When you go on holiday, I highly recommend staying with a local family. Short of living somewhere yourself, a homestay is the best way to gain a real feel - and taste - for the region’s culture. The growth of Airbnb and similar websites is making this style of travel easier, and safer, than ever before.
On a recent trip to Kerala, we stayed with the Nair family, who live 15 miles from the main tourist hub of Alappuzha. After several trips up and down the main road, we found our turning and followed the narrow path until tarmac became dirt track and track became river. There, a canoe awaited to transport us to the beautiful white family home on the opposite bank.
Almost immediately, we fell into the slow rhythm of life on the Keralan backwaters. We enjoyed early morning yoga, hours spent reading while sipping sweetly spiced chai tea and gentle walks through the local village where children paused their play to gaze at us. Above all, there was the luxury of having time to simply watch life pass by on the Pamba: women washing clothes and cutlery, men fishing from canoes, houseboats carrying inquisitive tourists, and the spectacular twice-daily procession of five hundred ducks being readied for Christmas feasts.
Food, too, soon fell into a familiar pattern. For breakfast, there were idlis (steamed cakes made from ground rice and lentils) or dosas (fermented rice-flour pancakes), served with vegetable sambar. Best of all were the steamed cylinders of layered rice and coconut, or puttu, which one crushes with banana and sugar before sprinkling with crushed popadom for crunch. At lunch time, a trio of vegetable curries and stir fries were served on a banana leaf or in small metal pots. At dinner, the pots were filled with more vegetables, daal, perhaps a little fish, mutton or chicken. We learned that popadoms are for lunch, chapatis for dinner and a mountain of rice accompanies both.
As with may less wealthy countries I have visited, the people here intrinsically understand how to eat in a sustainable, healthy way: lots of vegetables, fruits and grains; a little dairy and a little meat; no undue fuss about oil or refined sugar. Everything is local, with few air or even road miles. Rice comes from the paddies behind, fish from the river in front or the nearby Arabian sea, fruit and vegetables from the garden, spices from the region’s mountains. The food’s flavour is that of the land, from sweet coconut to sour tamarind to spicy chilli.
Behind the flavours we enjoyed was the Nair family’s matriarch, Padma. I was lucky enough to spend a day in Padma's kitchen, where our language barriers disintegrated. It seems the patterns of chopping, sizzling, stirring, tasting and seasoning are universal. Happily, here I discovered that gourds, pumpkins, squashes, beetroots and beans feature heavily in their curries - perfect ingredients for creating a seasonal, cold-weather curry back in England.
Keralan squash curry
I made this curry with a beautiful green Kabocha squash grown locally, but it would be equally delicious with any variety of squash or pumpkin available to you.
For the curry paste:
- 20g unsweetened desiccated coconut
- 2 tbsp ground coriander
- 2 tsp hot chilli powder
- 50-100ml water
For the curry:
- 1 tbsp rapeseed oil
- 6 shallots
- 1/2 a large squash (about 750-800g)
- 1 tin of lighter coconut milk + the tin refilled with water
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2 large ripe tomatoes
- 100g green beans
- Mustard seeds
- A handful of curry leaves (about 20 leaves)
- 4 dried red chillies
- Brown basmati rice
- Chapattis (optional)
- Start by preparing all your vegetables. Finely slice the shallots. Peel the squash and cut into 1.5cm cubes. Roughly chop the tomatoes. Trim the beans and cut in half at an angle.
- To make the curry paste, fry the desiccated coconut in a dry pan set over a medium heat, stirring often to prevent it sticking or burning. Once the coconut is golden brown, remove from the heat and add the coriander and chilli powder. Leave to cool for a minute before transferring to a blender or food processor (keep the frying pan aside for later). Add 50ml of water and blend to a smooth paste, adding a little more water until it is a thick but runny consistency. Transfer to a small bowl, using a little extra water to swill round the processor and catch any stuck pieces that have become stuck.
- Warm 1 tbsp rapeseed oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, add the shallots and cook gently for around ten minutes until they are sweet and soft. Now would be a good time to put your rice on to boil.
- Add the squash, turmeric and salt to the shallots, and stir before adding the coconut milk and water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 5-10 minutes until the squash is soft. Add the tomatoes, green beans and coconut paste, and simmer for a further 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft and collapsing into a thick sauce.
- Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp of oil in the frying pan and add the mustard seeds, curry leaves and dried chilli. When the mustard seeds start popping, remove from the heat and leave to cool a little before stirring through the curry.
- Leave the curry to stand with the lid on for 5 minutes before serving with a sprinkle of chopped coriander, rice and chapattis.