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.

Myanmar street food

Street ices in MyanmarI began to discover street food in Myanmar today. The simplest are roasted corn on the cob and roasted sweet potatoes, like in the featured photo above. (Did you notice a funny thing about the stall: it has a mirror?) And the food gets more interesting from there. Ice cream is a great favourite: from the intensely coloured sorbets like the one you see in the photo here, to wonderfully creamy durian flavoured ice creams. On a Sunday it is easy to figure out what are particular favourites. In the middle of the day ice cream was the big draw. Tea shops are next in popularity. This is familiar enough to give me a handle on the rest of the food.

Schoolgirl waiting for bhel in Myanmar

I discovered one more fact which explained what makes it possible for school children to have roadside snacks: there is a 50 kyat note. So all the blogs and travel sites which said that the lowest currency note is 100 kyat are wrong.

A very popular snack later in the day was a spicy mixture of various things tossed together. You can see two kinds of guavas (the white discs with green skin), papaya cut into long strips, onions chopped into small pieces, tamarind (the dark matter) and a familiar tart tasting red fruit which I could not put a name to. All this was mixed with a secret sauce from the pot. This is very similar to many Indian snacks like bhel.