Thursday, February 23, 2017

Kanthari: The Evolving Experiment of a Local Farming Family

Beef Fry
In the post liberalized global economy, the marginal farmers of Kerala find it too difficult to sustain with farming as a source of income.  Since late 90s marginal farming largely became non profitable. In the current free market oriented agriculture, for a small scale farmer to engage in it, is quite a challenge. And we did see a lot of them giving up; as per the official data, 979 peasants committed suicide in Kerala between the years 2003 and 2007.
This young man Romeo along with his father Keerthi Chandran, decided to engage with the market reality, instead. In the peak of a successful career as a yoga trainer in the Middle East, he quit his job, wanting to create, a platform for him and his family to be together and engage in their own expertise. He envisaged it as a space to add value to their farm produce and thus engage with the existing market

The result is Kanthari, I should say, the ever evolving Kanthari. If you ask me what Kanthari is, I do not have a one word answer. It is a farm, a garden, an amusement park, a training centre, a meeting space, a resort, a local produce shop and importantly a wonderful eatery (least important as per Romeo). It is in Karikandanpara, near Koorachundu in Calicut, Kerala.

Notice Board

Many of the elements at Kanthari for sure have more standard popular parallels. But what makes this venture unique is that it remains to be an evolving experiment of a local farming family. Examples to this are umpteen at Kanthari. To start with, the ropeway, designed and engineered by Romeo, stands apart from the industry models for its simplicity. 

What propels it, would tell you a lot about the genuineness in the experiment. The engine is exposed and is nothing complicated, but an old Bajaj Caliber 100 CC motorbike. “Copy Lefted” as they call it these days!!! 
Rope Way Engine
Then comes the rifle. The target, would take you back to your childhood and trust me, as an experience, it feels much better than shooting at a bull’s-eye. 
Rifle Shooting


What waited across the ‘’wonder cave”   was quite exciting. Defined as a social space, there is a carom board which offers you fun as you take some minutes to rest and refresh.

At the end of the exploration, the best part still awaits you-The restaurant. Nobody is in a hurry here.  To the background of a soothing live flute recital, sipping a cup of cardamom tea, Romeo, sat with us to share his vision of Kanthari. To our company, he held in his hand, his one month old baby girl, trying to put her to sleep. The line between personal life and professional life is too narrow here, if at all there is any. Simply put, Romeo and his family is living Kanthari.
Flute Recital

The Kappa Biriyani and Puttu Biriyani here is a must try. It packs within it all the goodness and love of this little village.   
Kappa Biriyani

Puttu Biriyani

The Beef Fry is one of the best, if not, the best ever I have eaten. What makes it so special is the time tested recipe of Romeo’s mother. 

Kanthari, as a concept becomes so unique, as you get to know that it is not conceived as a tourist destination, but a space for the locals to spend their holidays. Romeo is in no hurry to boost his customer base in multitudes. He wants to deliver quality experience to the people who come there, as he knows his limits. The restaurant, according to him is a little element in the whole larger concept. 

We jumped on to an opportunity which came our way to play some volleyball with the local boys. 
Volley Ball

Kanthari, is the Malayalam name of Bird's eye chilli, which is one of the hottest chilies in the world. The heat of this chilli comes slow on the throat, but then when you start feeling it, it’s really HOT. Romeo’s Kanthari is too like that, adding on bit by bit in features, to finally converge into a meaningful space. I know it will; I made a suggestion on the beef serving, and he said “:Consider it done”. 
Kanthari Plant

Friday, February 17, 2017

Munna Ka Dhaba: Dhaba LÓriginal

Tandoori Chicken with Curd and Pudhina Chutney

Once in a rural hinterland close to one of the eastern borders of India, a middle aged man, a total stranger to the place ,in white shirt and mundu (Kerala Dhothi) , after relishing a heavy dinner at a dhaba, wiped his hand on a piece of newspaper and asked the cashier “Kitna Hua”?”(How much for the dinner). To his surprise, the man at the counter replied “ Aaap se kaise paisa lenge Munna Bhai? How could I take money from you, Brother Munna).
From a seventeen year boy who ran away from his village in Malappuarm, to explore the world, Saithalavi knew that he had grown rich in his life experience and world view. But it was news to him that he had become so famous, to be well know to a random dhaba owner in the extreme other corner of the country. 
Munnabhai is a name so dear to almost all truck drivers in the country.  And how does this name connect to Saithalavi? Saithalavi is popularly known as Munnabhai amongst the truck drivers, after his dhaba, Munna Tandoori Dhaba. 

Munna Tandoori Dhaba is at Kolappuram, almost 30 kilometers away from Calicut City, towards Trichur. It is one amongst the only two genuine dhabhas in Kerala, the other being Geetha Dhaba in the northern border of Kerala. The two essentials of any dhaba– inclusiveness and authenticity, makes these two quite different from the other umpteen number of eateries in Kerala, by the title dhaba. 

Saithalavi has been running this eatery for the last eighteen years. He explains that the food experience at ‘Munna ka Dhaba’, is an amalgamation of his own life experiences. His quest for the unseen, which led him on his journey across the country, has helped him understand the needs of a traveler. 

