Thursday, October 18, 2007

Nostalgia for Kerala (and its food)

I've visited the state of Kerala, on India's Malabar Coast, twice in the 1990s. It's my favorite part of India. There are beautiful beaches and backwaters, places of great historical interest, reflecting the region's varied colonial past, and an overall sense of contentment and well-being among the people. It has the highest literacy rate of any state in India (largely a result of years of Marxist local rule), and though generally a poor, agrarian region, the poverty isn't abject. As a traveler you're not confronted by a constant parade of beggars or relentless hawkers. Kerala is a success story of the developing world.

In 1991 I visited Cochin, and about five years later I traveled more extensively within Kerala.

I wrote the following as part of a letter to a friend after that first trip:

Cochin is situated on a number of islands, along with a mainland district called Ernakulam. Ernakulam is not particularly interesting, but it's the best location as far as traveling logistics are concerned. I arrived there mid-afternoon and took a walk around town, stopping in at what was billed as an international food fair, which consisted of five or six booths run by hotels and restaurants, serving north Indian, south Indian, Chinese food, pizza and ice cream, in addition to a couple of kitchenware displays. I stopped at a stand run by the Cochin rotary club which served 21 (count 'em) varieties of dosa. That night I took a sunset cruise on the Arabian Sea, followed by dinner at my hotel, the Sealord. As Cochin is a coastal city, seafood is bountiful, and the Sealord does it up well.

The next day I took the state-run tour. The tour covers a lot of ground in 3 1/2 hours that, due to travel logistics, would be much more time consuming to do on your own. The boat takes you to the major sights on various islands, but the stops were, I felt, too rushed.

Cochin has such an interesting range of sights due to its setting and history--variously controlled by the Indians, Portuguese, Dutch, English and back to the Indians. There were Christians in Kerala way before the Portuguese arrived, and now the state is about 20% Christian--you see a lot of blessed virgins and people wearing crosses around Cochin, and at the settlement of Fort Cochin there's an old Portuguese church, St. Francis, surrounded by houses that look like English country cottages. By the water are a number of these big contraptions known as Chinese fishing nets that have been in use for centuries. In the settlement called Mattanchery is a palace known as the Dutch Palace (originally Portuguese, it was restored and expanded by the Dutch), the highlight of which is a series of beautiful murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana.

Also in Mattanchery, in a neighborhood known as Jewtown, is a 16th century synagogue. Jewtown is a fascinating place. The shops and houses have signs with names like "J.E. Cohen, Tax Advisor" and "Dr. Blossom Simon," all, apparently, old Cochin Jewish names (the Jews settled there about two thousand years ago). There are only about 25 Jews left, most of them elderly. The woman who sells postcards at the synagogue told me that her son, a doctor, lives in Detroit. Jewtown is full of curio and spice shops, and the smells are wonderful. There's also a Jewish cemetery in Jewtown.

One custom that the churches and synagogues have inherited from the dominant culture is that one always removes one's shoes before entering a place of worship.

Later I went to a cassette shop in Ernakulam, in search of typical Keralan music. I don't know why, but when you tell the shopkeepers in far off places that you're looking for the genuine article they never believe you. At first they showed me everything but what I was looking for--north Indian ragas, film songs, even some Tchaikovsky. "No, no, traditional music from Kerala," I insisted. He finally got the message. He brought out a tape of music for Kathakali (the local dance drama) which I eagerly purchased. But the best find was a tape called "Malayalam Devotional Songs" (Malayalam is the local language, very clipped and staccato when spoken, a Dravidian language that is completely unrelated to Hindi). Though they're Hindu songs, the music appears to be greatly influenced by the church, as the male vocal harmonies sound much more western than Indian. The instrumentation is Indian, the melodies slightly Arabic, and the combination is beautiful.

That evening I went to a Kathakali performance, or should I say demonstration. A full Kathakali performance runs many hours, and the tourist version is greatly abbreviated. The presentation included a lecture on Hinduism and its relationship to the dance, followed by a forty-five minute taste of scenes from Kathakali. It's a mannered, gestural, ritualistic dance theatre, similar in some ways to other Asian dance idioms, such as Indonesian and Japanese forms. Traditionally, female roles are portrayed by men. The technique is precise and physically exacting and requires years of study. The stories were originally drawn from Hindu epics, but eventually the lexicon expanded, and recently there have been Kathakali versions of Shakespeare. The dancers have perfect control of all face and body muscles, and the make-up is striking and elaborate. Before the lecture you have an opportunity to watch the make-up process.

