An engine of history

We dropped our bags in the hotel and walked out into the back streets of Kochi. It was late morning. We’d woken up before sunrise to catch a flight which was no longer than the road trips which bracketed it, and now we were impatient to get out into Kochi. Our hotel was in Jewtown, close to the old synagogue, and just off the old spice bazaar.

The narrow street of the spice bazaar was hemmed in with warehouses and mysterious complexes lined up cheek to jowl. I’d imagined view of the port, completely forgetting that port areas, expecially ancient port areas, seldom give you a view of the water. One interesting door was invitingly open.

I wandered in hesitatingly. There was a strong smell of spices in the whole street, and it became stronger in this narrow corridor behind the door. There were scooters parked all along the corridor. As I hesitated, not knowing whether I was trespassing, someone came along, took his scooter and went out of the door. No glance at me; apparently wandering tourists were common place here.

I looked back at the area I’d just come through. A rickety staircase led up, but there was no balcony or corridor up there. The stairs led directly into a room, presumably internally connected with others. It was an odd kind of construction; solid masonry walls and stairs, held up by sturdy wooden beams, but the rest of the woodwork looked rickety. Light did not seem to be planned; the niche under the stairs formed a kind of gloomy entrance lobby just inside the outer door.

Some of the side doors were open. I peeped in. Sacks of spices were stacked up; some were split open to reveal the stuff inside. So these were the warehouses; once the teasure house of the fabulous riches of India. In late medieval times, a handful would have been worth several months of earnings for a master craftsman in the capitals of Holland or England. Spice traders seemed to be pretty careless about such fabulous riches. I could have picked up a couple of handfuls there; enough to last me a few months. I moved on instead, leaving these riches behind.

The handcarts in the courtyard ahead presented a nice photo op; strong diagonals to go with the horizontals of the offices behind. The colours were muted, so perhaps monochrome would be good. As I stood in that narrow space wondering how to compose a photo, a woman came out of the archway ahead of me, carrying a bowl of water. It was too good an opportunity, and I shot without further thought. Later, as I walked past the archway and came to the gate in the sea-wall (featured photo) I realized the logic of this building.

When it was built, small quantities of spices would be carted along the road, through the outer gate and into the warehouses. A set of office buildings above the landward gate would track the incoming dribs and drabs of spice. Material from the filled warehouses would leave by water; and the inner offices would monitor this outward flow. Boats would wait outside this last gate to be loaded, and they would transport the sacks to ocean-going ships waiting at anchor further out. I stood at the heart of an engine of history.

The ginger house

I’m used to lots of different spices in my food, and I suppose I smell them whenever I walk into our kitchen, without really paying attention to it. Walking through the roads of the spice bazaar of Kochi was a different order of experience; the wonderful smell of spices permeated the whole quarter. It is seldom that you think of the smell of a city, but Kochi engages this sense more than any place I’ve been to. I was clicking photos of the warehouses and their wonderful doors as I walked along, and I stopped here because of the elaborate doorway. But my attention wandered to the workers who were unloading sacks from the truck without breaking a sweat.

They didn’t mind when I followed them into the warehouse complex. As I passed through that grand doorway a wonderfully sweet smell hit me. This was a ginger warehouse, and the large courtyard was being used to dry ginger. That was when I began to realize that the famous spice trade also included things which I don’t even register as a spice; for example, the ginger that I so often throw into a salad or all into a soup. I was to find later that slightly more than a third of the world’s ginger is produced in India, and that is a big reduction from the monopoly it held in the medieval era. Out of curiosity I tried to check how precious it would have been then, and found the answer in a lecture given in the university of Toronto. Ginger was a major part of the spice trade in the middle of the 15th century CE, but the cheapest of them. Still, it would have cost almost 25 times as much as an equal weight of salt. In Antwerp and in London the average day’s wage of a master carpenter would have bought him 300 grams of ginger! No wonder that spices drove Europe across the world.

Ginger is produced in homesteads across the country, and the truck was unloading fresh produce. I guess it would be dried here and then sold. A foreman was happy to chat with me about the daily operations, the process, and the business as he knew it. The warehouse had wonderful light. I hope you can get a feel of it from the photos above. I found over the next days that many warehouses have been turned into art galleries for this reason. As I explored the art-city of Kochi, I got to love the masala chai infused with this lovely pungent but sweet aroma of dried ginger.

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.

Little Swahili eats

Kaimati was not a food term I’d come across before I came across the deep-fried delights. These little balls of sweetened flour were crisp outside and fluffy and airy inside. What a pleasant surprise. Where did it come from? A little asking told me that this was coastal food. The East African coast has seen Indian Ocean trade for over a millennium, so it could have come from anywhere. In the far west of Kenya, where I ate this, I was also told it was Swahili food. That fits, because the Swahili are Arab speakers who diffused inland from the coast. Later, searching the web I found that it is a local version of the middle eastern Lugmat or Luqaimat. On the coast of Kenya it is known as Iftari food, something to have when you have your big meal at night after breaking your fast during the month of Ramazan. It is also said to be Iftair food in Muscat and Oman. That gives credence to the theory that it was carried along the western coast of the Indian Ocean by traders.

