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The Flavours of Coconut Land
... restaurant hopping in Cochin

Theresa Varghese

E-Mail this travel feature to a friend Have you been to Cochin in southern India? If you've travelled to Kerala -- you probably have -- Cochin is the place from where most of the Emerald State's famed backwater cruises begin.

But tourist brochures, promoting this port city, spell out that there's more to Cochin than just the fact that it is an embarkation point... Picture postcard-like vistas for the jaded traveller, quaint settlements for the seeker of exotica, ancient monuments for the historian, shopping arcades for the 'I've been there, bought that' set. Something for everyone, suggests the literature…

Except for the foodie.

Ironic considering that Cochin -- a commercial hub that draws people from all over the state -- has some of the best eating joints. In fact in Cochin continental dinners have become chic. And Chinese meals are a great favourite. But most important it is a city where you can also get wholesome food like Amma makes at home.

A word of caution for those uninitiated to Kerala cuisine: Be prepared for that ubiquitous nut-- the coconut -- in practically everything. When added to fish and meat, it is either roasted and ground to form a thick masala or squeezed into a milk to form a thin curry. In vegetables it is added, grated and coconut oil is used to season the veg. In appams or rice pancakes it does a great tandem with toddy. And in desserts it crops up as roasted chunks or its milk is incorporated. It would be safe to say that in Kerala, perhaps the only item that does not contain coconut in some form or the other is rice!

Which brings us to the next topic. Forget boiled rice, the staple of India. In Kerala, the cereal has been transformed into such myriad versions that no meal is complete without its presence. What, rice at breakfast too? Yes. And not as flakes in a package! To take a sample, there's idiappam, a noodle like concoction... Puttu, a bamboo shaped product... Palappam, a lacy bread fermented with toddy... Vattayappam, toddy at work again but quite different in taste and looks from the palappam. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. So if you want to know where to gorge on Kerala's culinary specialties while in Cochin, read on.

Puttu being made One of the best places to visit not just for food but also for its atmosphere is Fry's Village restaurant on Chittoor road. Note: the word is atmosphere, not ambience. Because, though Fry's has the typical tiled roof and appearance of a traditional structure, it is not a contrived look as in 'ethnic'. Fry's is exactly what it appears to be, a traditional homestead that has been converted into a restaurant.

The three gazebos and a long hall are the backyard of an original home, while the air conditioned restaurant is the home itself. From four benches placed in the courtyard of Alin Hassaier's home in 1987, Fry's has expanded to its present seating capacity of 96. And in case you're wondering about the name, the initial idea had been to serve up fast food Kerala-style, fried bananas ad such like. But then popularity took over and Fry's changed its course. Though not its name.

At lunch time the biryanis are a frequently ordered item, while at dinner it's the snacky fare like parrotta (the popular bread from the Malabar region; different from the North Indian paratha) with chicken roast, kothu parotta and beef fry, puttu with kadala, ari pathiri with mutton or vegetable stew.

Though the menu contains some Chinese dishes too due to popular demand, fortunately, Fry's has remained true to its original concept and retained authentic dishes for its more discerningpatrons. Aripathiri (very fine chapati-like bread made of rice flour) they serve, for instance, is rarely served commercially. The best news of course is the prices, which are in the lower range: a meal for two costs approximately Rs 100 to Rs 150!

A multiheaded puttu steamer In the same cost category comes Ceylon Bake House, popularly known as CBH. Located on MG road, it is actually a branch of the smaller one situated at Broadway which was established in the early 70s. With its USP of catering to local tastes, this tiny eating house proved to be so popular that another CBH, larger and more modern, popped up on the main road of the city in 1979.

Somewhat similar to Fry's, CBH's menu has a wider range. Again Chinese keeps rearing its head on the menu. But just one taste of CBH's soft, crusty Malabar parottas and all else can be forgiven! The motta (egg) curry marries equally well with the parottas as it does with the appams. However, from customer reports, it is CBH's fish curry with rice that wins hands down. Second on the list comes biryani, especially the mutton variety that is often sold out within a short time. And despite the numerous takeaways that are catered to each day, you will have to wait for a while to obtain a table during peak hours.

