Well yesterday was pretty hectic. Though to be fair, “hectic” by Varkala standards basically means “I got out of the hammock and remained upright for more than twenty consecutive minutes.” This in itself results in collapsing dramatically into a chair at one of the restaurants and asking for a Kingfisher Gold in between gasps as you try to get your breath back from the sheer exertion, but if you actually do something productive with your time then dammit, you deserve a fucking medal.
Varkala is divided into two parts; North Cliff and South Cliff. North cliff is where the action is, the beach is busier and full of foreigners and the cliff is lined with accommodation, westernised restaurants and shops selling sarongs and souvenirs. South Cliff is more chilled out. The accommodation is more spread out and the beach is quieter, and kind of in between the two is where pilgrims and locals perform a ritual which you’re welcome to head down there and witness. Just dress respectfully though ay, don’t go wandering through in a bikini like one woman apparently did. It might be a beach but it’s a beach in India where women still bathe fully dressed and we should be grateful we have beaches like Goa, Om Beach and the North Cliffs here where we’re permitted to get kitted out in western beach attire and slow roast our flesh in between dips and bitching about the heat rather than feeling entitled to wander around half naked as we please and getting all indignant when people stare.
Al, a Welsh guy in the dorm room and a talented, professional artist, had been down there a few times to paint them and had got chatting to the holy men who perform the ritual so he agreed to head down there with me and Ruth, a Canadian woman also staying at Shiva Garden, but we stopped by the fishermen first to watch them sorting out their nets and to decline their offers to take us out fishing for an hour for a fee. I actually liked the idea but I might save it for when I’m somewhere with a calmer sea because I wouldn’t trust the contents of my stomach to stay where I left them after an hour rocking about on that ocean. I get seasick in the bath. It must take them hours to unravel the nets an’ all, it takes me long enough to unravel headphones that have miraculously gotten tangled despite careful coiling. These nets are a fucking OCD nightmare.
But these holy people and this ritual. They’ve built themselves little sand plinths and covered them with a cloth and they have a small shrine each and are surrounded by the tools of their trade. Rice, powder for tikkas, banana leaves, flowers, that kind of thing. We sidled up and started speaking to a guy who was the epitome of a holy dude. Seriously. Big white beard, long white hair tied back, white lines painted onto his forehead and body. He explained that the ritual was for close relatives who have “expired” and the puja, or prayer, was to help them on their way. They also happen to believe in one god, one caste, one people. Hindus will never cease to confuse me!
We walked around and watched them for a while. People sat down and paid their money and the holy people performed the puja, gave them a tikka on their forehead and then the people would walk towards the sea with a banana leaf containing an offering held above their heads. Sometimes they would stop before the sea, face south, put their offering on the ground and clap several times. Sometimes they would walk all the way to the water, turn with their back to the sea and throw the offering backwards. Then they would either sprinkle the sea water over themselves or touch it to their heads and eyes, or they would bathe, fully clothed, in the shallows. I think water is pretty important to Hindus. There are many sacred bodies of water, from Pushkar Lake to Mother Ganga.
So, I always feel a bit nervous around temples and holy places, probably on account of my irrational British fear that I’m going to somehow manage to offend someone. I also have to psyche myself up to ask people if I can photograph them or their things at the best of times, and combine this with a deeply religious setting and it took me forever to get up the bottle to ask one of the holy men if I could possibly please take his photo please thank you, in a very quiet voice, with all of the respect I could muster, fully prepared for a resounding no and a chastising for my blatant disregard for spirituality. But not only did he say yes he seemed pleased that I’d asked him, then a couple of his friends waved me over and insisted I take their photo too. He called me back and asked me to photograph his shrine, then said I should go and show the photos to a holy woman who also agreed to me taking her photo. So now I have many photos of holy people.
Ruth had decided to partake in the ritual but heads up, they do tend to overcharge foreigners, and it doesn’t seem like an appropriate place to haggle.
