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.

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.

Malabar food

Menu for kerala style breakfastIf you think that south Indian food is quite different from north Indian, you are right. If you think that all south Indian food is roughly similar, then you are wrong. We landed in Kochi airport at 8 in the morning, met Shankumar, who was supposed to drive us to Munnar and back, and set out immediately. After half the journey was over, Shankumar stopped at a very clean roadside eatery for breakfast. It was exactly what we were prepared for: idlis and utthapams, sambar and coconut chutney with dosas. Along with this wonderful filter coffee. We relaxed into a holiday eating frame which was totally wrong.

Of course we knew that there was more: fish curry, appam with spicy stew, and various such things find their way easily into the menu west of the Nilgiris, and are harder to find east of the Deccan’s divide.

Quail in MunnarThe one thing we had forgotten completely was Malabar’s long history of trade across the Indian ocean. Many recipes were exchanged across the centuries. Today the tremendously aromatic Malabar biriyani is a tradition which stands independent of the several other biriyani traditions of India. Along with this we discovered that game which has become rare in northern India is more easily available here: quail, partridge and pheasant were all available. What a wonderful surprise this turned out to be.

And another pleasant surprise was the local coffee: coffee grounds are boiled with molasses and cardamom to make a wonderful morning’s shot of caffeine. This is another recipe which is a reminder of Malabar’s trading history. People from Kerala were responsible for smuggling coffee out of Arabia. Once they got it home, of course, they spiked it with local ingredients. Discoveries like this make a memorable holiday.