What you would experience at his dhaba in terms of the food, the ambience and the experience as such is an emulation of Saithalavi’s perception of the world, food, most importantly his understanding on how people connect to food. In simpler words he understands what does it take for one to connect to a particular food as ‘’my kind of food’’, and this is exactly what he recreates at his dhaba. And that’s why it’s not a surprise that more than hundred truck drivers make it a point to drive upto Munna ka Dhaba everyday, on their long drive across the country.

And the best part is, sitting in the middle of a packed house of foodies, at his commercially successful venture,   he tells me and my friend Albert, “”By the way, this is just a side business. My real business is there in the village. I am a farmer. I cultivate some acres of paddy””. And that’s him, in the quest of himself, beyond him. 

If you want to have genuine Tandoor Rotis, this is the place for you. And how about some Tandoori Chicken. If you are in for the real smoky flavor, this is the only place, anywhere close.  And don’t miss out the veggies. Now, the cost..Two Tandoori Chicken, Two Bengan (Brinjal) Masala,  Gobi (Cauliflower) Masala, 13 tandoori rotis,   a pet bottle of pepsi…..See it to believe it.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Oyster Land Journey: An evening with Ajith

I once read an interesting quote off the net, it said, “If Plan A doesn’t work, remember that the alphabet has 25 more letters, so stay cool.” Last Sunday, things were not going our way and yet, by the time we called it a day, it had turned out to be both meaningful and resourceful. So here we share our oyster land journey. 
Muru Oyster Masala
The initial idea was to complete a long planned mangrove exploration but when that plan went awry, we were enticed into visiting Elathur. The promise made was of a relatively less toured and calm beach, perfect for a restful Sunday with family. 
Kerala Boat in Korapuzha
Our friend into this sojourn was Ajith, who among other things is also a professional cyclist, artist, sculptor, magician, healer and fisherman, and belongs to the area. 

Kerala Boat

He led us on his multi terrain bicycle, first to his warm home and then later to the banks of Korapuzha river. Each step held anticipation, even as we ventured into thus unknown lands. We had expected to be led to a serene beach but instead found ourselves in the restful backwaters. 

Korapuzha Kerala River

We had a wonderful evening, rowing down the river, listening to Nanma dish out “Row Row Row your boat” and “Kuttanadan Punjayile” out loud, even as Ajith shared with us, his treasure trove of stories and exchanged tidbits of local knowledge.
Kerala Boat

Kerala Boat

The Elathur patch of Korapuzha River is a rich source of Indian Oysters. ‘Crassostrea madrasensis’, as they are scientifically known, grow on the laterite rocks found under the water. These are different from the usual oysters because they don’t produce pearls. Given the nature of oyster harvesting, the local men are known, to be able to hold their breaths under water for even up to six minutes. A quick ‘googling’ informed me that the world record for holding one’s breath underwater was held by the German sea diver, Tom Sietes, who can hold his breath for 22 minutes and twenty seconds, underwater. But then, what is unique about Elathur is that most of the men folk in the community partake in this record (six minutes). After all, there is a lot of difference between doing if for the sake of a world record and doing it as a means of living.   
Kerala Boat Korapuzha

We just want to use this space to tell you a little about Ajith. He is what we would gladly describe as an extraordinary person. Multi-talented, he is a great entertainer but what is most surprising is that he never does anything out of the ordinary. His innate talent lies in consistently doing those things that youth from his locality can’t or won’t do. Wont that be a surprise to you when a rural Malabar youth tells you, “I am vegan”. In a land which thrives on meat, you may even wonder if he even knows what he is talking about. But then, this young man  dreams of one day, cycling across India (alone) spreading the vegan message. Throughout the evening, his handy magic tricks kept the children happily engaged. While his engaging encounters in life, kept us spell bound. Thank you Ajith! 

Coconut Palm Craft

Ola Pambaram Coconut Palm Craft

Upon reaching the shore after our rowing expedition, we found Ajith’s surprise for the day – a sack full of Muru (colloquial term for oysters). He had personally dived in the river, around afternoon and harvested a sack full for us to carry home and enjoy. Yup, the yummy, mouth watering, much anticipated part is about to come.  

Muru Indian Oyster

Here is a video, where Ajith demonstrates how to cut open the oyster shell and shuck the oyster.

Upon heading home, we had our work cut out for us. It involved, cutting open the sack full of oyster shells and then shucking them, before they could be cleaned, cooked and eaten. Oh! And a word of warning, it doesn’t look as easy as Ajith made it seem. The process back at home involved three adults, a few productive hours and cuts and bruises to show for it all. Phew!

Oyster Cleaning

Here are the cleaned oysters, ready to be cooked by Chef Nirmal.

Muru Indian Oyster

A little bit of onions, some tomatoes, few chilies and a dash of ginger later, our dish was transformed. Seasoned with love, we shared this wonderful meal with our friend-in-crime, Abi, his beautiful wife, Jasna and his loving mother. 

Onion and Chilli

Oyster Pepper Masala

Oyster Pepper Masala

As George Bernard Shaw said, “There is no sincere love than the love for food”.