Exploring the Kerala Backwaters
Our first stop on the backwaters was at a local Toddy shop. Toddy is an alcoholic beverage created from the sap of coconut palms. The sap is extracted and collected by a tapper. Typically, the sap is collected from the cut flower of the palm tree, a container is fastened to the flower stump to collect the sap, and the white liquid that initially collects tends to be very sweet and non-alcoholic before it is fermented. Within two hours, fermentation yields an aromatic wine of up to 4% alcohol content, mildly intoxicating and sweet. The wine may be allowed to ferment longer, up to a day, to yield a stronger, more sour and acidic taste. Though, I don’t recommend this as it would be the equivalent of drinking vinegar. Toddy certainly is only for the brave.
Toddy excursion behind us, we cruised down the river, this time in search of the local fishmonger to gather our supplies for the evening. My mind stood still in the silence. My heart racing with excitement. With a lunch of beautiful, fresh karimeens, a local small fish very similar to butterfish, fried in a beautiful masala batter, served with fresh slices of lime; my appetite yearning for more as we approached the fishmonger.
Everything from live crabs to Indian fresh Jumbo Tiger prawns the size of my hand to king fish, red snapper and karimeens still swimming in the nets they had been caught in, I was at once met with an entirely new understanding of what fresh seafood should be. Quick negotiations began with the fishmonger, an elderly Indian Aunty, and my hands overflowing with my fresh bounty, I made my way back to the boat with a massive smile on my face. And off we set, in search of the sunset and a place to dock for the evening.
We dropped anchor at a little village and began to prepare for the evening’s meal. Our expert captain, and humble chef, came up with a menu and we split the duties for the evening dinner prep.
Dried coconut husks burning as the sun began to dip behind the palm groves, foraging for banana leaves to serve my starters on. My shirt off, sweat dripping from my chin. I close my eyes and can still recall every moment of this experience. As I bent down to try to start a small make shift fire, a group of locals began to make their way toward us, intrigues (and somewhat perplexed) as to what was going on in front of them. Ryan, a traveler who I had met in Kochi and had joined me on the boat, kept them entertained with his poi lights. The sound of the fire crackling, watching the local kids run around with excitement and the elders watch on, it was a thing of beauty. I whipped up a quick marinade of ginger, lime, garlic and a little chili powder. I wrapped the prawns in the banana leaves, protecting the meat from the heat of the charcoal.
I could smell an incredible aroma wafting from the boat’s kitchen and went to investigate. I found the captain rolling fresh roti being rolled and a local specialty, Kerala fish curry being prepared. The air in this tiny space engulfed with heady aromas of coconut, turmeric and fresh curry leaves. I must have died and gone to heaven somewhere between those Toddy shots gulped down before. The aromas drifted around me wrapping me up in the warmth of the people and spices. Why can’t everyday be like this, I thought to myself.
Our guests for the evening, locals from the community and a few travelers, sat waiting at the table in anticipation of the meal being prepared. And what a feast it was. One that embodied the art of service and a love of food. What an experience to serve with these fine folks. The silence around the table only interrupted by the crunching of crab bones made me happy knowing our dinner guests were satisfied. My heart grateful to have been given such a remarkable experience.
To prepare a meal like this, in such cramped quarters with few tools (and a dose of improvisation) was testament to the skill of the cooks that evening; all of us helping one another out to arrive at the table in perfect timing.