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.

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.

Country roads

I’d written earlier about a quick trip to Kerala to see the once-in-a-dozen-years flowering of the Neelakurinji. It was mostly a road trip, but I hadn’t written about the road. Driving from Kochi to Munnar takes you on roads through a continuously built-up area. One village gives way imperceptibly to another, a small town shades into villages. There is no transition, no discontinuity.

Every turn in the road looked vaguely like this: low houses, some palm trees, a church or a temple or mosque, businesses everywhere. It was a holiday so the roads were rather empty for nine in the morning. Businesses were also closed. This part of the country had been hit by a flash flood due to an over-active monsoon less than a month before, so we kept a close watch on the sky as we drove along.

There were some store fronts which seemed peculiarly Malayalee; the photo which you see above was one. We would come across a home depot of this kind every twenty or thirty kilometers. So much kitchenware on display! Was this part of the post-flood recovery, or was it common? I don’t know, and I would have to go back to find out. Or, if you have been there recently or more than a year back, you could let me know whether you noticed these shops too.

We’d driven out without breakfast, with just a coffee at a busy little roadside stall which was doing roaring business. When I drank my coffee I realized why. It was a very good coffee; milky and sweet, like the usual coffee here, but strong and aromatic. Now it was definitely time for breakfast. We stopped at a cluster of shops. The colourful advertisements on this glass box signaled lunch.

Chicken is a big thing here, as you can see from the signage in the photo above. Food and chicken are mentioned separately. Chicken normally sounds good to me but not as the first thing in the morning. We chose a shop which was clearly selling breakfast. Idlis, puttu, sheera and coffee could be seen. While the Family and Other Animals found a table, I walked around to the block. There was a hairdressing saloon with very appropriate photos on the door. If I wasn’t in dire need of breakfast I would have walked in to investigate.

Back at the breakfast table the orders had been placed. I asked for a plate of idlis and another coffee to be added to the order. As I leaned back I saw that this was a rather inclusive place. Kerala used to have a very small but influential population of Jews. They have mostly migrated to Israel about fifty years ago. Now about 55% of the population is Hindu, about 25% are Muslim, and about 18% are Christian. The picture on the wall was politically very mainstream, but was probably not entirely political. It could also signify that the dietary practices of all these groups were understood and followed. Business is business after all.

Heading for the hills

Map of the Munnar-Valparai-Kodai area

April is pretty cruel over most of the Indian plains. Just the right time to head to the hills. Unfortunately the Himalayas are a little too far for a quick trip, and the Sahayadris are not high enough to provide a respite from the hot and humid weather in Mumbai. Our thoughts turned to the region where we spent a nice weekend about a year back. We just heard about Valparai, booked a hotel, and went off. So now, we looked at the map and realized that we had found an area ripe for summer.

The hot plains towns of the south, Kochi on the Kerala coast, Coimbatore and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, form a tringle of entry points to the wonderful hill towns of the Western ghats. The most well-known of these are Munnar in Kerala and Kodaikanal and Valparai in Tamil Nadu. Forests, now protected, rise from the plains at the foot of the Ghats to the elevation of around 1500 meters, which is about the altitude of most of these hill towns. They still hold spectacular species of animals like the Nilgiri Tahr and lion-tailed macaques, along with such a variety of birds that just thinking of them puts a shine in The Family’s eyes. When you peer deeper into the map you find more half-forgotten names from your long-ago school days. There is space here for a lifetime of summers. We will be scratching the surface with a weekend’s trip.

So where do we go? Kochi to Munnar or Madurai to Kodaikanal? Any tips?