Street art of Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi has been home to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a very large art exhibition, for almost a decade now. This was a deliberate attempt by the state government to renew historic Fort Kochi, with the help of some of Kerala’s best known contemporary artists. The four month long event in the winter of every even year draws several hundred thousand visitors. We visited in an off-Biennale year when hotels rates have not gone into orbit.

The Biennale leaves a residue of interesting art on the streets of Kochi, and we had great fun spotting these commissioned works. There were pieces executed in 2018, and the remnants of works made in earlier years. Art is ephemeral, and street art is an urgent reminder to enjoy it while it lasts. The enormous wrinkled faces and the protraits of ordinary people seemed to be no more than a year old. The birds soaring over bare concrete was older and will be gone in a few more months. On other walls we saw guerilla art, unlicensed work. That will take another post.

Knock knock, knocking on Kochi’s doors

Another week, and it is time again for a guest post in spirit by The Family. This time it is about the doors which she saw while walking about Kochi trying to spot its street art. The featured photo is an icredible chrysanthemum door: a work of art in wood. We stood in front of it, and as we admired it I couldn’t help thinking about how spice wealth must have flowed through this community even as little as a century back. This wealth would have nourished a school of craftsmen, builders and the wood workers who put these doors in place. Kochi is an art destination now, and was an unremarked art destination even then.

Doors within doors! That’s a specialty of Kochi. The decorative ceremonial doors sometimes get too large for comfort. For a person or two, why make the effort to open the big door? Cut another door into it, the size of a human, and you are done. This door wasn’t as immense as some of the doors that we saw; hardly big enough to admit a horse-drawn coach. What caught The Family’s eye here were the bright colours and the semi-pillars flanking the door.

There’s more than houses in the spice bazaar. There are also warehouses behind which boats could dock. Some of these business premises have moved down-market into construction spaces. If you cut openings into the wall near the roof for ventilation, then the vast interiors of spice warehouses can easily be turned into spaces for fabrication. Here was a gate to one of these places, inviting us to walk down a short road to look at the harbour. We hesitated, but then found that the place was busy, and decided not to ask for permission to walk in.

But there are warehouses which have turned to tourist trade. Some of them are now art galleries and cafes, just right for tourist who want to spend a day or four doing nothing useful. We thought that this brightly painted structure with lovely wooden doors would lead to something like this. It turned out to be a hotel. The landing stage for boats had been converted to a breakfast space; a peaceful way to begin the day. The large entrance to the warehouse had been converted into a grand lobby, with a vintage car gleaming as a centerpiece. I wondered about the rooms. If they were done well, those facing the harbour would be quite good. “We should keep this in mind for the future,” The Family said. I agreed and we resumed our hunt for more street art.

Prawns and pumpkin in coconut milk

No special name, just a simple description, prawns and pumpkin in coconut milk. We’d tasted our ginger lime drink and finished our starter of grilled sardines at Fusion Bay and liked it. This dish sounded like the restaurant, no airs, a simple xeroxed menu in a plastic folder, but exquisite flavours. I wanted to risk it. The Family decided on a pollichathu, a fish slathered in spice, then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed until the leaf turns brown. It was Christmas eve, and we had set a record of coffee at five different places, a large lunch, and now a dinner we’d looked forward to ever since early December when we called to book a table.

I’d held out for a while in spite of the wonderful reviews because of a little phrase: “no alcohol”. Now I was glad that I’d gone with The Family’s insistence. We shared all the dishes we ordered, and after working through half a pollichathu, I cleared my palate with my ginger drink and water, and asked for a new plate. I dug into the prawns. An explosion of freshness in my mouth, none of of the fiery Kerala spices. Why did I leave this so late? Amazed, I asked about the provenance of the dish. “Kochi”, I was told. “Ernakulam district?” I asked. “No, no. Kochi. The recipe is from the cook’s grandmother.” What could be more authentic! I was bursting, but this was food heaven. The Family refused to help, so I scraped up every bit of it, wishing that I’d had a little less of lunch.

From door to door

The Family has been very excited about street art ever since Berlin. When she saw the remarkable example of street art in Kochi it was a foregone conclusion that we would stalk the streets looking for more. A beautiful example which combined all the tropes about Kerala is the one you can see in the featured photo. I liked the way the door has been just let be, like a panel separator in a graphic novel.

