Hidden away in the calm and tranquil backwaters of Kerala you will find a homestay called ‘Philipkutty’s Farm’ that sits on 35 acres of a small island, which totals 750 acres. The island was reclaimed from the backwaters of Lake Vembanad in the 1950’s by the present inhabitant’s late husband’s grandfather.
Today the farm is run by Anu (pictured above) and her mother-in-law, known as Aniamma, but it was Anu who warmly greeted us as we made our way from the opposite shore in a wooden canoe known locally as a ‘vallam’ (country boat), powered by a local using a wooden punt. After sipping on homemade cool ginger lemonade we were shown our cottage where we would be spending the next couple of nights.
To say that it was charming was a massive understatement. I read in the visitors book that one lady had stayed for 5 weeks and had returned numerous times. I could see the attraction. It was without doubt the perfect place to unwind, write a book perhaps or simply just relax.
Without modern day distractions such as television (there was only wifi in the main house) you felt positively cut off from the outside world. Bliss. It enabled you to sit and admire the views and watch the passing traffic, aka houseboats, drift by. My daughter’s fished with Anu’s daughter and managed to collect a number of fish, before always returning them to the waters. Mr B bravely swam in the backwaters themselves, much to all our amusement.
The highlight of staying at Philipkutty’s Farm, however, is the food. Aniamma, Anu and their team of helpers prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for guests, which all congregate in a thatched pavilion close to the main house. As there are only a handful of cottages there tend to be no more than 12 or so guests. We all sat on one large table, swapped storied and filled our bellies with dish after memorable dish of food. The cuisine was predominately Syrian Christian with a strong backwater influence. The vegetables and spices were grown on the farm and these were accompanied by a wide range of fish and meats. I was in heaven.
I have a feeling that if I stayed for 5 weeks, like one guest, there would be a high chance that I would return home a little more ‘wholesome’ than when I arrived!
Each evening Anu and Aniamma would do a cookery demonstration of a couple of the dishes we were to eat that evening. So it was during these informal demonstrations that I learned a host of new recipes.
This prawn and kokum curry – known as chemmeen (prawn) olarthiathu, was interesting as it included an ingredient I had not come across before. Kokum is a fruit bearing tree that is native to Western coastal regions of India and has many health benefits. The outer skin of the fruit is halved and dried, which in turn curls and becomes a dark purple black colour – apparently the darker the colour the better the kokum.
Whilst they undoubtedly add a sweet and sour element to a dish (similar to tamarind) they also add a smokiness that is unlike anything that I have tried before. They never drown out the main taste of a dish, instead complementing it with their gentle souring notes. As such they are used in a host of fish and prawn curries as well as dals and vegetable dishes. I realise that a trip to Kerala to source kokum maybe a little tricky for my readers so instead you can easily buy them online here or here. It stores easily for a year, I am told, in a sealed jar.
I used prawns with tails on but you can use whatever prawns you wish.
You’ll need red onion, shallots, ginger, garlic and fresh curry leaves. You can pick up fresh curry leaves from most Asian grocers. I tend to freeze mine and then dig them out of the freezer as and when I need to use them, which is most days.
Above shows Aniamma adding the cherished kokum to her curry.
I served mine with my Indian toor dal, which you can find here and some basmati rice.
Kerala Prawn and Kokum Curry (Chemmeen Olarthiathu)
1-2 tbsp coconut oil
1 large or two small red onions, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 inch fresh ginger, roughly chopped
3 shallots, finely chopped
10 curry leaves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
2 medium sized tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 pieces of kokum, pre soaked in 150ml boiling water for 20 minutes
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- Heat the coconut oil and then add the garlic, shallots, ginger and curry leaves.
- After a minute add the red onion, salt and chilli powder (if using).
- On a medium to low heat, add the turmeric and allow the ingredients to soften, which will take around 5-7 minutes.
- Add the fresh tomatoes and stir into the other ingredients and allow to soften.
- Add the prawns and move around the pan so that they are coated in all the ingredients.
- After 3 minutes add the kokum and gently cook for a further 5 minutes.
- Add the fresh black pepper powder just before serving.
Each morning at Philipkutty’s Farm the urns would have different arrangements of fresh flowers floating in them. So pretty and symmetrical.
Please note the comments below where one reader kindly informed me that the ‘kokum’ is in fact a close relative known as ‘kodampuli’ and the fruit show in my photos are in fact kodampuli. Thank you so much for highlighting this to me. You can read more about this fruit here.