This rich duck curry comes from Shaila, who was Bhagath’s mother. We could only communicate with smiles and head shakes, but over the four days we stayed with Bhagath, Shaila cooked us all sorts of delicious Keralan meals. This curry is an ‘Alleppey special’ and traditionally eaten on Sundays, much like the Sunday roast.
The carnivores of Kerala
Hang on a minute, I’m in India – isn’t everyone veggie there? This was my thought process as I saw mutton, beef and chicken on the menus in Kerala. But not for the first and certainly not for the last time, my assumptions about a culture and a place have been proven wrong. Our Couch Surfing host Bhagath, explains that the Hindus in Kerala are more relaxed about eating meat. “It’s a different story in the north though, a man was killed recently for transporting beef” he explains as we pull up at a road-side stall selling ducks. “Do you eat duck?” He asks, “Mum wants to cook duck curry for lunch”. I LOVE duck and enthusiastically tell him so.
My enthusiasm for eating duck lessens slightly as I realise the ducks are still alive and the whole preparation process is yet to happen. As ducks huddle under each other’s wings desperately trying not to be chosen. I am reminded of ‘The Reaping’ in The Hunger Games. The scene is gruesome, and I force myself to watch the process – I feel that if I’m willing to eat the curry I should be able to watch the animal die.
Duck curry is a specialty in Alleppey, which is a sleepy town in southern Kerala. It’s most famous among tourists for its network of canals, backwaters and paddy fields. Hundreds of houseboats meander down the backwaters each day, catching a glimpse of ‘rural life’ in Kerala. Last year, the countryside around Alleppey was devastated by the worst flooding in 100 years.
Bhagath grew up in a village not far from Alleppey town, riding to school on foot, on bus and eventually a motorbike. Even though he now lives with his wife and two young kids in the nearby city of Kochi, he still goes back a couple of times a month to see his family friends. His wife, Seeta, usually stays behind in Kochi, she doesn’t like how much he and his friends drink when they’re together.
The Sunday Cass and I arrived, Bhagath was in Alleppey for an old friend’s house warming party. Although the main event was on Saturday (more than 1000 people attended!), it was still going strong when Cass and Bhagath turned up at midday on Sunday. Johnnie Walker, brandy and other liquor bottles were being passed round the group of men who had been partying together all weekend.
After our duck curry lunch we head out to go fishing in the paddy fields along with his (now exceedingly merry) friends who have been enjoying the house-warming party all weekend. Watching them giggling away and cracking in-jokes reminds me of my friends from home and I have a twinge of homesickness. Bhagath is the only one who has moved away, the rest of them are working in Alleppey as labourers.
Walking deeper into the paddy fields, we reach the fishing spot and manage to procure some flour from a local woman who one of the guys happens to know. Adding some water the flour is rolled into balls and put on the end of a bamboo stick and some string. Some half-arsed fishing ensues amongst much more enthusiastic joking and drinking. Eventually we give up and walk further through the paddy fields and little rivulets until we reach a swimming spot they used to go to as young boys.
Sitting on the banks of the backwater, sharing their beer and watching the touristy houseboats go by was a rare privilege for me. And probably something that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I weren’t with my husband Cass. Yet amidst the infectious giggling I couldn’t help thinking about their unseen wives, left at home every weekend to look after the children.
Shaila’s Duck curry
- 2 ducks
- 2 garlic bulbs
- 1kg shallots
- Large piece of fresh ginger
- 2 tspn mustard seeds
- A spring of fresh curry leaves
- 12 green chillis
- 400ml coconut milk and 200ml coconut cream OR 1 1/2 grated coconuts
- 1 tspn turmeric powder
- 2 tspn coriander powder
- 1 tspn garam masala
- 1 1/2 tspn salt
- 1 tspn black peppercorns
- 2 cardamon pods
Keeping the bone in, cut the duck into small pieces. If buying from a butcher you could ask them to do this for you. Put the chopped pieces into a bowl and add a few glugs of cold water.
Peel the onions and keep them whole. Thinly slice the chillis.
Peel the garlic cloves and ginger, roughly chop then mash together in a pestle and mortar to make a rough paste.
In a large saucepan or pressure cooker, heat a generous drizzle of oil (preferably coconut) and gently fry the mustard seeds and onions.
Once the onions are soft and brown add the garlic and ginger paste and cook for another 2 minutes. Next add the sliced chillis and fresh curry leaves.
Now add the turmeric, coriander and garam masala to the pan and cook for a further 3 minutes. Everything should now be turning a dark in colour and beginning to stick to the pan.
Add the duck pieces along with the water to the pan. Use the liquid from the water to scrape up any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan and give everything a good stir. Next add the coconut milk to the pot. Place the lid on the pressure cooker or saucepan and leave to cook for about half an hour, or until the duck is cooked through. Remove from the heat and leave to stand for about 20 minutes.
Whilst this is happening blitz together the peppercorns and fennel seeds (or you could just use powdered stuff), to make a powder. Gently bash the cardamom pods in a pestel and mortar.
Put the curry back on the heat and add the pepper and fennel powder, the squashed cardamom pods and finally the coconut cream. Stir everything together and check the seasoning. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.
Serve alongside plain or lemon rice, preferably on a Sunday.