A long and winding meal

The Family and I eventually ended the meal with spiced figs and ice cream. I’ve grown averse to ice cream in recent years, but the wait staff was flexible enough to get the ice cream in a separate bowl. The Family puts up with this quirk, especially since she does not consider having to finish my share of the ice cream to be a tiresome chore. The dried figs in molasses was the wonderful deep dark brown that you see in the featured photo. In the few days that we spent in Kochi I grew to love this dark brown taste of sweet molasses. I’m sure it is bad for me, so maybe I’ll eat it only in Kochi.

The route to this bit of sweetness was long. The last bit involved fish. I love the thick coconutty sauce that this always comes in. But this sauce was somewhat special. The slivers of deep fried onions was not something I’d ever seen in this curry before. I wonder why. It goes so well with this that you would expect it to become a regular way to do it. Perhaps it will. Until it does, you’ll have to seek out this harbour-side restaurant in Fort Kochi, or reconstruct it from the photo that you see above.

But wait, that wasn’t all. Before that was the Malabar biryani. Like the dried figs, the idea of a biryani probably came eastweards over the Indian ocean, but here the delicate herbs of the middle east were replaced by the aromatic spices of Kerala. When people talk of biryani these days it is the offspring of the court dishes, the Lucknowi and Hyderabadi versions, which get all the press. I find them a little on the heavy side, and the Hyderabadi, at least in today’s version, is far too full of chilis to suit me. The Malabar biryani retains its charming authenticity, perhaps because it was never a royal dish. In my book it rivals the home-cooked charm of Bohra biryani.

But before we started in on the highlands of Malabari food, we’d sat down in a breezy arbor next to the waterway that separates Kochi from Willingdon island. The day was sunny, and the thought of a cooler was attractive. Scanning the menu, I saw that the place had its own ginger ale. Having just passed a warehouse full of dried ginger, I figured this might be interesting. The Family ordered a lime and ginger combination. They turned out to be just the right things to ease us on the long and winding road to the figs.

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.

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.

Surprising beach food

We walked along the beach at Kochi, looked at the fishing nets and the catch, and then began to think of a little snack before dinner. A snack is never far away when you are at a beach. But here we found something that was exciting and surprising: fresh fried yam wafers. We’d first encountered this less than half a year earlier in Nairobi, where they are called mogo chips. There they were crisp, and the flavour was just different enough from a potato to be interesting. This looked equally crisp, and The Family and I felt like sharing one helping.

The chips were being fried by a master who was on the phone continuously. The serving was very similar to what we had seen in Nairobi. We god a good amount of the wafers decanted into a straight-sided brown-paper bag. A half of a lemon was squeezed into it, and a bit of chili powder sprinkled on. We walked away with the chips, looking for a beer, exclaiming about how good it was, and how much it resembled mogo chips. In Kerala it is hard to tell whether this exchange happened yesterday or a thousand years ago. I’m glad it happened.

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.

Backwaters by boat

On a morning when others across the Indian Ocean were lugging themselves and their equipment to plac es best suited to view the annular solar eclipse, we decided to drive from Kochi to Vaikom for a morning of boating through the storied backwaters of Kerala. The moon’s shadow had moved away from us by the time we got on to the boat, but the air remained cool for quite a while.

There was activity all around us, but people seemed to have time to stand and chat. Part of the charm of Kerala is this unhurried air, which allows you into interesting conversations. We watched these two boats loaded with cattle feed foraged from the waters. As the two oarsmen went by, they were chatting with each other.

Lives here revolve around the water and its rhythms. We’d started moving south along the broad watercourse at low tide, and would return north as the tide came in. We passed a bunch of people lifting nets full of mussels. The shellfish are separated into meat, to be sold, and shells to be processed. The meat is quickly moved to markets, but the shells are heaped up into pyramids which will be loaded into trucks to yield lime for the building industry.

The waterways of Kerala are places where a natural process has slowly been recovering land from the sea. The mangroves, which you can see all around you, are the central engine driving this generation of land. Around their edges are a variety of aquatic plants which aid in this process by fixing the mud and building it up. Lily pads are the most recognizable of these species, but the ones I couldn’t name are actually more widespread.

