Somewhere over the airspace between Hyderabad and Kochi on-board a SpiceJet aircraft with no livery, worst possible hospitality I was suffering from 'aeroplane ear' and constantly hoping that we land soon, and somehow get teleported straight to a puffy bed. We (Myself and Karan) had shot the Hyderabad episodes and were on to the last destination for this season - Kochi, the land I hoped of being sunny and everything sussegado on the waterfront, but in fact what I did not take into consideration were the harsh climatic conditions where humidity itself can send someone packing, not even mentioning the heat waves and mirages on the road. As the locals say, there's just one season in Kochi - Summer, summer that precedes the winter and that succeeds the rains. There is no running away from it, no hiding, no sun-tan lotions, no hats and no air conditioning that beats mother nature here. It is ruthless, but probably also what keeps the soil fertile and scenery luscious green with array after array of coconut trees.
Our location in Kochi was at Thoppumpudy, a tiny town on the last island where also lies Fort Kochi a town once ruled by almost all major European nations, but largely used by the Portuguese as a colony and also one of the main trade ports. To understand the different areas of Kochi, consider them as many islands connected together by bridges and waterways, like the adjacent Willingdon Island which serves as a Naval base with an airstrip or another one like Vypin, which is to the north of Fort Kochi, another town with long and lonely pristine beaches or the mainland metropolis Ernakulum, which is also the home for the ship-building 'Cochin Shipyard' and where this nation's prominent warships come for dry repairs.
Thoppumpudy is unique, diversely filled with all the craziness that a small town can probably offer, from dozens of traditional cafes that treat you to appams, parotha-curry, puttu, fried fritters, biryani, fried chicken, tapioca preparations or just plain good old milkshakes. Coming from a city like Bombay, I found the prices of fruits to be much cheaper and hence makes sense to have cafes highlighting milkshakes and fresh juices on their menu, though what is a little hard to find is a cup of thick creamy chai that we are used to, and what we were treated to in the city of Nizams. Chai here is a concoction between the actual tea, coffee and something where milk and tea have exchanged roles. If there's one thing that Kochi needs to learn, is to have a few places that can make Chai like a caffeine kicking, soul-stirring and carrying a hint of lemongrass in its taste. Thoppumpudy also serves as the main market for everything shopping and as a hub for public transport; Also just to put things into perspective the cab ride cost us 1100 bucks from Cochin Airport to Thoppumpudy, while a ride in an air conditioned bus that arrives every half an hour will cost you a mere 80 bucks per person and a round trip from Thoppumpudy to city centre Ernakulum costs 34 bucks in a regular bus. So if you plan to explore this place on your own, public transport is the way to go.
Since we were to lug around with camera equip and make constant trips to different corners of all the islands, it only made sense to utilize a car we had access to, making things a lot easier. First day trip was to the waterfront town of Fort Kochi. The place wears a definitive Portuguese look with its cathedrals, general architecture of residences and also the naming of the streets, while a major chunk of the town also is known for its long Jewish affair, an old and active synagogue and also a handful of Jews who are said to be still living here in Mattancherry. We caught up with Tanya Abraham, a Fort Kochi resident and who also runs Kashi Art Cafe on Burgher Street. Tanya being born and brought up in Fort Kochi has a special association with the town, its people and lot with contemporary arts. Kashi is more than cafe, its entrance is a hall dedicated to paintings and installation of homegrown talents and which also hosts exhibitions of a regular basis to give artists a push in the right direction. Tanya's grandfather had an important role to play in planning of the town post freedom, her house being a centre for meetings. Her mother came from the Syrian Catholic community and brought with her a different style of cooking, a way to smoke appams, simpler variation of Kerala's staple -Karimeen Pollichathu and a lot more. It is from her that Tanya derived a penchant to learn recipes, document them, source more recipes from around the town and preserve the food history and the uniqueness of Fort Kochi is the form of an upcoming book waiting to be published. Prior to this, Tanya has published a book called 'Untold Stories from Fort Kochi' which speaks about the trade history, rise of Kochi and everything important to this tiny town.