Walking about the streets of the Spice bazaar, I could not help noticing the other thing I love to take photos of: doors. The beautifully weathered example that you see above, showed me the reason for the choice of colours in the big mural of the elephant. This shade of blue is a characteristic colour for doors in this part of Fort Kochi.

Some of the heritage bungalows on the island have been turned into hotels. Near the Bishop’s House we found a bungalow standing in the middle of a lawn so manicured that it could have belonged to the army. But the gates stood open, so we wandered in and found that it was a hotel. The door was lovely, and the tinted glass above it was the blue of Kochi.

Other colours are not neglected though. This giant black door with white trim was impressive. The red post box hanging next to it made a nice picture. I wished the smaller inset door had been open; that might have given me an interesting view into the courtyard beyond. I suppose that the courtyard is surrounded by warehouses.

Not all doors were large and imposing. This little house on the side of the road was unusual, in the sense that it took up harbour-side space which could have been used for a warehouse. Perhaps there was a warehouse here earlier, and it has now given way to the cluster of smaller buildings of which this was one. The cream coloured wood of the outer wall was cheerful, and the wooden door with grills was exactly like the doors I’ve seen elsewhere in Kerala. It was not hard to imagine the people of the house standing behind it, chatting with passing neighbours.

An unexpected find was this cupboard pushed out of a house into a small verandah by the side of the road. It was not a discard. It was certainly still in use. I stood there and waited for something interesting to pass by so that I could have a photo to remember this odd thing by.

First impressions of Kochi

I’d expected to be charmed by Kochi, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be. The fishing nets (featured photo) have been iconic tourist photographs for over half a century. A couple of decades back they began to be called Chinese fishing nets. Kochi’s brush with China came with the seven voyages of the Chinese Ming-dynasty admiral Zheng He. Did he bring the technology here? I couldn’t find any mention of these shore fixed nets which can dip into the water and back up as a fisherman walks along a suspension mast from any other part of the world. On the other hand, India excels at preserving ancient customs from the rest of the world. It will take a dedicated historian to find the full story of the nets. What I could see is that they are now only preserved as tourist attractions. The real fishing has moved off-shore as the coastal waters die. Two of our planned trips to Kochi had been cancelled before, once because of a strike, the other because of a flood. The third time everything worked.

We’d taken an early morning flight out of Mumbai, which involved getting up well before sunrise. Kochi’s airport is more than an hour outside the city. I nodded off in the prepaid taxi to our hotel, and woke as the driver was telling The Family that this being rush hour he would like to avoid passing through the center of Ernakulam. Good enough reason to veer north and take a ferry from Vypin to the tip of Fort Kochi. The ferry was crowded with office-goers on their motorbikes. The lanes of Kochi are so narrow that bicycles and scooters make more sense than the car we were in, as we would soon find.

The crossing was quick and the landing was smooth. We got out of the ferry stage quickly and lost ourselves in the little lanes of Fort Kochi. This was exactly what I’d expected: narrow roads, laid out in medieval times. But what I had not expected was the smell of spices everywhere, a reminder of the source of medieval wealth, and still a large component of the trade that passes through Kochi. I came back to the ferry stage a couple of days later and was surprised at how orderly it was. As soon as a ferry approaches the landing, people spontaneously clear the center of the road, and line up on the sides to board. There is no jostling; people and vehicles disembark first, boarding happens after this. The aggression and chaos of north India seem to be absent usually.

Driving on we passed interesting sights. The bright red facade of Los Angeles Cafe, with its white trim caught my eye. We spent a lot of time in Kochi’s cafes. The Family pointed out to me that one day we visited five cafes and two restaurants. “We can take it easy. We are on holiday,” was my wholly inadequate response. She wasn’t convinced, and the next day we exceeded this record by one. We never did enter Los Angeles cafe though. It was off on one side of the Spice bazaar, and although we passed that way more than once, it was always at an odd time.

The Spice bazaar was exactly what I’d expected it to be, only more so. Not only were there charming old buildings from which spice traders still operated, and large warehouses which were still in use, but there was also the smell of spices which filled the air. I could make out the warehouses which store cloves and cinnamon from those with dried ginger as I walked along the lanes here.

