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Sunday, 16 November 2014

EATING IN COCHIN




When we informed our friends in Bangalore that we were going to spend 12 days in Cochin (in the Indian State of Kerala), they all wondered what we would find to do there for such a long time. "Ah, well," some of them said, "you can always spend a few days on the backwaters or in a nature reserve. That would help the time pass nicely."  Despite advice such as this, we managed to find plenty to do in and around Fort Cochin without having to leave it as our friends suggested. 





One of the things that we particularly enjoyed in Cochin was eating. This small city is well provided with restaurants, many of which serve food - both Indian and European - of the highest quality. In 12 days, we had plenty of opportunities to sample the fare on offer in this delightful, laid-back historic town. I plan to make your mouth water by describing some of the many places that served us food. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own and completely unbiased by inducements offered by the establishments to be discussed.





There is a line of 4 restaurants along one pavement of Tower Road opposite the grounds of Delta College. They look rather like the beach-side 'tavernas' that I used to enjoy visting in Greece during the 1960s and 1970s. At any time of day or night, it is impossible to walk past them without being solicited by the people who work there. Even if you tell them that you have just eaten, they will encourage you to take your next meal there. I had never eaten at Maxim's in Paris, and thought it would be interesting to sample Little Maxim's, one of these pavement restaurants in Cochin. Sadly, it was one of the least enjoyable places that we patronised. There was nothing wrong with the food, but it lacked interest. The restaurant's prices were no less than other establishments that we visited, which had better food and more pleasant ambiences.




24 hours later, we ate dinner in one of the best places that we discovered in Fort Cochin. The Old Harbour House is located in a beautifully preserved building that was probably built by the Dutch several centuries ago. It has an internal courtyard (see above) and a lovely walled garden where meals can be eaten. Costing little more than Little Maxim's,this restaurant is blessed with a chef who learnt his craft in Italy. The seadood pasta (see below), which I ordered, was second to none, even some of the splendid pasta that we had sampled earlier in the year in Sicily. My wife had a superb Keralan  fish curry.  On our second visit to this restaurant we drank wine, but now this may no longer be possible as Kerala has just become a 'dry state' in which the serving of alcohol is severely restricted by law.




The Old Harbour House is not the only place that serves excellent pasta in Cochin. Located on the first floor of a building opposite the Santa Cruz Basilica, Upstairs is an Italian restaurant, Its owner was trained to cook in Genova in Italy, and the food that he serves shows much eveidence of this. Both the pastas that we tried and the one pizza were superb - well up to the standard of most good restaurants in Italy.






Upstairs calls itself a 'jazz café'. Diners are regaled by an endless stream of recorded jazz music, which is not unpleasant. An Italian who spends several months a year working in Cochin  confirmed our opinion of the high quality of the Italian food served here, but his only criticism was that he did not think that they used extra-virgin olive oil! On one of our visits to Upstairs we shared a table with a young lady who reccommended that we tried the nearby Fusion Bay RestaurantWe did as she advised, but were disappointed. This pleasant looking restaurant is very popular, but we  did not find that the food was as high a quality as many of the other places where we ate in Cochin. Equally, Talk of the Town,  which is opposite Upstairs, was  not worth revisiting.




David Hall (see picture above) is a building built by the Dutch, and looks like many of the houses built by the Dutch settlers in the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa). Beautifully restored and preserved, this has become a cultural centre. Some of its rooms house works of contemporary art, and the largest of these is used occasionally as a venue for performances. We were lucky enough to attend a fine jazz concert there. Behind the building there is a garden. On one side of this there is an open air café covered by a canopy. This restaurant serves food and drinks. Its kitchen is provided with a pizza oven (see below). The pizzas that I tried there were not as good as that which I ate at Upstairs, but they were quite acceptable and better than many pizzas that I have eaten elsewhere in India.




Other offerings from the menu at David Hall are best avoided. Whether or not you plan to eat at David Hall, it is a place that is well worth visiting in Cochin. David Hall is located at the side of Fort Cochin furthest from the bus stand and various ferry stations. Between the bus stand and the ferry landing stage where boats to Ernakulam may be boarded, there are a number of eateries of interest. The 'poshest' of these is Brunton Boatyard. The two places that we looked at here were the groundfloor bar-cum- restaurant, which is reached by walking along a passageway lined with fascinating old maps of Cochin (the one shown below was dated 1663), and another much fancier place upstairs called the 'History' restaurant.




The ground floor place has an outdoor garden overlooking the lagoon and with a view of distant cranes at the container terminal on Vallarpadam Island. Incidentally, it is surprising that the two most luxurious hotels in the area - the Brunton and the Taj Vivanta on Willingdon Island - have rather spoilt vistas rich in industrial objects. The filter coffee served in the ground floor café was pricey but excellent. Feeling peckish on one occasion I ordered a 'beer slider with bacon' (see below). This was beautifully presented but disappointingly prepared - poor in taste and not good value for money. The History Restaurant has an elaborately written menu, but offered little that could not be obtained elsewhere in Cochin at a fraction of the price. Each main dish cost more than a decent meal for 2 or 3 people elsewhere in the town.




The Cochin Fort restaurant is directly across the road from the Brunton Boatyard. It is a lively, popular place set back from the busy main road. On arrival, we were invited to look at the freshly caught fish on display and if we had wanted we could have selected specimens that caught our eye. We ate a good meal during an exceptionally heavy rain storm.




