I would love to have you in my home and share my knowledge of cooking” was Nimmy Paul’s response to my emailed query. “Yes, there is a train from Tellicherry,” continued one of Kerala’s foremost culinary authorities. “The journey would be six hours. Look forward to hearing from you. Love, Nimmy.” I flattened the paper, soft by now from many foldings and the ever-present humidity, and practiced saying her tongue-twisting address. I was standing in the bustle of M.G. (Mahatma Gandhi) Road, in the town fabled for centuries as a trading hub, under a hot, bright sky. I gave alms to the wizened beggar on the corner, sidestepped a goat, and hopped into a tuk-tuk. A sign taped to the (broken) meter read “Bless Us!” The driver revved the engine (Can’t be any larger than a mango, I thought), bossily tooted the horn, and butted his way into the good-natured chaos of trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, boxy Ambassador taxis, more tuk-tuks, and the occasional donkey. Ten minutes later, the generous welcome implicit in the note I still clutched was borne out by the sight of Nimmy, slim and straight in a dark green kurta, and her husband, V. J. Paul, waiting for me outside their tranquil little house. Soon I was ensconced in their kitchen, as neat and efficient as a ship’s galley, while Nimmy outlined the lesson. Most of the dishes she was going to demonstrate lay within the Syrian Christian tradition, she explained, adding swiftly that Syrian Christian Indians are so-called after the ancient rites they follow, not because they are from Syria. First Nimmy readied the makings for our dinner: meen molee—fish (here, the firm yet delicate pearl spot) in coconut milk; kozhi varathathu, or chicken “roast”; and vendekka olathyathu (okra stir-fry). Then, as a starter, she presented me with the clean, pure flavors of Kerala on a plate—small prawns sautéed with citrusy curry leaves, a piece of sweet-sour kokum (the dried fruit of the gamboge tree), a smashed garlic clove, and a fragrant drizzle of something. “Coconut oil?” I ventured, and Nimmy smiled in acknowledgment before delighting me with a meal that moved from delicate to intriguing layers of spice. This is food I will make at home, I realized, after polishing off a cup of fish soup, rich with cumin and velvety tomatoes. All the time, I concluded, after the chicken. (011-91-484-231-4293; nimmypaul.com; about $30 per class, including lunch or dinner)
What I Learned
Adding a smidgen of ghee to the cooking oil imparts a roundness of flavor to meen molee.
The gorgeous earthenware pots called currychutties.
Before You Go
Visit Cochin’s spice and vegetable markets so you have a frame of reference.