Deep in a Keralan city, perched atop a hill, sat the Catholic, Nun-run, girls-only college. Winding hairpin bends and rutty roads led good girls to thick, high, iron gates, promptly closed as soon as the first bell rang. No soul could leave without several papers granting permission and the facts better be straight and narrow if lads were to have a hope of entering, especially if of a college age themselves. Besides, a bloke would have to have a strong back walking through the campus, a hundred pair of kajal-lined eyes stare at his every step. There were no set of female students better protected.
I was there for three years, excruciatingly bored with the Business Studies degree I was supposed to be doing. That first sharp U turn at the bottom of the hill off the main road always felt like I was stepping back in time, like I was going backwards. Still, the joy of youth is that you instinctively find what fills the gaps and that for me, was friends. We were an eclectic bunch, the breakdown of some of them was such :
Shudh Brahmins (pure upper-caste Brahmin) – beautiful, with thick waterfall like long black hair, fine featured and strictly vegetarian.
Christian Southern Keralites – Famous for two things, their sharp, caustic wit and their acknowledged expertise in meat curries! This girl had both. It was her tiffin I dived into the most. Oh! Those beef curries!
Hindu Keralite but brought up in Madras (now Chennai) – She had a mop of curly, black hair, huge doe eyes and was always ready for a giggle – the kind that tumbled on itself over and over till the rest of us gave in and joined her. I loved it when she spoke in Tamil.
Hindu Keralite from Pondicherry – This lass was the bees knees – mad, absolutely, lovably, don’t-give-a-damn bonkers and I love her.
And another like myself – Keralite but raised in Dubai. I practically lived in her house and I will admit, her grandmother’s cooking, that lightness of touch with vegetables particularly, played a massive part in my prolonged presence in her house.
We all had different backgrounds, I couldn’t speak Malayalam (well, not without the listener wincing painfully at my awful pronunciation and lack of grammatical respect) but the unifying moment came when the bell rang for the lunch break. We’d push our chairs into a circle, haul out the stainless steel tiffins and proceed to survey everyone’s offerings. Over time, we all knew whose mother made the best beef curry (Southern Christian girl), or idlis, gunpowder and sambhar (one of the Brahmin girls, the other, poor creature, lived in the on-campus hostel), or who had the tasty sandwiches (that was me – my aunt owned a Breville sandwich maker, kaching!). Tiffins would pass back and forth, fingers would be licked, there was plenty yapping and they got used to my style of Malayalam. Those sandwiches ensured their liberality.
These girls were also the ones to introduce me to lime soda – astringent indian lime juice sweetened with coarse sugar and topped with cold water or soda water. When the air is so thick with humidity that hair sticks to the forehead like wet slugs, such a cold, sharp shock to your system is akin to cool, welcome rain pouring over hot skin. We had gone for a university festival and were dropped off at the last bus stop at the bottom of the hill, where shops lined up to offer parched, starving students simple treats like lime sodas and ice pops. I had never tasted it and it dawns on me that I would never had tasted so much of what I love now if it weren’t for the open door policy of these girls and their families. They initiated me into the diverse regional cooking of their caste and community. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t actually Keralite ( I hail from Mangalorean stock), or Hindu or of any caste and that was a great lesson to learn about the wider, far-reaching, unifying feeling of solidarity that sharing a plate of food can initiate even in the most hardcore, traditional minded folk. Which I was not, obviously, but my palate was restricted to only what I knew of my family’s Indian cooking.
From there to this cordial seems a far fetched leap. The reason for this waffling is that my first taste of this Lemongrass, Lime leaf and Ginger Cordial took me instantly, Ratatouille style, to that hot, humid afternoon at a ramshackle Indian bus stop. Then, that brought the still shot of the laughing faces of these girls, backlit against the dazzling, yellow Indian sun shining through a glass-less window, in a dark, desk lined classroom. The formal education may not have amounted to much but I learnt lessons of a greater, deeper sort while sat in a circle amongst them.
This comes quite late, but gratefully, not impossibly so. Thank you, you know who you are. For the gunpowders, the beef pepper, laughs, love and lime soda.
Lemongrass, Lime Leaf & Ginger Cordial
400 gms caster or golden caster sugar
4 lemongrass stalks, bruised with a rolling pin (optional)
5-6 kaffir lime leaves, torn
Pared zest of an unwaxed lemon, as well as the juice
80-100gm of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon of citric acid (optional – the acid acts as a preservative and also offers a unique lip puckering flavour. You can still make this cordial without)
Suggestions for serving
Lots of ice
Soda water or sparking water
Lemon or lime slices
Pinch of Chaat Masala per serving
Pinch of sea salt
Place the sugar in a large saucepan along with 400mls of water. Add the lemongrass, lime leaves, zest, lemon juice and ginger and slowly bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Once it comes to the boil, lower the temperature and let it simmer gently for around 15-20 minutes. Take off the heat, leave to cool and infuse for at least 5 hours. Bring to the boil once again, and add the citric acid, if using. Let it cool for 10 minutes before pouring into sterilised bottles using a funnel. Once cool, store in the fridge for a week to ten days.
Serve over lots and lots of ice with soda or sparkling water. A pinch of chaat masala gives an indian sherbet vibe and the amchoor (dried mango) powder offers a delicious, spiced sour note.
I would highly recommend sprinkling a pinch of sea salt and mixing it into your glass. The salt really brings out the flavour and the sweet, sour taste of the cordial.
Feel free to up quantities as you want. I didn’t have lime leaves in mind initially, but chucked the few I had in my freezer into the pan at the last minute. Also, if you are a real ginger fiend, up the ginger quantity to something like 125 gm for more of a lemony ginger beer vibe.