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Cooking Out of ‘The Covenant of Water’: Oprah’s fave book is a delicious read

By VICKY VELOSO-BARRERA, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 16, 2023 5:00 am

Currently at the top of Oprah’s Book Club as of this writing and number 10 on The New York Times Bestseller list is Abraham Verghese’s lush, exquisitely written, 750-page novel that spans 70 years and three generations of a family living in Kerala, India.

It is currently my favorite book to cook out of!

Many Oprah fans have described this as a book that you cannot put down. I attest to that because from the moment I read the sample on Kindle to the time the copy I purchased dropped into my app, I have only put it down to eat, sleep or work. I am savoring every word, Verghese’s magnificent command of words and a compelling storyline that makes you forget how many words you have already read and how many there are to go.

I could not put down this 700-plus-page book except to eat, sleep and work.

I am also savoring, on top of a story that details the rich culture, history and landscape of southern India, on top of the finely explored landscape of the human body—for yes, the author is a full-time doctor—the wonderful sounding recipes whose ingredients and procedures are deftly woven into the action, into the dramas this most unusual of Christian Indian families must face.

Their community is unique because it is said St. Thomas—yes, that same doubting Thomas—landed on these shores of India, planted churches and was martyred here. The faith of the family is integral to the story, as are the ghosts that live with them and other saints and deities whose presence is just a normal part of life.

Plot-wise I will only go so far to say that this family, who lives in a land where water in many forms is inescapable—rivers, streams, marshes— and whose waters enrich the soil so that cinnamon and other spices grown here have an unmatched sweetness—harbors a not-so-secret, terrible curse. 

Indian spices can be found at Assads and other ingredients are readily available in supermarkets.

In every generation, one family member will die by drowning, and the anxious mothers are always on the lookout for the telltale signs.

I will leave the rest of the plot for you to discover because my main purpose now is to cook those dishes that, as I read them, had me doing a mental inventory of the spices I have in my kitchens. How fortunate that we love Indian food, so that my pantry holds not only commercially ground spices but also whole seeds of cardamom, mustard, cumin, fenugreek, and coriander; sticks of cinnamon; and whole cloves, all waiting to be toasted in a skillet to fill my kitchen with their heady scent and then pounded by hand as any good ammachi (mother) would do.

Indian spices need to be toasted before grinding to release and maximize their flavors.

I will add that the book has provided me with insight into the British colonization of India, has led me to discover that Gray’s Anatomy is actually a beautifully illustrated medical textbook, and that my father was right on point when he filled a small library in his den with encyclopedias and literary classics. 

By the age of 10, I had read them all, like the character Phillipose, whose schooling is supplemented by reading one great classic a year, beginning with Moby Dick.

This read will definitely build up an appetite for delicious things Indian and even British Indian, as the following recipes, reconstructed out of the delicious narrative, will demonstrate!

I was less than 10 when I actually read Moby Dick and, reread much later on I can’t fathom what I got out of it (just as I don’t know what prompted me to also read Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities and so on at that age).

But what Phillipose gets out of it since he used Herman Melville’s masterpiece to learn English, was precisely Melville’s 19th-century English, so that when he rescues a suffocating baby and needs to explain what happened to the 21st-century English doctor he says, “I was pacing straightly for the school, and seemingly bounded for that destination… The needle of the compass allowed me to hark the cry and I saw his child. This father he feared the river… but I, it swayed me to purpose, and hither thither we boatingly floated.”

Phillipose also tells the astonished doctor that, in the language of a whaler, he “harpooned” out of the baby’s mouth what was choking it!

This read will definitely build up an appetite for delicious things Indian and even British Indian, as the following recipes, reconstructed out of the delicious narrative, will demonstrate!

Fish in spicy red sauce (meen vevichathu)

I do not have access to the luscious-sounding fish called meen that Big Ammachi uses for this dish, so I substitute a good fish fillet—though on some internet sites, the fish fillet used makes me think of tanguingue.

Cooking the fish stew

The dish gets its “vibrant” red color from chili powder but its “muddy consistency” from “cooked down shallots, ginger and spices.”

Since Verghese doesn’t specify the spices and each dish requires its own garam masala (spice blend), I checked my oldest Indian cookbook but alas, it doesn’t have this particular recipe. No luck either looking for my more contemporary Indian cookbooks, what with thousands of cookbooks all over my house.

So I resorted to a blog to see that I needed to create a fish masala, which I do by first toasting dal (dried lentils), then spices which include coriander, fenugreek and cumin seeds, plus peppercorns and turmeric. Then everything is ground in the mortar and combined.