Anyway, we recovered from our busy, busy morning with a chai before me, Ruth and a Portuguese bloke from the hotel, Artur, headed off to learn to cook some Indian food stuffs. Stop laughing. I would be under the full supervision of a kitchen professional and I’m pretty sure I could do this without severing my own fingers or burning down Secret Garden which is where Khan runs his awesome cooking classes for ₹1000 per person. And he is a kitchen professional, not like the random bird up in Udaipur who accosts backpackers as they wander past her house and asks them if they want to learn to cook for ₹250. Khan is from Kerala and he divides his time between Varkala where he runs his cooking classes and used to have a ridiculously popular restaurant but ill health has forced him to scrap that idea this year, and Sweden where he works in a restaurant. His ex-restaurant here sounded amazing though, he only opened from 5pm until 10pm and there was no menu, he just cooked whatever he felt like and that’s what people got. Apparently it was really hard to get a table though, he was always packed out, and we were about to find out why.
Khan asked us what we wanted to cook and he threw some ideas at us and we ended up deciding on onion pakora, daal fry, lemon rice, mixed veg Keralan style curry and chapati. He showed us how to chop things then handed out various ingredients for us to cut up and I attempted to do so without chopping the tops of my fingers off. Artur and Ruth clearly use their kitchens at home for more than reheating last night’s takeaway in the microwave, making a nice cuppa and retrieving wine from the fridge. They seemed to find this dealing with ingredients thing a lot easier than I did and my idea of “finely chopping” looked like boulders of vegetable next to their tiny grains of health food. The amount of spices that go into it an’ all, the initial outlay on Morrison’s Own Brand spices will probably cost me a week’s wages. It’s all a pinch of this, quarter of a teaspoon of that, some crap I’d never even heard of and actually struggle to pronounce. I’m not even sure Morrisons would stock half of this stuff and what the actual fuck is asafoetida anyway?! And ghee? I mean, I know what it is but can we get that in the UK? It’s purified animal fat, yeah? Do I need to go and wring a cow out or something? Indian cooking is truely incredible and to see what goes into it makes you realise why it tastes sooooo fucking goooood. Oh, and a fun chopping stuff fact; if you hold water in your mouth whilst you chop onions, it stops you from crying. Apparently. I tried it and it appeared to work but I was already seeping water from my eyeballs by the time I was told about this. I shall attempt this at a later date before I start hacking into an onion.
So, pakora is a popular snack of deep fried stuffness. Indians love deep frying shit. The secret with the pakora, Khan told us, is to only heat the sunflower oil to a medium heat. That way, once you’ve removed it from the wok and shaken the excess oil off, it’ll be nice and dry. We’d made onion pakora, which is made from onions, ginger, chilli, a list of spices longer than Jimmy Saville’s charge sheet, curry leaves, two different kinds of flour, salt and an egg which you throw together in a bowl in various states of sliced, chopped and crushed and you mix the shit out of with your hands. I reiterate, this shopping list is for a mere snack! A snack that we managed to pretty much inhale in seconds whilst we prepared and cooked the rest of the food. If me and the mrs are gonna start making this stuff at home we shall be needing a spice rack, because I can’t cope with the idea of having a cupboard full of this many different spices that can’t reasonably be kept in alphabetical order.
Even the rice was an event. I was thinking, lemon rice, so that’s like rice with some lemon juice, yeah? Yep, it is. And onion and dried, red chillis and cashews and sultanas and mustard seeds and turmeric and curry leaves and ghee. We have a shop in Brighton called Taj which sells all manner of spices and ingredients from around the world. I feel we will need shares in Taj to make all of this this food happen. It’s a pretty cool shop, its outside display generally consists of shit loads of different fruits from watermelons and pineapples to oranges and apples, and fruits I’ve never even heard of. I walk past it most days, Taj makes me want to live a healthier lifestyle and eat fruit for breakfast and go for jogs and stuff. Until I get as far as Greggs Bakery and their bacon and sausage rolls anyway.
Anyway, the chapati once again highlighted my inability to roll dough into a circular shape and I reckon I could probably produce a vaguely passable daal fry, surely not even I can fuck up what is essentially lentil soup with a bunch of other shit thrown in. Having said that, I did burn lentils once by simply not adding enough water then getting distracted by something. Probably cat videos. I don’t think that saucepan will ever fully recover.
