Bananas and coconut team up in this show-stopping curry
I’D LANDED for only one day in Kerala in southern India when I began hearing rumors about a chef who cooked fabulous meals out of her home. This chef was rumored to be named Kumari. But when I approached the tuk-tuk drivers gathered under the palms and asked for a ride to her home, no one budged. Usually eager for a fare, they launched instead into the Head Wobble, a disquieting mix of nodding and shaking their heads at the same time.
Flummoxed, I pestered clerks and waiters in the village. “She makes the most exquisite thali,” declared one hotel owner, referring to the traditional assortment of rice, vegetables, meats and breads served on banana leaves. Everyone seemed to know about Kumari, yet no one could say how to find her.
I enlisted the help of a new friend, Dianna, a British caterer who shared my taste for a caper — especially one involving food. Our network informed us that Kumari’s Kitchen — as we’d come to call it — operated under the table. That explained the cone of silence in the village.
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Finally, a break. A driver offered to take us to the chef’s home (for a price, of course). Dianna and I abandoned our plans for a beach-side lounge and hopped into his taxi. We puttered down rutted roads and angled paths until we were nearly dumped out into a barren yard.
A woman appeared in the doorway and glared. Stout and blocky, she struck the pose of a barefoot field general outfitted in sari and nose ring.
“Are you serving dinner?” I asked, somewhat stupidly. We’d practically parked in a stranger’s yard and were now asking her for a meal.
Dianna moved in. “We hear that you serve the best meals in all of Kerala,” she cooed.
The woman’s sneer dissolved, and the corners of her lips flew up. We’d found the chink in her armor — flattery. We’d found Kumari.
“Come back tomorrow,” Presumed Kumari ordered. “At 6.”
Dianna and I exchanged glances. We had to play this woman’s game, even if we didn’t understand the rules.
As instructed, we arrived the following evening. The same woman appeared in her doorway. She pretended not to recognize us, but then waved us in, a sour pucker on her lips.
“So you are Kumari, then?” Dianna confirmed.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Kumari sputtered. Didn’t we know that we stood in the presence of greatness?
As dusk settled in, more visitors arrived. We squeezed in at the table and soon dishes began streaming out of the kitchen like a line of leaf-cutter ants. Bowls and plates crowded the table, a gastronomic mashup of poppadam, spicy tomato curry with ginger, grated beet-and-carrot salad with lentils, vegetable sambar and idli buns. Dianna and I chattered like jays throughout the meal and declared each dish better than the last.
Until the coup de grace. One taste and paralysis seized us.
“It’s divine,” Dianna finally exclaimed. Once. Twice. Then over and over like a mantra. We tasted banana; that was obvious. And coconut. Everything else tasted familiar, but strange.
“Banana coconut curry,” pronounced Kumari. “Come back and I will show you how to make it” (for a price, of course).
Though in America the word “curry” brings to mind spice-seared sauces, it can also mean “side dish.” In this case, it referred to the curry leaf, an aromatic, slightly sweet leaf used for seasoning in southern and western Indian coastal cooking.
Like the region itself, southern Indian cuisine is a kinder, gentler cousin — though equally as complex — of the more bracing, hearty northern school. Perhaps that’s because the earth here teems with bananas and coconuts, two fruits that embody easy, tropical living.
Certainly that explains why the state is named Kerala, which means “Place of Coconuts.” Considered cooling in nature by the ancient Indian health science of Ayurveda, coconuts are the ideal remedy for the region’s sweltering climate. Indians stir-fry vegetables and meat in coconut oil, massage it into their skin and hair, sip juice from the young fruit, chew the crunchy meat, brew toddy from its fermented sap and serve it shaved over thali.
A few days later at our cooking class, Kumari revealed the ingredients to banana coconut curry. Like some couples you may know, they seem unlikely companions. Spicy red onion, ginger and garlic together with sweet-natured bananas and coconut milk. Add ghee, spices and curry leaves and the result is a blissful marriage of sweet and savory.
Dianna and I grinned at each other as we scribbled the instructions into our notebooks. Our search had been worth it.
Eve M. Tai is a Seattle yoga instructor and freelance food writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Keralan Banana Coconut Curry
Makes 5 to 6 servings
2 pounds just-ripe bananas
½ medium red onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
Handful fresh curry leaves (or 4 to 6 dried leaves)*
1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)
¼ teaspoon salt dissolved in 1 cup warm water
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon fennel seed
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½-inch chunk fresh ginger, peeled
6 ounces coconut milk
1. Cut bananas lengthwise, then crosswise in ¼-inch pieces. In large frying pan, sauté the onion, garlic and curry leaves in ghee over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until soft. Take care not to burn the leaves. Add the bananas. Cook for 2 to 3 more minutes.
2. Gradually pour in ¾ cup of the saltwater until absorbed. Blend in the cardamom, fennel, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon and ginger. Stir in the coconut milk. Loosely cover the mixture and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until thickened. Remove the ginger. Serve warm.
* Available in many Asian and Indian markets