There are a number of companies in Cochin that do nightly Kathakali presentations. I went to See India Foundation, which is reputed to be the best. But when I had asked a rickshaw driver to take me there he insisted, "No performance tonight." I knew he was lying. One thing you quickly learn in India is never believe anything a cab or rickshaw driver tells you. For instance, if you blow into town and tell a guy to take you to your hotel of choice, he'll say, "All full," because he wants to take you to a place that gives him a commission. Apparently the drivers in Cochin have the same arrangement with Kathakali companies.

On my last day in Cochin, Claudio, the Italian musician I had met in Mysore, and his friends turned up at the Sealord (they had taken a land route via Ooty, a hill station on the way). I ran into them at breakfast. They had just been through a horrible overnight train ride and were exhausted. We arranged to meet in the afternoon for a boat ride through the "backwaters."

As I didn't have time for one of the longer backwater trips (the 8 1/2 hour ride from Alleppy to Quilon is supposed to be the ultimate), I opted for the ferry from Cochin to Varapuzha, a two-hour trip each way. Claudio, Elena, Roberta and I boarded the ferry at 2:30 and paid our fare--1 rupee, 30 paise (about 7 cents). Fortunately the ticket seller realized we were just going along for a pleasure ride and advised us that the boat gets to Varapuzha at 4:30, but that the last one back to Cochin leaves there at 4:25, so we'd have to get off a stop or two earlier.

The boat is a passenger ferry that takes people from island to island, and along the way groups of people got on and off, most of them standing, packed in. Luckily we had seats with an unobstructed view. Everywhere you looked there were palm trees. The ride was delightful, though a bit claustrophobic. At about 4:00 we decided to look for a suitable place to disembark. At one stop Elena pointed and said, "Why not?" So we got off. The villagers who got off with us looked amazed--why on earth would we be coming to their island?

It was a lovely, idyllic place, and I felt a bit like Gauguin arriving in Tahiti. As we walked through the village, people really took notice. Kids followed us, shouting, "Hello, what is your name, where are you from." Young women with babies smiled shyly. Word got around and pretty soon the whole village had come out to see us. We had become an event. We chatted with a few people (most didn't speak much English), and learned that the island was called Kothad. As we started walking back to the ferry landing, somebody yelled to us, "Wait--the alderman wants to meet you." So we went back and met Rafael, a delightful old guy who proudly showed us the little chapel of St. Mary ("One hundred years old," he boasted) and asked us all about ourselves. A gaggle of children had assembled around us, and Rafael asked us to please take some photos of them. I was all out of film, but Claudio took a number of shots. The kids loved posing. Then Rafael and the kids escorted us back to the ferry landing and waited with us until the boat came. My one hour on Kothad was one of the highlights of my Indian trip.

Note: Things have really changed on Kothad. I just discovered that there's a 3* resort on the island.

* * *

Keralan cuisine differs from other Indian cuisines in a number of ways. Unlike most other South Indian cuisines, it is not strictly vegetarian, since the population is much less homogeneously Hindu than the rest of the south (Christians and Muslims account for over 40% of the population). Being a coastal state, there's much emphasis on seafood; the tiger prawns of Kerala are crustacean nirvana. A "curry" in Kerala is nothing like a North Indian curry (dishes with a similar spice mixture are known in the south as "masalas"). A Keralan curry gets its name from the aromatic curry leaf, and it's often cooked with onions and tomatoes. Kerala is named for the coconut (kera), so naturally coconut and coconut oil is used heavily. Varuthatus are wonderfully incendiary dishes made with chili paste. Keralan cuisine is one of the world's great culinary secrets. The Kerala Tourism website features recipes for many typical Keralan dishes.

Keralan food is virtually impossible to come by in the U.S., which is a real tragedy. There was a place, about fifteen years ago, in Manhattan's "curry hill" restaurant enclave, called The Raj, that served Keralan and Punjabi food (the home states of the two owners), but it was nothing special, and it didn't last very long.

Londoners have a much better time of it. I've eaten at a good Keralan place near the British Museum called Malabar Junction, but since I was last in London the big news is Das Sreedrahan's Rasa group of restaurants, devoted to various aspects of Keralan cuisine. Rasa has garnered numerous rave reviews. The original Rasa is vegetarian, Rasa Samudra specializes in Keralan seafood cuisine, Rasa Maricham is a black pepper concept restaurant, and Rasa Travancore serves (believe it or not) the Syrian-Christian cuisine of Kerala. Das Sreedrahan has even taken Kerala to Newcastle, with his recently opened Rasa Newcastle. I'm dying to try every Rasa branch in London, though it would probably be much cheaper to go straight to Kerala.