Mattancherry as mentioned above is the place where one can find Jewish influences, but it also is a melting pot of many religions like kacchi memons, saraswat brahmins, jains, gujaratis, syrian catholics and malyalis. It is this mix of culture that also sees an influence on the food with a variety of restaurants catering to each one of these sects and it also happens to be one of India's biggest spice trade market. A trip to Mattancherry will be incomplete if you didn't try the Biryani at Kayees Rahmathulla Cafe. Although Kayees does everything that any other restaurant does in its vicinity, but its fame has been build by its biryani; quite peppery, simpler in taste, comes with bit of pineapple in its masala and served with papad, tamarind chutney and spicy tomato chutney.
On days when there's nothing to be done, it's best to catch the ferry from the tip of Fort Kochi to Vypin and come to Matsyafed Brackish Fish Farm close to Njarackal Beach. You can choose between relaxing in a hammock by periphery of the aqua farm with a view of water and coconut tress or as I did, get a fishing stick, some feed, take a tiny boat, paddle across into the center of the farm, dab a little feed on the hook and drop it into the water hoping you will catch at least one grown up fish in the remaining time. What I indeed end up catching was a baby fish towards the edge of farm. A futile attempt at fishing, but counted for a good experience. A rough pathway from Matsyafed leads you to the beach which almost resembles a private land with white sand and without a single soul as far as our eyes can go.
The landscape of Kochi is ever-changing and can quickly switch from a beach with huge Chinese fishing nets to shipyard to a naval base to a sea of houseboats. Although houseboats are more found in towards Alappuzha, you can start to see a few of these right as you leave Edakochi. Once in Alappuzha, certain areas like Mullakkal serve has hubs for renting these massive, decorated some two to three floored boats packed with all modern comforts, a bedroom, kitchen and a living space. The overnight stay cost us around three thousand where the boat stays docked through the night and starts on a tour of the backwaters at sunrise, which is followed by breakfast and finally a drop back at the base. The other option is the one that starts at around five grand, and from morning, passing through the backwaters, fishing and cooking the catch for lunch, relaxing in the afternoon and returning just around sunset.
The south of Kochi is famous for such houseboats and also a plenty of Toddy Shops. We experienced one such well-known shop 'Mulapanthal Toddy Shop' at Udayamperoor, which is located on the outskirts of Ernakulum. A hut like structure, dark, grungy interiors, plastic tables and every table with a pot, jug or bottle of Toddy in the center. Toddy for those who are not familiar is fermented alcoholic coconut drink, also called known as 'Coconut Beer'. Places like these are known for two things and two things only; One – serving the common man backwater coconut beverage a.k.a Toddy and Two – making some mean and spicy Kerala dishes like these : Banana leaf wrapped Pearl Fish preparation-Karimeen Pollichathu, a slow cooked 'Meen Thala Curry' which essentially is a tangy gravy dish made from Seer fish head and the popular Kerala Kappa Masala made from Tapioca. And while you're at it, don't be surprised to find fried frog legs, rabbit and some more uncommon meat. All this and more served with zero decor, maximum flavours and gloriously washed down with some funky smelling toddy.
Staying in Kochi is completely different from any other part of Kerala due to its constantly varying scenery, ethnicity and cuisine. Life is technically slow here, just like it is in most of none-metro places as mentioned by 'Umar Farook' of Solar Cafe. Just like him, many tourist oriented businesses run from August to April and the remaining four to five months is for, as he puts it "for relaxation"; and also primarily due to the off-season months. And just like, many others Farook hopes that the government takes the right step to preserve the history of this quaint little town, the old lanes, cobblestone pavements, revive the baking of Dutch Bruder and look beyond Houseboats and Chinese fishing nets as the attraction for the rest of the world.
Link to 'I Was Here - Kochi Episode 07'