Fish in Spicy Red Sauce (Meen Vevichathu) is delicious made with any available fish fillet in lieu of expensive tanguingue.

Before I can even start I need an indispensable ingredient called kokum—fresh tamarind. Before it finishes crossing my mind to use instant sinigang mix, I suddenly remember that on Tomas Morato, outside 123 Love Luggage x Camille I had spotted sampaloc on the ground. I thought there were no more sampaloc trees in what used to be called Tamarind Road!

So Gloria and I drive there at nine in the morning where I let her out to be the one to search the sidewalk for any ripe sampaloc that has fallen. I refuse to step out and do it myself lest people start to believe that I really am baliw (“But at least it’s the nice kind of baliw,” says my daughter Hannah, “not the homicidal kind of baliw like Juan Luna!”)

The oldest and most dog-eared of my many Indian cookbooks

Now I understand why Big Ammachi, like other traditional Indian moms, spends all day in the kitchen! All the while their elephant friend Damo stomps his feet outside, impatient for his morning snack of rice and ghee!

So back home I now start my fish dish in earnest. The blog lists a lot more than what is written in the book but I have those ingredients on hand in case I feel they’re needed.

As I cook I think that Verghese himself is not a cook, perhaps just the husband or son of one, so I fill in the gaps.

I coat my fish with red chili powder purchased from Assad’s Mini Mart, then start a sauce that has coconut oil heating up. I add the previously mentioned onion, garlic and ginger but also grated coconut, chili leaves, the garam masala I made for this and some water.

I fry the fish lightly in coconut oil and then pour over the sauce plus some freshly made tamarind water until there was a pleasant sourness.

I served the fish curry with a chutney of grated coconut; ginger, garlic and onion; and some curry leaves freshly plucked from my garden.

Next, the dish I was more excited for because I like lamb more than fish.

The thamb’ran’s favorite seared lamb cubes (erechi olarthiyathu)

Since the lamb shoulder I buy in the grocery is not always tender, I pre-boil it before using it in lamb adobo, Moroccan tagines, etc.

To prepare Big Ammachi’s specialty, I do as she does: toast in a dry frying pan “whole coriander and fennel seeds, pepper, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and star anise” until my kitchen is a kind of warm, fragrant, intoxicating heaven, then grind them by hand in a big mortar and pestle. 

The Thamb’ran’s (man of the house’s) Favorite Seared Lamb Cubes (Erechi Olarthiyathu) is cooked and topped with the leaves of the easy-to-grow curry plants in my garden.

How I wish you could smell my kitchen as I type this into my phone and occasionally stir this lovely garam masala. I have not yet stepped foot on that great subcontinent, but my kitchen makes me think of an Indian Christmas!

After marinating the lamb cubes in the garam masala, I proceed with her steps, which is to “brown onions along with fresh coconut slivers (I used the grated fresh coconut you would squeeze for gata), mustard seeds, ginger, garlic, green chilies, turmeric, and curry leaves and more of that dried spice mix (the garam masala you just made).”

The gravy should get dry but I used the lamb stock to add a bit more sauce, which is how my husband likes it.

I’m not using a hearth like Big Ammachi but at this point I now add the meat and turn down the heat on my gas range, now letting the mixture cook until the sauce is thickened and the meat cubes are well coated, then that’s it! Just have hot rice ready and call your husband.

Anglo-british pish pash

No recipe instructions are given for this save to say that Anglo Brits serve a dish of lamb, rice, potatoes, and green peas cooked with spices.

Since my erechi olarthiyathu is already lamb cooked with spices and served with rice, I just add boiled potatoes and green peas on the side!

I was so happy to quickly perfect a recipe for jalebi, because it turns out it’s the favorite dessert of the nephew of my DLSU batchmate Ravi. So delicious, too!

Jalebi is a delicious funnel cake-like fritter that’s addictive and not that difficult to make.

For the sugar syrup, combine in a saucepan:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 piece cardamom

Boil until a “string” consistency is achieved when a small amount of syrup is put between your fingers and a string is formed when the fingers are pulled apart.


  • 1 tsp. lemon
  • For the jalebi batter, combine in a bowl:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1/8 tsp. turmeric
  • Add and mix until something like pancake batter results:
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • Heat in a frying pan:
  • Ghee or cooking oil

Use a squeeze bottle to squeeze the batter into rings somewhat like concentric circles.

When crisp and golden drain and add to the syrup. Enjoy!