The fish peera, a dryish preparation of fish with cococonut, was delicately flavoured and delicious. The fish moilee was also excellent as were the prawns prepared in a north Indian way. The Aleppy fish curry was tasty but not as good as the other dishes that we ate. 'Continental' and Italian dishes were also on the menu but our hosts did not reccommend these.




Further away from the bus stand and almost opposite the rather disappointing Greenix exhibition of Kerala arts, crafts, and traditions, there stands the Pepper House. Like the David Hall already described, Pepper house is both an eatery and a cultural centre. The café overlooks a peaceful and very beautiful grassy courtyard. We sampled a Bombay Sandwich which was essentially a cucumber sandwich with a spicy masala - surprisingly tasty. The café serves a fresh lime soda laced with ground sarsaparilla root (see below). 





This curiously flavoured drink is both refreshing and enjoyable. The café is adjacent to a large room containing a magnificent library of  books on art - mostly contemporary - and a huge collection of DVDs of western 'art' movies. This library is open to members of the public, who are free to browse and read the books. There are also facilities for watching the DVDs. The library belongs to, and was collected by, Bose Krishnamachari, the director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that is about to begin in December 2014. 




The Fort House Hotel is close to Pepper House.  Its small restaurant, which is one of the best that we visited in Fort Cochin, is housed under a huge traditional palmleaf canopy (see above). 





We ate at this restaurant twice , as we did at Old Harbour House which is only just a slightly better eatery. The squid olarithu (see above) was perfect as was grilled fish. Other seafood dishes that we tried were also good. This is a very pleasant place to eat. 





One of our few visits to places outside Fort Cochin was to nearby Mattancherry. We entered a particularly unpretentious looking, rather shabby place opposite the bus stand and the entrance to the Dutch Palace. This was the Indian Hotel , where we ate beef biriani (see above). This typically Moslem preparation was one of the best birianis that I have ever tasted. Oddlly enough some of the other really good birianis that I have eaten were also made by Moslems in Kerala (in Calicut).





Returning to Fort Cochin, there are two cafés that deserve mentioning.  One of these is Tea Pot. This is housed in an old Dutch (or Portuguese?) house that used to be the home of a family.  The walls of this place are lined with shelves containing a large collection of teapots and kettles; they also hang from hooks above. The centrepiece of the place is a circular glass table supported by the upturnerd roots of a tree.




Drinks at Tea Pot are good as was the prawn kurma that I tried.  I cannot say the same for what I saw and sampled of the sandwiches and other food offerings. Nevertheless, the Tea Pot is an extremely pleasant place in which to linger. Nearby in Burger Street, there is the lovely  Kashi's. Filled with interesting works of contemporary art - mostly sculptural (see below) - and a good selection of art journals, this is a 'happening' place filled with visitors and locals.








Although the food that we saw being served at Kashi's did not look particularly exciting, the cold coffees and ginger lime sodas that we drank there frequently were second to none. There are many other cafés in Kochin, but the 2 that I have described are by far the best. 





The Cafe du Mahe is the restaurant of the Tea Bungalow homestay (see detail above: this illustrates the type of rainwater conducting chains found in buildings all over Cochin)), and is excellent. It is a little way away from the centre of Fort Cochin, but worth visiting.  We ate beside a swimming pool in the small garden surrounded on three sides by the hotel.





The grilled fish that we ate (see above) was exquisitely prepared. The vegetables accompanying the  fish were cooked to perfection lightly flavoured with garlic and celery leaves in a European manner. 




Back in the centre of Fort Cochin, close to the Chinese fishing nets and next to the Harbour House restaurant stands the Tower House hotel that is housed in a 17th century building. This establishment contains a restaurant that we tried to enter several times unsuccessfully. The rude watchman at the door put us off twice, and on another occasion it was closed because the cook was 'away'. I am glad that we persisted because when we did finally get to eat at the restaurant, the food was above average. We ate a light lunch consisting of an authentic tasting gazpacho, deep fried squids that were perfect, and a curious cheese croquette. This consisted of cheese sandwiches that had been coated with breadcrumbs and then deep fried; it was delicious. 




The Bright Heritage Hotel on Tower Road, where we stayed, also had a good restaurant, which serves non-residents as well as hotel guests. This is open to the outside under a canopy on the top of the hotel.  Everything was made from scratch when it was ordered. A team of 4 young cooks chopped, ground, stirred, and fried, once the order for a dish was given. The results were tasty. We particularly enjoyed a prawn and raw mango curry. The payasam (see above) served as a dessert made a great finale for  the good meals that we ate there.





During our only visit to Ernakulam, the modern city of Cochin across the lagoon from Fort Cochin, we were taken to have lunch at the beautifully restored old Grand Hotel on MG Road. It has a large dining room, which was filled with locals enjoying the excellent food served there.  We enjoyed several Keralan dishes - both seafood (see below) and meat - served with flaky Kerala parathas (see above).




In summary, Fort Cochin is not only a delightfully picturesque place to visit but also a wonderful place for gourmets. Both local dishes and European dishes of a high quality are available at reasonable prices in pleasant surroundings.



Spice shop run by Gujuratis in Ernakulam





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