Much of this can be attributed to the management's customer relations. Immense popularity notwithstanding, prices have been remained within the scope of ordinary clientele and complaints on food, if any, are addressed constructively. By the way, do not be fooled by its laid-back attitude and a stuck-in-the-70s decor. CBH has a sharp eye for that competitive edge. In its early years the place opened at 7 am and shut by 10 pm. Noting that there were no eateries in the vicinity keeping late hours, the restaurant began to close its doors later and later. Today you can walk in at 1.30 am for a meal. Well, the man who thought of the idea certainly knew what he was doing when he came to Cochin 25-odd years ago from Colombo (now you know why there's a Ceylon preceding the Bake House! Not so sure about the origin of the 'Bake' bit).

Yet another name that crops up in conversations between food aficionados is that of Bharat Tourist Home or to put it more aptly, the totally vegetarian BTH. This place did not exactly begin life as an ethnic eatery. But like so many other entrepreneurs form his hometown of Udipi, B G Rao embarked on a little venture in 1934 and over the years built it into an empire. Today the original boarding and lodging house on D H road (off MG road), has expanded to encompass a hotel with two restaurants, three branches in various parts of the city and a centralised kitchen.

As at all Udipi born eateries, BTH has plenty in the idli, dosa, vada category. But it is the Kerala breakfast buffet that would be of interest to the gourmet. Priced at Rs 50, it contains an assortment of rice cakes/ appams and their accompaniments and is great value for money.

Coconuts being grated At lunch, the demand is for meals, ordinary and special. Served on banana leaves -- in the traditional manner, it is an experience by itself. You can eat as much as you want for Rs 30. Well, Rs 40 if you are a hog and order the special leaf meal. But if you want to go the whole hog and sample two types of payasam and even more variety, visit BTH in August-September, when they serve up their Onam sadya or feast. Another good place to go to for a traditional Onam meal is Dwarka on MG road where, for three days before and after the festival day, you can get your fill for around Rs 100.

At the upper end of the scale are two eateries, both belonging to the star hotel category. One is Pandhal, the Casino group's 'family restaurant' on MG road. Around 14 years old, Pandhal's interior is on the lines of chain restaurants, trendy but impersonal.

However, it is well known for its quality fare. Though much on the menu is continental stuff, there are some interesting traditional favourites like the fish moilee or fish curry and chemmeen olathiath or spicy sautéed prawns. With 60 per cent of the clientele being families, Pandhal has a steady bank of loyal patrons who keep coming back for their favourites such as crab chilly fry, karimeen polichathu or fried or broiled pearlspot fish and konju or scampi roast. Each dish is around Rs 100, so be prepared with your wallet if you are dining en famille.

Even higher on the price range is Taj Malabar's specialty restaurant -- Rice Boats -- located within the hotel, which is at the far end of Willingdon island. Your wallet's going to be sadly depleted here, for most dishes hover just below the Rs 200 mark. Not to mention delicacies like tiger prawns which are much, much more. Launched as a multicuisine restaurant a dozen odd years back, Rice Boats has since changed its avatar.

At the beginning of the 1990s it became a seafood restaurant, a clever move in a city known internationally for its sea treasures. Seating in the restaurant is in two valloms or fishing canoes and the 'Ethnic Delicacies' section on the menu is right on target. With its peera patthichathu (small fish cooked in a tangy coconut masala till it is almost dry), Alleppey fish curry (mullet and sour green mangoes in a coconut gravy), fried sardines, Rice Boats could be a winner all the way if only alien names like lobster bisque, shrimp cocktail, crab au gratin and crepe suzette did not intrude into the authenticity.

However, if what you are looking for is authenticity on a shoestring budget step into any one of the many poky eateries that dot the city. They have no air conditioning, no ambience, no liveried waiter speaking English. Ergo, no overheads that will be passed on to you. The best way to eat a cheap... a delicious lunch of fish curry and rice or beef fry and parrotas or a vegetarian thali will set you back by as little as Rs 15 to 20. If you are even more adventurous, try a toddy shop. Locals swear that the best pork, beef and fish are to be had in these shanty-like structures with a sign on the outside proclaiming 'Kallu'.

There's much to be said about these kallu shaaps which appear to have existed in Kerala since time immemorial. But then, that's another story!

Cochin City Guide

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