Softly cooked potatoes smothered in a light coconut gravy dressed up with mild Malabar spices go into the making of Ishtu or Stew. The festival of Onam calls for celebration and today I offer you my easy take on this popular dish.
When the Arabs started trading with the west coast of India nobody imagined the result would be so dramatic. Ferrying back and forth on the Arabian Sea, the Arabs found a hospitable home in the west coast of India in the sea facing state of Kerala. They brought many dishes from the Islamic world and in turn cultivated a love for the famed malabar spices.
The Arabs could count themselves one of many in a long line of invaders mesmerized by the soul of spice that India, in particular kerala was.
Visiting my great grandparents in kerala for summer holidays, I was constantly bewitched by the beauty of this land. Fertile, green forests, coconut trees & mango trees played a lush symphony with the blue lagoons of this tropical paradise. My great grandfather, a surgeon in the Indian military, opened a hospital in his village after his retirement.
The villagers, eternally grateful would come bearing gifts in kind and some of the yummiest treats I have ever eaten. Sometimes, the villagers would go overboard in giving preferential treatment by letting us kids benevolently stay on swings longer than our fair share. My watchful uncle’s glare was enough for us to remember to jump off & share prized swing time with the village kids & not get carried away by privilege unnecessarily accorded!
The Malabar coast & my grandparents ancestral home was so magical that I never once lifted a book to read! No chance of boredom, from waking up to the call of doves, to sleeping under sloped roofs where rain kept pattering softly through the night, to song & dance sessions with cousins to carrying an umbrella to the outhouse for washroom breaks and losing any sense of embarrassment that everyone in the house knew exactly what you were upto.
The Arabs too met this paradise head on. First the spices, then the land with its incredibly clean air, and finally seduced by the local beauties, they settled in paradise. Many intermarriages between the Arabs and the Fisher folk of Kerala ensued.
The locals addressed as Mapila or son-in-law, and the foods underwent a magical fusion. The women mildly spiced the foods catering to the mapila & the mapilas started enjoying coconut which was plentiful.
1 can coconut milk
1 cup, boiled, peeled & cubed potatoes
¼ tsp Malabar white pepper
1 green chili, slit lengthwise
3-4 curry leaves
1 tbsp coconut oil, optional
Himalayan sea sat to taste
In pan, sauté green chili, Malabar white pepper and curry leaves in a tbsp of water. Add the cubed boiled potatoes, coconut milk & salt. Keep on medium heat till coconut milk bubbles. Press & squash the potatoes a bit, so that they soak in the spice goodness.
Last touch, heat coconut oil & pour the warmed coconut oil on top of the ishtu before serving with chapatti/roti on the side
Thanks to my friend Suna who showed me how to make ishtu easily and offered suggestions on how to make it even more divine. Thanks also to my friend John who made me this beautiful bowl from a coconut shell.