Dodging bicyclists, mopeds, and pedestrians, Kerala’s rickshaws and taxis offer a nonstop thrill ride. If you prefer the slow and steady but still adventurous, I suggest taking the train. The windows have bars, but no glass, and each train car has turbo charged fans welded to the ceiling. You can watch the lush countryside streaming by, and feel a whoosh of jungle air before it gets chopped up by steel blades.
When your stomach starts to grumble, you’ll hear the sound of auctioneers stalking the aisles. "Chai, chai, chaiii!" (“Tea, tea, tea!”) "Kappi, kappi, kappiii!” (“Coffee, coffe, coffee!) “Vada, vada, vadaiii!” (“Fritters, fritters, fritters!) Or could they be food peddlers?
Of all the sights and sounds that Kerala produces, the parade of noisy railway venders is by far my favorite. In the old days, the vendors waited on the platform at each station. When a train stopped, they would start their pulsing chorus. Riders shoved rupees through the windows in exchange for cups of frothy coffee or tea served in steel cups and a variety of fried snacks. If you leaned close enough to the window, you could watch the beverage vendors pouring the tea between two cups held two feet apart to produce froth. Don't try that at home! Before the train pulled away, the cups were passed back to be washed and filled for the next wave of riders.
Now the vendors board the train, dressed in neatly pressed uniforms. American snack foods – which have helped to make much of the world obese – are part of their offerings. Thankfully the oldies still endure: “"Chai, chai, chaiii!" "Kappi, kappi, kappiii!” “Vada, vada, vadaiii!”
CHANNA DHAL FRITTERS
Makes 18 to 20
Crunchy on the outside and cushiony inside, parippu vada is my favorite fried snack. They are made with channa dhal, ginger, and chilies. Think of them as a spiced up falafel served aside freshly plucked bananas, if you're lucky.
1½ cups skinned and split channa dhal (Bengal gram)
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup water
2 small dried red chilies, roughly chopped
3/4 cup finely diced onions
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 teaspoon salt
Two dashes of asafetida (optional)
10 to 15 fresh curry leaves, torn into 1/4 inch pieces
2½ cups canola oil for frying
Place the dhal in a medium size bowl. Cover it with water and soak for at least 4 hours. (The dhal will expand as it softens). Rinse and drain.
Place half of the soaked dhal and water in a food processor. Pulse it for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides.
Add the dried red chilies and pulse until the dhal is very finely chopped and almost forms a paste.
Add the rest of the soaked dhal to the food processor and pulse until it is very roughly chopped, 5 to 10 seconds. The dhal should clump when you squeeze it in your palm.
Transfer the dhal to a medium size bowl. Add the onions, ginger, salt, asafetida, and curry leaves, and mix together. Set aside for 10 minutes.
Place a couple of paper towels on a large plate. Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add a pinch of the seasoned dhal to the oil. When it rises to the top and bubbles around the edges, lower the heat to medium.
Place a tablespoon of the dhal on the palm of your hand and shape it into a loose ball. Gently flatten it into a disk about 1/2-inch thick. Carefully sculpt together the edges with the side of your free hand.
Place it into the oil. For 4 more disks and add them to the oil one by one.
Fry them for 4 minutes on each side or until they are golden brown. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and cool on the paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the seasoned dhal.
Serve warm or reheated in a toaster oven.