Friday, March 24, 2006

The Welcome Dinner

Organising the first meal was turning out to be a difficult thing. The shacks opposite the sea served all kinds of exotic meals from the world plus dishes from north like paneer-butter masala and its likes. We tried to find out a place that serves vegetarian Kerala meals but then apparently they are none. We persisted; “there is one”, said an auto driver but it is tiny and may not be the best place to eat. When we followed the directions given by him, we came to a thatched place with side walls, also in thatch, that ran half way up. This enabled the customers as well as the rest the world to view each other as they went about doing their jobs. The tables were made from normal wood with white plastic chairs to go with them. The wash area was under a coconut tree, the water had to be drawn from a bucket with a steel tumbler. While the basic fare that was served here was veg meals, one could in addition order omelette or a plate of fish to go with it. We declined both but surprised the ‘management’ by eating enormous amounts of tomato chutney (with sliced onions in it. At home we make tomato chutney with blended onions). The food was not bad at all but we felt it was not good enough for a welcome dinner. Moreover, RJ wanted the group to have beer along with the meal.

When we finally told the hotel manager S about our difficulty in finding a place that serves Kerala meal, he said that it could be arrange at the hotel itself as the staff get their meals free in the afternoon and it is usually local food. We wanted a dinner that too of a ‘sadhya-type’. Sadhya, is the feast that is served on Onam day, which either has four or eight curries. With knowledge acquired from “The Essential Kerala Cookbook’ and an Onam meal eaten at Coconut Lagoon in Chennai, I started to narrate the dishes we would like to have (Istoo, Olan, Pachadi, Kichidi, Avial, Erisseri, Kootukari and Kalan and one sweet dish: Ada Pradhamam). S wanted to serve lunch… “Sadhya is always lunch”, he went on. We tried to reason with him, told him lets not call it Sadhaya but let us have Sadhya dishes for the dinner. He reluctantly agreed. The RJ then said, “Could we have fish?” I have to take a detour and explain why the RJ said this. Well it was all due to a cousin of mine that the Veg Tour did not start out to be a veg tour. My cousin said, “You mean you will be in Kottayam and not eat their beef curry. I can still taste the curry I had last year. You cannot have the group not eat it” His wife (a Syrian Christian) said “forget beef, you cannot miss Karimeen, yaar”… This added to the past where RJ was hinting now and then about how strict we should be with the food, should we prohibit them from eating meat at all? Or should we say that we will not pay for the meat and that if they want to, they could pay on their own. As a result of all this, I finally agreed that we could perhaps let the group have some meat/fish in Kerala and then wean them away from it. So there went the “Veg” part of the tour.

Getting back to the dinner, “Fish?” said S. We don’t serve fish for Sadhya. “Come on RJ, we can’t have fish the first day itself, said I. So the fish issue was not settled as a bigger problem came up on the horizon. “You cannot have beer on 1st of ever month in Kerala. It is a dry day”. “What?” said both of us. “You mean no where?” RJ asked… “Not even if we pay more for it?” asked I. S went on to say that they can serve beer but prefer not to. Well I was happy that it will be RJ who will break this news to the group.

The group slowly started to gather under the thatched extension of the main building, that served as the resorts restaurant. The group contained three couples (including father, mother, daughter and her boyfriend), two sisters, and two single ladies (one aged 78 and other aged 68). With an exception of the daughter and her boyfriend who were in their late 20s/early 30s, the rest were above 55. Of these three were coming to India for the first time and the other have made multiple trips. Four of them were part of RJ’s pervious trips. I tried hard to get their names but they refuse to stick in my head. Well it was just the first day.

At the dinner table, I was next to V and H. They lived in Bennekom in central Netherlands, they said. “I lived there for six month”, I said. They had a look that seems to say, “Why would you possibly be there?” I was at Hans place. Now H was surprised. She worked in a dept at the univ and they tried hard to put some of their students/visiting faculty at this place but they could never get a place. Hans and Rinske ran a pension house not very far from the Wageningen Univ, one of the well know agricultural univs in the world. They took extreme good care of their tenants. The clothes are washed and ironed; the beds made and new towels given every day. Weekends, Rinske baked cakes for everyone. It was bit more expensive than the hostels but many dept. liked to send their visiting faculty here. I told V and H of the good time I had there. They invited me to their house, next time I visit Bennekom.

V said that they travel often to Iran and he is learning Persian and hence can get a word of two if he travels in North India. I showed him our currency notes and asked him to read Urdu since it uses Arabic script. He couldn’t see it, so he took pictures of the currency notes on his 8 mega pixel digital camera and used the zoom facilities to read the letter. He was not bad.

The food came, the new group members who were in India for the first time gasped when banana leaves were placed in front of them. The entire group was fascinated the way the food was served, first istoo, then olan and then pachadi… RJ and I insisted that we be served the traditional red rice and not the white one. The food was a great success. The biggest hits were ada pradhamam (payasam made from rice strips and jaggery) and pineapple pachadi.

When the bill came, I looked into it. I normally don’t but this time I did. To my surprise, there was ‘Fish curry, 2 Nos.’ It was my turn to gasp. “Which…which of the curries was the fish?” I asked. My shock surprised me as well. Normally, I don’t get agitated if someone says “stop that has meat in it” but this time, I was. The waiter took the bill back to check with the kitchen. He comes back and says, the fish was not served as we finished the meal too quickly. It is still in the kitchen. The group was in splits, “we ate too quickly” was a joke for few days after that. I wanted to talk to the manager not wanting to pay for it but then RJ said it is only 100 Rs. and he can pay for that. Thus ended the first meal. The group had to be ready at 7 AM the next day for a walk through the beach to a place that served Kerala breakfast.

Link to Kerala Recipes