The one new turn that Kochi has taken is equally wonderful. In recent years it has been the home of India’s biggest art event, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. This was an off-Biennale year, but the signs of change were everywhere. There was the wonderful art on streets which we chased down while we walked between cafes, one striking example of which you see in the photo above. Street art is ephemeral, we found commissioned work like this, older fading works which will be gone by next year, guerrilla art stenciled on to walls, signs pasted on, the whole range. Some warehouses have been turned into galleries, and the art scene is becoming edgier. At the same time there is a whole range of food: from the many wonderful traditional Kerala cuisines to innovative restaurants which build on these. Kochi is a place to go back to.

Kochi looks west

Kerala, and large parts of the west coast, has surfed the waves of history throughout its recorded, umm, history. And it has done this admirably, absorbing foreign influences into a seamless culture. Trade with the middle east brought Judaism, and then Christianity over a thousand years ago, coffee and Islam a little before China’s treasure fleets. Spices and gems from the interior of the Deccan kept bringing the world back. The Indian diaspora began here, and the fruits of diasporic wealth and thought are visible everywhere. Walking through the streets of Fort Kochi, the crumbling spice district reminds you not only of this past, but also, constantly, the mutating present.

Today, Kerala looks further west than it ever did before. My auto threaded through the Brazilian football team riding the streets of Kerala on bicycles. I only managed to get a shot of Neymar Jr. Fenandinho and Costa were on the other side of the auto, so I didn’t manage to get their photos. Months of TV punditry have been spent on analyzing why Brazil remains the favourite team in Kochi and Kolkata. When you walk through the narrow winding streets of Kochi the answer stares you in the face. “I have a dream,” every jersey says.

I came across another expression of the same dream one brilliant afternoon as I walked along the spice bazaar photographing the ephemeral street art of this newly emerging art city. A knot of youngsters stood in front of a dilapidated building. The walls of the house were bright with street art. I had to take a look.

The door was worth taking a photo of. The colossal struggle whose end was proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama three decades ago is still waged out of little places such as this. The medieval era peasant struggles of China which ended the Mongol rule, the century old revolutions in Latin America, the convulsions across today’s world as parliamentary democracy is subverted from inside (yet again) finds a classic expression on these doors. The challenge of finding a better form of government has not ended.

I peeped into the little bare office. The influences were clear: 1917 and 1967. The better government of the future may not, probably will not, take the form that these people arrived at, but history has reopened the question after 1991. The youngsters smiled at me and we had a little chat about the carrom board with its makeshift chairs. The place was as much a social club as a party office. I’d lost my opportunity to take photos of them. They were too conscious of my probing camera now. I walked on, Fort Kochi had more to offer.

The Kerala Breudher

When I first heard about a dutch-origin bread called breudher available in exactly one bakery in Fort Kochi, I was very intrigued. I noted down the name of the bakery; a very forgettable name, Quality Bakery. On Christmas Eve The Family and I walked down there to look for a loaf of the bread. Business was brisk. A warm bready smell filled the place, and hot bread was selling like, umm, hot cake. It was a while before my turn came. I spent the wait taking photos of the very creamy cakes that they had on display. It turned out that breudher is made only on weekends, or to order. Luckily they could make a single loaf. We paid an advance and agreed to come by the next day at about the same time to pick it up.

Wikipedia notes that breudher (pronounced broo-dhuh) is found in Sri Lanka, Malacca, and Kochi. Digging a little further into this story I found more information in a book on the history of Asian cooking. Charmaine Solomon, who migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka, apparently popularized this bread in her adoptive country in the 1970s. Her father’s family was Dutch, but settled in Sri Lanka in 1714. Her mother’s family was Tamil, but with Irish, Dutch and Goan blood thrown in. Her husband was a Jew from Malacca. Although Wikipedia’s description of breudher as being derived from “a Dutch cake traditionally eaten at New Year” is taken verbatim from one of Solomon’s books, the bread perhaps has a history as convoluted as Solomon’s family.

When I went to pick up my order on the evening of Christmas day, there was no other customer at the bakery. One of the brothers who ran the place (featured photo) disappeared upstairs to bring the bread while the other chatted with me about how bad business had been in the past year. Unfortunately we spoke each other’s languages too badly for me to interview him about how they came by the recipe. The breudher looked like a loaf of plain bread, smelling mildly of spices. I was a little disappointed that it hadn’t been baked in a fancy mold. But all the disappointment vanished when I bit into a slice. The yeasty, spicy, sweet bread was not a taste that I’d encountered before. Do I now have to travel to Sri Lanka and Indonesia to taste their versions of this bread? I wouldn’t mind it at all.

