The Jungle Cooks – Nilgiri Mountains, India

You know the moment – the moment when pleasantries have been exchanged and the conversation wanes.  The obvious commonalities that often lead to deeper conversation don’t exist – parenting, work, etc.  There must be something we can talk about, common interests, passions.

“Do you cook?”  In the United States this is a loaded questions and can almost be perceived as making a critical judgement call on one’s quality of life.  In most other countries, however, it is received with an enthusiastic smile, even by men.  Of course I cook!  What do you like to cook?  What are your favorite foods?  What do you prepare for special occasions?  Since I also like to cook, conversation easily flows on this topic and can flow onto other topics such as home life, religious holidays, family values and local culture – topics that ultimately interest me more than tonight’s menu.  Cooking – the no fail gateway conversation starter.

While on a recent trip to India, I spent several days at a rustic campground.  While chatting with the camp director over a plate of khatti dahl (lentil stew, southern India style) and rice, I mentioned most sincerely and genuinely that the food at the camp was exceptionally good.  This was not a shot in the dark to keep the conversation alive.  Talk was easy and company sweet and, really, the fare was fantastic.  I attributed the quality of victuals to the obvious factors.  The scrap-fed chickens were killed mere hours before the meal (I heard some clucking around three in the afternoon and ate chicken for dinner at six).  Empty coconut shells were stacked in the corner, the contents of which had just been shredded and ground out.  With no refrigeration, everything was at the acme of ripeness and served immediately.  And the other obvious factor was the wood burning stove, including wood-scented smoke that permeated the small kitchen workspace.  The contribution of the smoke ingredient cannot be underplayed – and cannot be replicated in a conventional kitchen.

I mentioned this to the director.  “In town we ate at restaurants and at the guest house.  The food was good.  I like Indian food.  But here, the food is exceptional.  It’s hot, but the heat is not overpowering and adds a tasteful richness.  Again, it really is exceptional.

He chuckled and motioned to the team of several men in the kitchen who joyfully produced the amazing variety of sauces, breads and rice dishes.  “I’ve been here twelve [or was it 14?] years and the cooks were here before me.  They were trained by the previous director and they have full control over the menu within the set budget. The previous director was a five star chef.”

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Where the magic happens
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The magician cooks

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Read more about this trip to India here: Black Friday and the path to freedom for the sex trafficked.

 

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