing (really it should be bottled!).  The ginger is air and sun-dried and sold at auction for use in tea and in medicine.

The other was lunch.  The group of 14 who comprise this culinary tour come from many different experiences and geographies.  Lunch and the afternoon was open for whatever came our way.  Fortunately for me Alam, a Vietnamese-Indian cookery instructor and personality in India was focused on getting us the freshest seafood and have it prepared nearby.  Just past the Chinese Fishing Nets, which everyone says you can’t miss–and while the whole counterbalance thing is interesting–it is a bit of a smell, past it’s prime place, "it’s mostly for the tourists now." said our guide. The stray cats were quite content.

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There are many day boat fisherman who sell their morning catch to locals and tourists.  What was terrific was that not only does Alam speak the local dialect she knows the culture of negotiation in this country.  It let me tell you in just 3 days I have decided that there is no need for any more "How to Negotiate Anything" books needed.  Just put yourself in the middle of a market, in front of a currency stand, or try hiring a taxi.  EVERTYTHING, is a discussion that should preferably involve more than two people (see above–10 front desk staffers to check me in!).  After paying for the largest-I’ve-ever-seen-in-my-life-prawns (above) and two King Fish a few of us took off after one of the runners, presumably there was a kitchen and a restaurant somewhere.  After losing everyone for a minute, Mike, who works as the Asian Culinary Director at CIA, waved me over to some stairs and we followed the boys upstairs into the kitchen. 

There’s still more to share from today such as the 5-course dinner at a local couple’s home (more later!). Tomorrow, it’s off to a tea plantation and some insight into chai.

So while I could write more here about the regional differences of dosas (crispy ones are distinct to Chennai), or my new found adoration of fresh curry leaves, or the permanently lingering curry scent on my fingertips, or the magic of a monsoon during an Auryvedic message and steam.  Instead, what’s pulling at me in this land of wandering cows, goats and blaring horns after just 3 days.  This place is life changing.  I can’t place my finger on it.  Something to do with seeing the world through different eyes, something about the huge, broad smiles that light up a room, or the billow of a sari scarf as she ducks under a banyan tree for shade, something. I just don’t know yet, but there’s days and nights ahead to experience it.

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