Seven centuries later

I passed over a narrow stagnant canal and then did a double take. I walked back over the small bridge to take a photo, because my phone showed that this was the storied Calvetti canal (alternately Kalvathy or Calvathy). The history of Kochi as we know it starts from a massive flood coursing down the Periyar river in 1341 CE and realigning the coast around where I took the featured photo. That put an end to the port of Muziris, which had been a stop on the maritime silk route, and a center of commerce with the east and west for 14 centuries. But it was also the birth of the new port of Kochi, which would remain an important part of the Indian Ocean trade during the late medieval and early modern era. After 1341, the Calvetti canal was the channel through which an immense amount of East-West trade passed; an earlier equivalent of today’s Malacca Strait.

The proper form of the name is Kalvetti, usually interpreted to mean `a stone cutter’. But Mr. V. K. Raman Menon of Tripunittura, Cochin, who has kindly supplied an exhaustive note on the subject, writes that the name means `Hangman’s Canal or Island’ (kazhu ettuku, `to impale’), impalement, not hanging, being in ancient times the mode of execution.
— Travels in India, Jean-Baptiste Tevernier (footnote in the English translation of 1889).

The Indian Ocean trade, bolstered for a while by Ming treasure fleets, made Kochi a wealthy medieval port town, through which most of the trade of the Deccan flowed. The importance of Kochi becomes apparent from a collection of old maps of Fort Kochi in the Mattancherry Palace (an example above), one from every European trading power. Most of them show the Calvetti canal as a wide watercourse. As I stood on the narrow British-era bridge and looked at the nullah (Hindi for drainage ditch, Wikipedia has it wrong again) that it has become, I wondered when it began to be filled in. Certainly before the bridge was built. At least on this eastern side of Kochi there is a remnant of the Calvetti canal; on the western end it has been completely built over, so that Fort Kochi is no longer an island. What a difference a few centuries can make.

Cochin biriyani

Kochi, a center of Indian Ocean trade since the 14th century is so sure of its identity that it does not worry about being called Cochin. So I take the liberty of using the spelling which is more evocative in the language this blog is written in. And its Biriyani? An Arab import, localized over centuries, redolent of the spices of Malabar, has gained wider popularity since the 2012 movie Ustad Hotel. The Malabari version of the Biriyani is made in the dum style, with the vessel heated from above and below, and the dum pottikkal, breaking of the dum, is an expert’s job.

In search of the perfect biriyani, we walked into Kayees Rahmathulla Cafe for our first lunch in Kochi. It was highly recommended, easy to locate on my map, and within an easy walking distance of the Mattancherry Palace. As The Family and I walked into the cafe, I looked around the small, cramped but clean place, and knew that I had made no mistake in choosing to eat here. We were greeted with smiles, and two glasses of yellowish water were put in front of us. The Family was not quite sure whether to drink it, but the waiter explained that it was jeera water: water warmed with cumin. We liked the flavour, and guessed that the rest of the food would be brilliant.

The place setting for the biriyani (featured photo) is interesting. Three side dishes are laid out: first a dish of onions (not a raita), then a wonderful jaggery and tamarind sauce (this looks black in the photo, but to the eye is a wonderfully deep brown), and nearest to you, a hot and sour chutney made with pepper (the red colour does not come from chili). A plate of thin papad comes with the food. I admired the look of the biriyani before eating it. The beautiful short grains of rice do not stick together, and the uneven colour is a reminded of the layering which gives the biriyani its special flavour. It is hard to look too long, with the smell of Malabar’s spices seeping through the air. The meat was soft and perfectly cooked: coming easily off the bone. This was a biriyani to remember. There was no taste of yoghurt in the meat, this biriyani is cooked with ghee. By the time we finished eating, the place was full, and there were people waiting for tables.

I asked for a piece of their halwa, to try to check whether there could be any truth to the apocryphal story that the British mistook it for meat, and therefore coined the word sweetmeat. Halwa changes when you travel across the country, and there may be no region except the Malabar which retains the clarity of the connection with the middle-eastern origin of this dessert. When I bit into it, the first thing I thought of was Tirunalveli halwa, and only after that did Turkish halwa come to mind. No tongue which is even slightly familiar with the taste of halwa would mistake it for a meat, but history is full of unrepeatable mysteries. Just across the road was a cool bar which had an interesting menu. If you ever stop by and taste the gul gullah, please drop me a line telling me about it. I couldn’t think of ordering anything more before a long walk.