God’s own food
Looking for synonyms for “paradise” I found a sentence illustrating its use: “My idea of paradise is to relax on the seafront.” How did the editors know?
I went to Kochi recently with the single objective of eating. Culture-vulture, Kathakali-Koodiyattam were secondary. I had asked all my Mallu friends what and where to eat and continued the research at Kochi airport, where we had to wait an hour for Kavita to join us. I walked about in the charming (!) car park, admiring the red “Lipstick” palms, returned to the arrivals lounge and chatted with a hotel representative waiting for customers. He confirmed what Delhi friends had recommended, including the shacks beside the Chinese fishing nets that served the catch-of-the-day, cooked comme vous l’aimez. “All tastely items,” he said.
We reached our hotel and proceeded to lunch at the nearby Abad. Neither bad nor memorable. Exhausted by the ordeal of eating and swimming, we decided to stay in that night. With trepidation: because my experience of local food at any Taj hasn’t been great. But the chef, Ashok Eapen, turned my belief upside-down. We had three dinners at the Vivanta, each with at least one dish that was stellar.
A meat dish so like butter
The first night he gave us karimeen masala, pearlspot napped in a spice paste, which came in a mysterious bundle wrapped in banana leaf. There were many accompaniments, including a most un-hotel-like yellow tuvar dal gently simmered, delicately tempered. Then came a dish to erase the memory of even that. Fried beef, erachi ularthiyathu. I have never eaten a meat dish so like butter. Soft, melt-in-the-mouth and yet spicy, not bland, there was no tough lodge-between-the-teeth-keep-you-awake fibre; it was rich brown, fragrant with spices, hot with black pepper, with a little oil, a green curry leaf and a white chip of coconut shining here and there. Perfect with the Malabar parotta the chef sent along. We asked him how he got the meat so tender — did he use raw papaya? He said it was the cut. Even our old friend George, a local and a Suriani, approved.
The next day we went to Grand Hotel, about which the best recommendation was Nirmala’s, who says their food reminds her of her mother’s cooking. So along we went, and were put off initially by a poorly trained waiter. We walked in, and before we could order “two karimeen fry, please!”, papads fried in coconut oil were on the table. I asked for beans thoren and pineapple curry, both on the menu. But no, sorry, not available. And then another, better informed waiter took pity on us and said they had thoren, of banana flowers, and a kalen, a curry, of pineapple and raw bananas. Both were on the fixed menu of that meal, would we like some? Yes and yes, because although I find that too much is made of banana flower dishes (like the Bengali mochar ghanto), the kalen was perfect. The golden, yoghurt-based curry was smooth, the banana bland and firm and the pineapple bits sweet and crunchy. We also had panni erachi ularthiyathu, fried pork, which was as good as the beef version, but, with its fat, even more buttery.
That evening we went to the Chinese fishing nets, but all the shacks had been removed by municipal diktat, so we went to a restaurant whose name I’ve erased from my memory. The food was very, very bad: the batter-fried squids were oily and rubbery, the meen vevichathu, red fish curry, tasted of raw uncooked spices and cheap, sharp vinegar. The place’s only virtue is for weight control and to provide a foil to the rest of Kochi’s establishments.
The next day we were back at Grand, and this time we had chemmeen ularthiyathu, fried shrimp. Small specimens, lightly cooked and spiced with the usual, but so judiciously that the taste and texture of the shrimps rose above all the garlic, shallots and ginger. As soon as we tasted them we ordered another and the staff, probably recognising serious eaters, laid on the meal. We had Alleppey fish curry, fried karimeen (yes, again) and unpolished local rice, kuthari choru. The complimentary pickles included raw mango and coconut chutney that Kavita said she could eat in a sandwich.
On our last night, sated with Kerala’s naadan dishes and yet not ready to give them up, we were delighted that Chef Ashok offered a “light” meal: grilled fish and vegetables, touched with Kerala spices. That candlelit meal, under the stars and the palms, was the perfect finale, because the chef “got” what we wanted. He grilled some vegetables al dente, added lots of pepper, tossed a salad, and plated it all with a centerpiece of grilled red snapper crusted with curry patta. He marinates fish fillets for half an hour in a thick paste of chopped curry leaves, salt, pepper, turmeric, coriander, red chilli powder, shallots, ginger and garlic (moistened with vinegar and an egg), and then grills it with a little oil in a heavy pan.
500g cleaned medium shrimps
1 cup coconut pieces
2 tbsp chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp crushed peppercorns
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
12 curry leaves
1 tsp sliced ginger
2 cups water
3 meen pulli soaked in water (or 2 tsp tamarind paste)
4 tbsp coconut oil
12 small onions, sliced
10 cloves garlic
Simmer together everything (except the oil, onion and garlic) for five minutes, until the water has almost evaporated. Heat oil and fry onions and garlic till soft. Add shrimps to this mixture and fry until everything is lightly browned.