I was excited to learn, several months ago, that there's a Keralan restaurant, Kerala Kitchen, in the Floral Park section of Queens. I also learned that it's a pain in the ass to get to from Brooklyn or Manhattan without a car. It's at the edge of Queens, right near the Nassau County border, and no subway goes within miles of it. One could take the F train to the end of the line in Jamaica and then hop on a bus for the next hundred blocks, but I figured that would take me close to two hours each way. I decided that the Long Island Railroad was a better bet. From Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn it's about a 25-minute ride to the Floral Park station in Nassau County, then it's more than a mile walk to the restaurant. I took the LIRR out on a beautiful late summer day for lunch, and the walk was rather pleasant.

The restaurant is run by Keralan Christians from the town of Kottayam. Not only was the presence of both pork and beef on the menu a clue that they were Christian, but there was also an Indian calendar-style illustration of the Virgin Mary in the dining room.

The menu was intriguing, including such seasonal specials as rabbit roast and frog legs fry (toddy shop style). They serve a buffet on weekends, which would have been the ideal way to sample a lot of dishes, but I went on my own on a Wednesday. I figured my best bet would be to order the "kerala meal," a thali with a fish dish, a meat dish, two vegetables, rice, dal, yogurt, pickle and pappadum.

Overall, the entire meal was a great disappointment. First of all, everything was lukewarm; perhaps ordering the thali wasn't the best idea. The vegetable dishes were very bland (granted, Keralan vegetables tend to be milder than Tamil versions). There was a green bean with coconut dish (thoran, similar to the Tamil poriyal), and avial (mixed vegetables in a yogurt sauce). The non-veg dishes were somewhat better. The sauce for the kingfish curry had a nice, tangy bite, and the beef fry had an aromatic dry masala that reminded me a bit of an Indonesian rendang.

Disappointment notwithstanding, I may rouse myself out on a weekend to try the buffet, but I'd much rather find a really good Keralan place closer to home. Perhaps Das Sreedrahan will take a cue from Gordon Ramsay and open a Rasa branch in New York.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

great to read about all this wonderful travelling!
how can you remember every detail?
do i really have photos of Rafael and kids?
yes, i remember the kids were all in their blue and white clothes.
hope to see you again here in milan soon
ciao from elena, roberta and claudio

4:41 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...


Nice to hear from you. I actually wrote the part about the boat trip right after I returned from India in 1991.

At this (exchange) rate, you won't see me in Milan for quite a while.


6:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking to learn kerala vegetarian cuisine try the place

8:28 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It was wonderful to read about your experience about my homeland and the exotic cuisine, which I incidentally, miss soo much. Your recollection of minute details is very beatifully done.
Oh, and by the way, if you love kerala cuisine so much, and if you ever visit Chennai, let me suggest you a small and simple place where they serve real finger licking goodness. Its a small restaurant by the name "Kerala Hut". Unfortunately, I dont have the address, but I know that its right opposite to the "New College" and very close to the "Sathyam theatres" complex. That should be good enough to locate the place. Please do let me know about your experience, if you ever visit the place.

4:32 PM  
Blogger The one who has loved and lost said...

Hi Peter,
I come from Thrissur which is the central part of Kerala (neighbouring district to Cochin).

It was a pleasure reading your post and I felt proud that our state could entertain your senses. I loved the post for its intricate details. You have captured everything that is beautiful about Cochin.

Thanks for such a great travelogue.

2:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Delight to c this post which mention our small island kothad.Me born and brought up der.Raphel chetan one of our relative.Now he is no more.

4:59 AM  
Blogger Pav said...

hi..jus came accross your article on Ur trop 2 Kerala......gald ypu liked "gods own county"... I am from Kerala but nw living away... and Ur article brought a flood of memories of home food...

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Restaurant Kerala said...

Thanks for share your Kerala visit experience. It's really God's Own Country and very nice place with full of nature.

12:44 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

After I wrote this I did discover a great Keralan restaurant in the area, FIve Star in New Hyde Park.

8:23 PM  
Blogger peterson said...

Thanks for sharing more details about houseboat. Also I want you to share more details about houseboats. Can you update in your website?
Kerala houseboat

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You might find this site interesting:

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Have a look at this:

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Beautiful place for tasting a delicious and different food. You can plan a trip of Kerala for the same from here. The place is perfect for time spending with the nature and environment, and lots of activities.

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