“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”
I have been reading a lot of travelogues lately. One of them is “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux. “In the fine old tradition of purposeless travel for fun and adventure”, as Graham Greene put it, Theroux writes about his journey through Asia on legendary trains like the Trans-Siberian Express and the Orient Express. In my opinion, and I am sure many of you would agree, trains are the most charming, romantic and fascinating modes of travel.
Childhood journeys, for most people I know in India, took place by trains. Those were the days before domestic air travel and internet reservations. Armed with a tiny, rectangular, brown cardboard ticket, bistarbands (bed-rolls) and aluminium trunks (with their name and address painted on them), families would excitedly board trains and travel for summer vacations, weddings and everything else one traveled for. Once the luggage was safely secured under the seats and the children fighting for the window seat adequately scolded, they would say hello to the fellow passengers and then wait for the train to start moving. After a few minutes of slow waltzing out of the station, the train would gather pace and leave behind all traces of urban life. Soon the stainless steel tiffin box, packed with the quintessential poori and sookhe aloo ki sabzi (dry potatoes) would come out. Dinner might have been followed by a few rounds of antakshari, after which everyone would climb into their berths and be lulled into the most refreshing night’s sleep by the gently rocking train.
Train compartments, especially the long distance ones, have a sense of community that is always missing in airplanes or buses. I guess spending several days in close company of strangers, watching them sleep, wake up, brush their teeth brings with it a certain level of intimacy that’s hard to get in a 5-hour bus ride when you are facing each other’s backs. But I didn’t get to experience the bonhomie of rail travel until very late in life.
My family traveled by buses. It was the more convenient mode of public transportation for us since we didn’t really travel long distances. We did buy tickets and haul trunks and eat aloo-poori , but it happened in a state transport bus. We never took touristy trips, we just packed our bags and without thinking twice, went to our grandparents’ farmhouse for a good three months every summer. The only exception (to bus travel) was when my dad and uncles decided to drive all the way on our Vijay Super scooters, with us kids and mom pillion-riding.
But one thing that I cherish from those summer bus rides is eating fresh coconut slices, bought for way less than one rupee per slice. Even now, when I go back home and travel with my mom in a bus, she never fails to buy them for us, despite all our acquired concerns for hygiene. And if we don’t get them in a bus, we buy a fresh coconut at home and munch on them gleefully. This long-winded train of thought led me to coconut pancakes. I wanted to eat fresh coconut, in all it’s sweet, juicy glory. And these pancakes from Kerala (also known as Madakappams) come pretty close, since they are stuffed with a mixture of uncooked, fresh grated coconut and sugar. They are delicate, mildly sweet with an unobtrusive and clean coconut flavor. I used to eat them very often at A’s home in Delhi, but haven’t eaten them since. Luckily, Lathika George’s beautiful cookbook The Suriani Kitchen has a recipe for them. Here’s how you make them.
Ingredients (makes 8 to 10 pancakes)
From: Suriani Kitchen
- Thin coconut milk, 2 cups (you can use regular canned coconut milk diluted with water)
- Eggs, 2
- Salt, 1/4 tsp
- All purpose flour, 2 cups, sifted
- Fresh grated coconut, 2 cups (I used thawed, fresh-frozen grated coconut)
- Sugar, 1/4 cup
- Crushed green cardamom seeds, 1/2 tsp
- First, make the filling: Mix the fresh grated coconut, sugar and ground cardamom and set aside.
- Next up is pancake batter: Beat the eggs and combine with the thin coconut milk and salt. Stir in the flour and make a thin, runny batter without lumps, adding as much water as needed. It should be runnier than the regular pancake batter…more like crêpe batter, actually.
- Grease the skillet with a little oil and heat until a spoonful of batter sizzles when dropped into the pan. When this happens, the skillet is ready.
- Pour half a cup of batter into the skillet, swirling around to form a thin pancake. Cover with a lid and cook for 1 minute until firm. You can also cook the other side for a second if you like.
- Remove the pancake from the pan and immediately place 2 tablespoons of the filling on one side of the pancake. Roll up and keep warm as you prepare rest of the pancakes.
I love eating them as is, but if you prefer, you can drizzle the pancakes with this sauce: mix together one cup of thick coconut milk and half a cup of raw cane sugar and heat until warm.