One useful plant was pointed out to us. It is called a water pineapple locally. One has to be careful of its uprights serrated leaves as you glide past stands of this inedible plant. The leaves are harvested to make mats. The roof of the covered boat we sat in was made from these leaves. These long covered boats are rare; we sat in one which had sixteen comfortably large cane chairs laid out in two rows. The cover protected us from the sun, and the cool breeze came through the poles which held it up.

These boats are now used only by tourists. These long boats are poled along by two boatmen, one at each end. We stuck to the edge of the broad watercourse we’d started from, until we came to a large island where the course bifurcated. There we were poled across to the other side, and then through narrower and narrower channels (see the featured photo, for example).

A cormorant glided in front of us, occasionally diving down to catch fish. Cormorants have adapted to humans here. They know that in the narrow channel a boat will drive fish ahead of it, giving them an enhanced chance of successful foraging. The boatman told us how in China cormorants are used for fishing. In Kerala everyone reads; everyone has some knowledge of the wider world.

After an hour wending our way through these narrow green channels, we were back in the main watercourse. The air had warmed up and I was very happy to have the mat overhead to protect us from the warmth of the sun. The humidity was intense, and I marveled at how the boatmen could keep pushing us forward at a steady pace for the next half hour.

We stopped once at a little village. In Kerala it is very hard to make out where one village ends and another begins; it is a densely populated, but not fully urbanized countryside. A lady demonstrated the weaving of mats, and the making of ropes. I wandered off to take photos of butterflies. I’d noticed many of the common ones while gliding along the water. I managed to get a photo of the grey pansy (Junonia atlites).

Garden plants abound; every cottage has a little patch of garden around it. To my city-bred eyes this looks totally unnecessary, since all of the backwaters looked like an immense garden to me. As I examined a familiar flower, I saw large red ants crawling over the blooms. I’m no expert at ants, and my identification of these as red fire ants of the species Solenopsis geminata may be entirely mistaken.

The warm and humid air pulled me into a deep nap. When I woke up we were about to pull into our jetty. Some powerlines stretched across the watercourse. As I scanned along it, I had a great sighting of a blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus). It flitted about, but in true bee-eater style, always returned to its perch. It was time to return to ours.

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.

Kerala Moms

Kerala is independent territory, independent of food chains. You can eat what your mom wanted you to eat. And they make it so well that you’ll have no argument with it. On our drive back from Munnar to Kochi half a year ago we stopped for lunch on the way in a clean and well-lit restaurant. We picked the place because of the green wall which was the front of the restaurant. The food couldn’t be bad, we thought, if they have enough taste to cover the front wall will a vertical garden.

The toilet was clean, and had the endearing sign which you see in the featured photo. The menu had lessy errors than is normal in a roadside eatery. It turned out that apart from the fruit juices on the menu they could give us coconut water. We went with that to accompany a traditional Malabar Biryani: fragrant with spices. If I were a Vasco da Gama eating it on a far shore I would have set sail for Kerala immediately. The raita which came with it was mouth-burningly hot with green chilis; five centuries after the churn of new foods crossing oceans in holds of ships, Kerala’s inventory of spices has increased. The coconut juice helped in moderating the raita.

On the way out we’d stopped for breakfast at a more typical roadside place which promised the usual pan-Indian roadside menu. But the touch of Kerala changes things. Pineapple with potato tikka? Not found in the hot and dry northern plains, I’m afraid. Bindi masala and plain rotty are typical roadside spellings. The province of Munchuria has long become unmoored from the cold north, and has taken root in Indian kitchens. We looked at the menu and asked for what else they have.

While we waited for idli, vada, and coffee, I did my usual trick of walking up to the sweet counter and peering deep into it. The collection was small but interesting. Pedha, laddoo, and barfi is now found right across India. But there was a local coconut-based sweet packed into plastic bags. And there was that thing off on the side which looked like a cross between jalebis and murukku. Probably too sweet for the first thing in the morning. I went back to my idli and coffee.