Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Buzz of Food

My mouth has awakened from a long slumber. I am eating cinnamon for the first time. You might be inclined to say I’ve eaten it before, a powder sprinkled on toast, in chai or on top of pumpkin pie; but I would say that was only a taste of it. This cinnamon is a chunk of bark, boiled until soft and carefully blended into the spices of the dish I’m eating. I’ve never eaten cinnamon before – only tasted it’s essence. This is a piece of actual bark. My mouth is awake and alive.

Kerala Banana Leaf Meal
Traditional Kerala banana leaf meal. You eat this with your right hand, but not your index or your pinky fingers. Never ever your left hand.

Have you ever gotten a buzz from food before? You may have drank too much alcohol or even tried drugs. This food is giving me a buzz – and there is nothing illicit about it. The spices are combining in such a way as to create an euphoric state from eating.

I’m convinced my hosts are trying to kill us. The food so good we just keep eating, day after day after day.

I can remember the first time this happened, also in India. We were visiting the Mansingh Palace Restaurant on top of the hotel in Jaipur, Rajasthan. In 1996 we ate a meal that was so good, we got a buzz. Served with a drink concoction topped with silver. The food was so good, we had to eat there twice, and we were desperately trying not to repeat anything to keep exploring. The food was that good.

From the front they looked like hedgehogs, from the side, sandcrawlers.
But this is different. We are on a houseboat in Kerala on the canals that run between villages. By day we boat around wide and narrow canals after leaving a lake near Alleppey (or Alleppy or Alleppi or Alappuzha – the translation is never exact and the British screwed up all the spelling in India). The houseboat looks like a hedgehog from the front, a Tatooine sandcrawler from the side; Saum imagined a bantha. I nicknamed them hogcrawlers. They have bedrooms, chairs, couches, a driver and a cook. The cook is currently the source of the trouble – he’s too good.

After freezing in Dehradun, we came to Kerala – and fell in love. Touring Jew Town in Fort Kochi was amazing. The prices: reasonable. Two days warming up before hitting the boat. Shopping and requisite attractions. They really want to show you the Chinese fishing nets.

I grew up on houseboats. One of the earliest photographs of me is reaching for the throttle and gear shifter on the Mimi III (my first family houseboat) in my father’s arms. This was one in a line of houseboats I grew up on, trolling up and down the Mississippi in my hometown of Dubuque, IA. Weekends meant we were on the river. We would go up annually to the Buenie Picnic through lock and dam #11. We would go down to 9 mile island, or occasionally 11 mile island (distance from Dubuque). We would moon the dinner cruise while tourists ate prime rib. We would toss clams. It was childhood as a river rat. The smell of the river, the moisture of the air, the coolness of the breeze, the sunset over Dubuque going under the East Dubuque bridge – these things are buried deep within my soul.

Saumya knowing this about me has booked trips on boats before. We saw Michael Franti on a Mississippi riverboat in NOLA. We’ve been in canoes on Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. We’ve been on Uncle John’s boats “Up North” in Minnesota. There were on boats on our honeymoon. For this excursion we booked four nights on the lake and canals of Kerala.

“You’ll get bored", we were told. Nothing can be farther from the truth. You know a trip is starting well when a flower mala is placed around your head and a water coconut in your hand. The mood set; we’re pulling out.

Kerala Canal Direction SignKerala Canal Direction Sign

The scenery is amazing: boat, sky, lake, canal, rice paddies, palm trees, birds. We stop the first night next to a rice paddy and an amazing sunset. The next day, we enter the canals after a brief stop at a village water-side store for supplies: we want cookies and chips, junk food. Along the canals we see village homes, fields, more canals. There are canals everywhere. The system is so extensive, they have canal signs (like road signs, sans roads) that tell which canal to take to a village, and how many kilometers away it is. We stop the night in one.

Christian Church
The frequent cannon shots would keep anyone from falling asleep in this mass.
This goes on. The camera goes snap, snap as we pass Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and the many Christian Churches. We can hear prayer call, but are unsure of which religion is calling for prayers: first Christian with the shots of cannons going off, then Hindu in Malayalam. We’re being overtaken by a pair of girls on the shore riding their bicycles along a path asking us for a pen. They keep asking, they really want a pen. Not only is it impractical for us to pass them one, we don’t have any without tearing apart our luggage – all that stuff remained packed away.

Boat Outboard MotorThis boat is not loaded up to the lip like the others. Instead, I’m showing a typical outboard motor with it’s amazingly long drive shaft.

I’m amazed by the system of waterways. We draw 4’ of water through the wide 20’ deep canals, 3’ from waterline to shoreline. In the narrow ones, it’s only 7’ deep. There are long narrow boats carrying fishermen and nets, others loaded up to the limit, water line to the lip of the long boat carrying dirt, or cement blocks for building homes on these islands between waterways. We see fields irrigated, others pumping out to be drained. It’s an amazing system.

Each night brings dinner along the shore, a sunset and precious warmth. Dinner! The food. I said they were trying to kill us.

Are we bored yet?
Are we bored yet?

Each meal we stuff ourselves full: Kerala Paratha, stewed tomatoes, coconut in fruit, in aloo (potato), in everything! The food keeps coming and once we can handle no more, then comes the tea (they don’t call it chai here). Full of ginger and spices, the masala tea pushes us over the edge. All we can do is sit and watch the sunset. To the pain!

The day starts anew with breakfast. We go through more canals again. I feel like Saum in a spice store, wild grin on my face. The air reminds me of my childhood boating on the Mississippi. The humidity and warmth of summer. I can feel my soul lightening. I’m over joyous.

I may be on the other side of the world, but I feel like I’ve come home.

TattsVodou on a different kind of bayou.

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