Brown is beautiful

by Chef Boy Ari

From Thailand, I took a flight halfway to Africa, landing in Kerala, on the southwestern tip of India. If Africa is the dark continent, India is just a few shades behind in its myriad shades of brown: brown skin, brown dirt, plenty of both. India has a way of not letting you forget you’re part of a cycle that begins and ends with dirt, and that dirt is a currency we share, like blood, money and food.

Dragging my bags through the streets of Cochin, I found my first Indian dining experience at the worker-run Indian Coffee House. I ordered “cold coffee,” which came pre-mixed in a pre-smudged glass. The waiter, dressed like a stained white rooster, used a rag to rearrange the dusty film on the marble tabletop. Briefly, while the table was wet, it seemed clean.

The coffee helped me past the hot afternoon doldrums and into a $4 hotel room. In the lobby, skinny brown men lounged in sarongs and wife-beaters. Exhausted, I lay in my first bed in days, my first bed in India, ever. On the wall next to my head was a mysterious collection of brown smears. That night, with the ceiling fan blasting down on my body, I woke up disturbed, with creepy-crawly feelings. I clawed my belly, my shoulders, and then the light switch.

The florescent light revealed red smears on my sheets and a battalion of mosquitoes on the wall among the brown smears. They looked like planes on an aircraft carrier, ready to run 18-inch sorties to my face.

Kerala, one of India’s smallest states, is home to a great mix of people, including Portuguese Catholics, Gulf State Arabs, Jews, Syrian Christians and Chinese, as well as a native majority of Indian and Tamil descent. Even more astounding than the diversity is the fact that they all seem to get along, with ethnic and religious tension practically unheard of.

One hot morning in the Arabian Sea-side village of Varkala, I waited for my mocha frappe. “I moved here in September,” the coffee shack’s owner explained while he prepared it. “Opened shop in November, got married in January, local girl, now it’s February…”

Made from all Kerala-grown ingredients – coffee, chocolate, palm sugar and milk – it was a truly orgasmic combination of top-notch fresh, local ingredients, most of which were brown. I wandered to the nearest hammock and fell asleep.

When I woke, I realized I was in a restaurant. I stared at a picture on the wall of a Keralan star, a local guru named Amma who’s world-famous for her spiritually rejuvenating hugs, which people wait days in line to receive. A boy brought me a menu, and I ordered a “butterfish” cooked with coconut curry in a banana leaf.

After that fabulous dining experience, I traded my hammock for a car and driver and drove into the Cardamom Hills, a mountainous region of teak jungle and plantations of spice and tea. We reached the town at the end of the road at dusk, and the only hotel was full, crawling with brown guys in sarongs and wife-beaters.

The hotel guy was giving the cabbie directions to the nearest faraway possibility of a room. I asked the hotel guy about an ashram I’d seen in my guidebook, right here in town. Would they have beds? The hotel guy studied me. “Yes, they have beds,” he said, “but they are selective about who they let in. But you can try.”

When we got to the ashram, the guard pointed a finger at me. “Yoga!” he said.

“Yoga!” I said, nodding my head a little spastically.

I was shown to a dormitory and given a bed, sheets, a pillow and mosquito netting.

After an early morning of meditation, yoga and tea, we ate brunch cross-legged on the floor. Servers brought food in stainless steel buckets: a mixture of rice, yogurt, cashews, cardamom and coconut that was served with dahl, string beans, coconut potatoes and salad. We drank savory yogurt lassis and ate with our hands in silence.

I was on cleanup crew, and I let an old lady with a cute British accent boss me around. We swept the floor with grass brooms.

“Well, I’m not sure I even want to stand on my head,” said my boss, of the morning’s yoga class. “I wasn’t standing on my head when I was 9 years old. I think it’s a little late in the day to start.”

We then used mops to smear around what was left of the dirt on the floor.

“It’s the Indian way,” explained my boss. “We’ll just wipe it around to erase the footprints.” •