The basketful of samosas with minced meat got over awfully fast, and had to be refilled very often. I think of samosas as Indian food, but it seems that it comes out of Turkey. Trade brought it to India, where it changed. (Why not? Even the Big Mac changed, but it is a long and complicated tale which is best left to another post.) The Turkish version is filled with meat, but today the commonest variety in India has a spicy potato filling. You have to hunt for other fillings (two of my favourites are the spicy minced meat filling, and one which is filled with a mixture of lentils). In Kenya it is known as coastal food, so clearly brought here by trade. Did this come straight from Turkey, or from India? The spicy meat filling was redolent of an Indian influence. A toast to trade: raise your favourite tipple, whether it is made of wheat, sugar, potato, corn, or anything else which trade carried across the world.

Nairobi’s shops

Eight hundred years ago, the Chinese admiral Zheng He launched expeditions to Africa which tried to link up with the Indian Ocean trade network. Six centuries ago, Vasco da Gama found the same extensive trade linking the Indian Ocean, and hired a Gujarati pilot to guide him from Kenya’s coast to India. Colonial militarism and the slave trade shredded these links in the subsequent centuries. In 1907, the British Imperial Under-Secretary of the Colonies, Winston Churchill, wrote an article which whitewashed the old history of this trans-oceanic trade. “It is the Indian trader who, penetrating and maintaining himself in all sorts of places where no white man would go, developed the early beginnings of trade.”

But this was a prelude to a statement of what he thought was a crucial problem, “The entry of the Asiatic as labourers, trader, and capitalist into competition in industry and enterprise not only with, but in, the Western world is a new fact of first importance.” It is hard to read this article today without coming face to face with the fundamental problem of empire- it is geared to maintaining the prosperity and privilege of the colonizer through brute force, hidden behind an invented moral justification which, for the imperial British, was racist (“These people are unable to govern themselves”). But I digress.

What was true eight centuries ago remains true today: East Africa is a microcosm of the world. The small Gujarati-run grocery stores, called duka (from dukan, the Hindi word for a shop) are common throughout East Africa. We stepped into one briefly to pick up some cheese and yogurt to take with us on the long drive to Masai Mara. The shop was bustling with the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Nairobi. Kenya’s economy has prospered by never descending into the populist distraction of Uganda’s infamous Idi Amin. The frame does not capture a Chinese couple, who were also in the shop. They are the newest entrants to the East African mix. If Indian labourers built the railways a hundred and thirty years ago, the Chinese are building today’s roads.

At the other end of the spectrum of shops was the infamous Westgate Mall. The terrorist attack of 2013 on this Israeli owned mall and subsequent scenes of looting seen on TV screens across the world, seem to be almost forgotten today. Almost, but not quite, since entry to every mall now requires you to pass through metal detectors and mandatory scanning of bags. We went in late, looking for an ATM, and then stayed to wander through shops. The Westgate mall has not recovered completely yet; many spaces were empty, unlike what we saw in other malls. Many see Westgate as a microcosm of everything that is happening in Kenya today. But one part of the story is clear; Kenya is beginning to boom. To Kenyans the story may not look simple with the ongoing hiccups in world trade, but malls are there to stay, as much as the duka, and the recovering trans-oceanic trade.

Food on the go

If you need variety in food when you are traveling, then Kerala seems to be the place for you. Perhaps it is the relative prosperity, or perhaps it is the history of trading across the Indian Ocean, that brings so many small eats to Kerala. The little coffee shop that you can see in the featured photo springs from the legendary smuggling feat of Baba Budan. The story that I know is that 500 years ago this pilgrim to Mecca brought back to his home seven beans from Mocha hidden inside his clothes. This is the origin of the Arabica coffee for the cultivation of which the British laid waste to the Nilgiris 300 years later: converting one of the world’s most bio-diverse rainforests into plantations. This roadside shop, with its lovely kitchen, is just one of the modern links in a deep history which began with the cultivation of coffee in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago.

The humble idli and vada, which, to most of Northern India, is the epitome of Southern Indian food, also seems to have a storied origin. Wikipedia predictably traces the idli back to Hindu kingdoms from 1100 years ago, but admits that most of the modern ingredients of idli are missing from these ancient recipes. The addition of rice, the day-long fermentation, and the steaming are processes inseparable from today’s idli. I found an old book review in The Hindu which claims that the idli, in its modern form, is a hybrid of steamed rice balls brought by early Arab traders to the Malabar coast, and the old tradition quoted by Wikipedia. It is possible that, as K.T. Achaya proposes, the far-eastern trade also brought in the technique of fermentation of food, which got added to this amalgam. The neat little breakfast served on a banana leaf has such a wonderfully mixed parentage!