And the main event, the Keralan mixed veg curry. And what makes a curry Keralan? Coconut milk! From a whole bastard coconut! But they have tools here specifically designed to open and grate coconuts. We forced the husk off with something that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval torture chamber, Khan split the nut in half and we drank the water. God, I need more of that in my life. They have these spiky grater thingies which clamp to a work surface and make it easy to scrape the flesh of the coconut out into quite a large pile of finely grated deliciousness which you then blend with some water, put in a sieve, add a touch more water then you squeeze the juice out of the pulp into a bowl. This is how you make your own coconut milk. Orrrr if you don’t live in a tropical paradise with specific tools for the job, maybe just nip to the shop and buy a can of the stuff.
I think my favourite thing about cooking classes is the consumption of the results. The three of us sat down at the end and scoffed what we’d made. Or what Khan had actually made like the kitchen genius he it whilst we assisted and took notes. I’ve typed everything up, if anyone wants the recipes just ask me. Just don’t ask me what’s in garam masala, because I don’t have a fucking clue. People told me that when I came to India I’d lose loads of weight. How?! How am I expected to lose weight when everything is deep fried or laced with ghee and it all tastes so bloody wonderful? Unless they were unlucky and picked up a parasite on the third day to keep them company whilst they ejected everything they attempted to consume from the nearest available orifice, people who come to India and lose weight clearly aren’t doing it right.
And in other news, it appears I’ve contracted a proper cold. Only I can do this in a climate that could only be considered cold if you come from the fucking sun. Maybe it’s bird flu. Maybe that fucking rooster in Alleppey cursed me because I looked at it funny. Whatever. All the mucus in the world is having a snot party in my head and chest and I’m losing my voice. There’s an Italian dude staying in the dorm room who lives, and I quote, an “Ayurvedic lifestyle” and he keeps all manner of potions by his bed. He wakes up at 4.30 every morning for his ritual which includes covering himself in oil and drinking who knows what. He kindly offered to help me with my sinus problem which involved me drinking water, as hot as I could stand it. No problem. Then he sat me down and covered my head and face with oil whilst he sang some mantra and massaged my cheeks. He tipped my head back and put some powder by one of my nostrils and told me to inhale whilst he closed the other one up. Take it right to your throat, he told me. So I did. Then he did the same with the other nostril but by then the first lot had hit the back of my throat and oh my god, get it out of my mouth!
I had to snort all of it through my nose to my throat then hack it up and spit it out. Georgio told me he did this every morning. I know, Georgio. I know you do. There are three indicators that let you know it’s morning in the dorm room at Shiva Garden; The mosque’s call to prayer, the birds when they begin their morning chorus, and Georgio spending a good ten minutes clearing out his sinuses. Yep, it’s generally an early start on the rooftop. Then he gave me a small cup of a brown fluid which I had to rinse round my mouth, gargle with and spit out until the cup was empty. The first mouthful I managed ok but dude, it tasted so, so vile. Each mouthful got smaller and smaller and eventually my gag reflex took decisive action and forbade me from letting it touch the back of my throat again. But once that was done he told me to wait 10 minutes then wash the oil off my head and face, but keep my head wrapped in a towel until I was dry.
I have to admit, I’m incredibly skeptical about alternative medicines, holistic approaches, Ayurveda and anything that basically can’t be classed as “western medicine.” I know it’s all like, “But this has been around for thousands of years!” And yes, but so was the “knowledge” that the earth is flat. I like drugs. If I get a cold back home I’m straight down the pharmacy for a bottle of Benelyn and anything that contains pseudoephedrine. I did discover in Rishikesh that lemon, ginger and honey tea works wonders for a head cold provided you consume your body weight in it, and I’m not gonna lie, since Georgio took the time to try and help me, I may still feel like my lungs consist entirely of glue and I can’t talk above a whisper, but my sinuses and nose haven’t blocked back up even once.
Varkala, Kerala, India
Stayed at: Shiva Garden