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.

The familiar dumpling

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Until yesterday I subscribed to the myth that Chinese food in India is nothing like the real Chinese food. But yesterday I walked into one of a chain of dumpling restaurants called Meituan. The menu was in Chinese, the English part was not a translation, but Pinyin: Chinese written out in the Roman script. This left us a little flummoxed. Our terror grew when the waiter explained with gestures that when we made our choices we should enter them into a printed form that was on the table. Eventually this turned out to be easier than it first seemed, because every dish was numbered, and the form had the corresponding number.

This problem being resolved, we turned to the more pleasant job of deciphering the Chinese from the photos. The first discovery was that wontons were on the menu but they were called hun tun in Mandarin (the word we are familiar with comes from Cantonese). Siu mai was also on the menu, but called shao mai. We decided to have one of each, and then add some dumplings which looked familiar, and one which didn’t. When they arrived, these tasted completely familiar: exactly what I have eaten in Chinese restaurants in India. We confidently spiced the wonton soup with the chili sauce and soya to make a complete Indian potage out of it. The unfamiliar looking dumpling was dark in colour and the skin had a very nice flavour. Perhaps it was made of millets.

There were many things which were new to us. Among them was something which had been recommended by a friend: er ba. These are glutinous rice balls rolled in bamboo leaves and then stuffed inside the hollow stem of bamboo to be steamed. We ordered a plate. They were unfamiliar but very good: the flavour of bamboo reminded me of the Kerala breakfast dish called puttu. But the rice has a different taste, and it had little crunchy pieces of something fairly aromatic which added to the experience.

The most surprising items were the other two whose photos are alongside. The Shou Gong Ci Ba was the one dish The Family was dubious about, “I hope it is not egg”. It was the first thing to arrive at the table. I looked at the deep brown sauce and the light tan dusting of garnish over it and said it reminded me of something sweet. It was. The dark sauce was molasses, with a wonderful dark and earthy taste, and the filling in the dumpling was sweet. It reminded me of a traditional Bengali sweet called pitha which my grandmother used to make.

From the fact that the balls came in so many colours, we figured that the Du Jia Zhan Fen Tang Yuan would be sweet. It was the last to arrive. The garnish was sweet: crushed biscuits and peanuts, and the filling was mildly sweet. A good end to a satisfying meal.

Interestingly, the eight dishes we had ordered cost very little. With the beer added on, we paid a touch over RMB 100 for the meal. The Family pronounces it a good meal and the best value we have got from an unrecommended restaurant.