A Taste of Kerala in Kochi

~by Nirupama Rajan

It’s been just about a year since I left the sultry, languorous afternoons of Kochi behind after a month-long internship there. Nonetheless, in typical Kerala fashion, the place has become a sort of permanent fixture in my mind since then, often drawing me into memories of some great times I had that summer on the Malabar Coast, and inviting me to pen them down.

I have often noticed that just as visiting a place for a short while makes one enthusiastic to experience everything that it offers within that limited time span, if your stay is a prolonged one, you tend to lay back and let the place come to you instead. And so, very often, tourists often end up knowing a little about a lot more, while residents usually know a lot about very little. This was the case with me as well. While I initially set about making plans for every weekend so I could see for myself as many of the things that I’d read about Kochi, I quickly became very content with the pleasures my neighborhood and its vicinity offered me.

So if you are looking for a List of Things to Do in Kochi, you won’t find that here. In fact, I don’t even intend to write about all the places that I visited or all the things that I did while I was there. What I’m attempting here is to create a curated set of experiences that have stayed with me, for whatever reason, even after a year has passed by. I hope that this will encourage you to visit these places so you may see for yourself why I’m partial to them.

I’ll start with a place on the Ernakulam side of town that I would visit every day if I could- Subhash Park. Located beside the Marine Drive and overlooking both the Kochi Harbour as well as the backwaters of the Vembanand Lake, this park is a treat for the senses. Whether it was to simply lie on the grass under the many trees there in the afternoons, walk around listening to the park’s brand of music in the late evenings or just sit down on the concrete ledge that separates land from water and gaze at the ships in the distance, Subhash Park became one of those places that defines the city of Kochi for me. A bonus is the great raw banana bhajjis and the ice-cream sticks (so reminiscent of childhood days) that you will find being sold outside the many entrances to the park.

Kerala is a whole other culinary world, especially for a vegetarian from Bangalore like me. The blanket term of “South-Indian food” applies to almost nothing here. All my fears of not finding satisfying vegetarian food in a town famed for its seafood culture were banished the second I tasted my first puttu. In the weeks that followed, I gorged on other local delicacies. My picks of the lot include the cutlets at Indian Coffee House (which is a stone’s throw away from Subhash Park), practically anything on the menu at Gokul Oottupura (though I’m very partial to their kothu parotta), puttu-kadala, idiyappam, parotta-kurma – honestly, anything local and vegetarian tasted great to me! And as far as my meat-eating friends were concerned, the seafood there is apparently some of the best you’d find anywhere in the country.

The bhajis and bonds sold on street carts stood out particularly not just for their flavor but also for the cleanliness and hygiene evident in their preparation. Another local haunt that I found myself praising plenty was Milano on MG Road. Run by an Italian family, their gelato is exquisitely handcrafted and outdoes the stuff you’d find in most of your big cities. Make sure you try their hazelnut while you’re there. Finally, stock up on the local chips – jackfruit, tapioca, and banana – that you’ll find being made fresh in several street-corners. Non-vegetarian or not, you’re very likely to come back from Kochi a lot heavier!

In my experience, Fort Kochi is almost always the first thing that props up in any conversation involving Kochi, and for a good reason. While you can take one of the many buses plying to Fort Kochi from Ernakulam, my preferred mode of transport is the local ferry that covers the distance in about 20-30 minutes if memory serves me right. Once there, avoid autos and use your feet instead. It is truly a joy to walk around the streets of Fort Kochi – each of which is steeped in centuries’ worth of history and culture. The many churches and other edifices that are scattered around the area take you back in time to when the Portuguese descended upon the west coast of India all those years ago.

The most famous structure here would have to be the Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town. Built in AD 1568, it is the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth nations. Knowing almost nothing about synagogues, I went there expecting a dark, looming structure similar to the ancient churches you’d come across in Goa. Imagine my surprise then, when I stepped into a bright, ventilated room with sunlight streaming in through the windows and reflecting off the chandeliers and hand-painted tiles. The synagogue is also home to some very treasured artifacts, such as scrolls containing the first five books of the Old Testament. I’d recommend visiting the historical exhibit inside the synagogue premises for a crash course in the Indo-Portuguese history of Kerala.

The other historical site in Fort Kochi that has stayed with me is the Mattancherry Palace. While originally built by the Portuguese and still often referred to as the Dutch Palace, it is today a museum chronicling the lives of generations of the Rajas of Kochi. While it is very normal to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and artifacts available there, you can as easily choose not to read every plaque or examine every old coin on display. In fact, even if you look around inside the palace and appreciate its ancient aesthetic and interiors, that itself would suffice as a history lesson. In fact, my friend and I just sat down on a ledge by a rustic-looking wooden window overlooking a little pond and enjoyed the natural breeze wafting into the corridor.

Fort Kochi is also a great place to do some street shopping. Whether its earthy homemade perfumes, fine Pashmina shawls or delightful little wooden toys, there’s something for every kind of shopper on the streets of Fort Kochi. Keep in mind, however, that the prices are usually marked up because of the number of foreign visitors to the place. And while you’re walking around, do have a look at the few Chinese fishing nets that are still in use there.

If you’re hungry in Fort Kochi, hit up the Seagull restaurant. While the food and drink in itself are pretty fantastic, it has often been cited as one of the top restaurants in Kochi because of its ambiance. From the looks of it, it seems to be a docking yard that has been converted into a restaurant, meaning you could be sitting there sipping on a cold beer while the waves of the ocean crash repeatedly on the other side of the low wall that you’re leaning on. There’s also a section of the restaurant that’s right on top of the water, but as its uncovered, you can only sit there once the sun goes down a little. Other eateries favored by tourists include Kashi Art Café and Dal Roti, a North Indian restaurant located on a quiet and quaint street in the interiors of the fort. I’d also recommend the wood-fired pizzas at David Hall.

If you have a few days to spare, see if you can rent a bike or car and go up to Kottayam. While Kottayam would require several days to explore truly (thanks to it being home to some of the country’s oldest churches and mosques, as well as for its contribution to the history of the Indian print industry), the ride there itself is more than worth it. The route goes through some of the most scenic backwaters of Kerala and with a few slight detours, you can also visit some of the most serene and secluded beaches on the country’s coast. You will also pass through the Kumarakom bird sanctuary en route; even if you aren’t inclined to meet its avian residents, you should try the kappa (steamed tapioca, typically served with fish curry) and toddy that Kumarakom is famous for. The restaurants on the backwaters may seem shady, but sitting in a wooden booth with water running underneath while you sip on some heady coconut-toddy is an experience you shouldn’t miss out on!

At the end of the day, this barely scratches the surface of the wonder that is Kochi and its neighboring towns. If you are into art, travel to Kochi when the Biennale is happening. Unfortunately, I only arrived there after it concluded, but several people I know highly recommend being there for it, at least once. My advice to you is to go to Kochi with enough time to spare, so you don’t have to rush through anything. And if you can’t do that, don’t try to squeeze in as many things into your itinerary as you can; instead, fully relish the few places that you do visit.

Do let us know what you like about Kochi in the comments below!

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