Day 10: Kerala

fishmonger
fish monger stall

Having found the guesthouse breakfast fare somewhat lacking, we were determined to avoid it on this particular day and head out on our own into Fort Kochi for something more interesting. Since we had forgotten to inform the hosts of our plans, we planned to make a tactful exit after they started serving breakfast on the covered roof that was the communal space for guests. One our way out, however, we were snagged by the owner, a really quite charming and cheerful woman. She seemed to be deeply concerned that we weren’t eating breakfast upstairs, so B offered up the explanation that we needed to get me some coffee. Undeterred, she reminded us that there was coffee upstairs, and if that was too weak she could make up a stronger version immediately. To this unexpected parry, we searched for a new gambit, pointing out that we were looking forward to eating some dosa for breakfast (a kind of crispy crepe with a potato filling and a variety of chutneys on the side. Completely unfazed, she explained that she had some dosa batter ready, and would be glad to whip some up. We were beaten, and we knew it. If we had said we were hoping to go out for pepperoni pizza, we would have been there waiting for the dough to rise. In any case, she brought out the promised dark coffee (which was a small step above instant), followed by a bowl of a dry coconut-based regional breakfast dish called upma, complimented with some potato fritters. Finally, several dosa were served (along with a couple small bananas), leaving us calculating the absolute minimal amount of food we could politely get away with. Eventually we made a respectful dent in the upma (somewhat bland), and ate the two dosas (a little spongy), and three potato fritters we were served, taking the two bananas to go. Yes, as our friends know, we are kind of obnoxious when we travel because we are on a constant mission to try as many delicious things as we possibly can without overeating. Sometimes this imperative requires some finesse and some wastefulness we wouldn’t condone outside of vacation. Sometimes we sneak half-eaten plates of perfectly good food to the garbage so the proprietor won’t notice. In this particular case, we had extricated ourselves with our breakfast capacity only half-taken, so we resolved to walk around for a while to make some space.

porridgePotato
upma and potato fritters

Mid-walk we stopped in at a cafe for some coffee and chai, and were attracted by the fruit sodas on offer. One lemonade with XXX, purportedly used as a cooler in ayurvedic circles, but we believe it is known in the west as sasparilla. Indeed the taste was somewhere between licorice, bubblegum and vanilla, and with the lemonae, it was quite refreshing. The other drink was ginger lemonade with honey. Also quite good.

morning sodas

Aside from offending the gracious people who just wanted to give us something to eat, the reason we had been hoping to escape unfed was that we had planned a trip to the Fort Kochi fishing docks, where the fresh bounty pulled from the sea can be cooked up at a nearby roadside ‘hotel.’ Amid the onslaught of tenacious vendors, tuk tuk drivers and souvenir touts, we chose a vendor in which the crab were, at the very least, fresh enough to be moving around. Keralan crab curry has a certain sentimental cache with B, so we got a couple of those, four large prawns and a lobster. The total came to 1300 rupees (which converts to something like $20), which seemed quite steep by local standards, but our tolerance for a round of negotiations was low. Also taking the low resistance path of having a local tout lead us back to his cafe for the cooking, we were told that the cooking fee would be around 500 rupees. Again, in no mood for petty haggling for what was still a very good deal, we said OK. We had them cook the crab in a curry, which on much encouragement, they made spicy. The lobster and prawns they grilled very simply with a chili paste (though they seemed a little overcooked). The crab curry had a good heat and bold flavors. All in all the the shellfish seemed fresh and preparation was delicious, but we would still give the nod to our Pacific Coast dungeness crab for pure sweet deliciousness.

crab curry in bowl

After meandering about the historical district of Fort Kochi for a while and checking out some of the crafts and spice merchants, we stopped at a cafe known as the Ginger House. Among other ginger-based items featured here was ginger ice cream, and lime ginger soda. The ice cream was sweet, smooth and creamy with small bits of candied ginger adding a little pop every few bites. The soda came in components: a glass of ginger and lime juice, a bottle of soda water, and some simple syrup to sweeten the mix. Not surprisingly given the environs, it was deliciously refreshing.

ginger soda
deconstructed ginger soda

Since we had so enjoyed the chicken fry the previous night, we set our sites on it’s culinary cousin, beef fry. With the influence of Hinduism beef is not widely eaten in India, but with Kerala’s diverse religious population, some restaurants do serve it. The spot most frequently recommended for beef fry in online sources was bit of a trek for our now somewhat tired and blistered feet, but we soldiered on. The restaurant turned out to be empty as we arrived; apparently beef fry is not typically eaten at 6pm, but they were welcoming to us in any event. We ordered up the beef fry and an order of what was called chicken roast on the menu (along with two kinds of paratha). The fry was smoky, rich and delicious, sort of an amplified version of some of the flavors we’ve enjoyed so much here. The chicken roast was seemingly a more ordinary curry preparation, good enough for what it was, but having trouble competing with the fry.

roast chicken and beef fry
chicken roast and beef fry
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Day 9: Kerala

backwaters

So today was one of our tourist days. Our homestay organized a trip to the backwaters for us. These are small water channels throughout the region – beautiful locations and a chance to see a little bit of village life. Foodwise, this meant that we were only given a small breakfast as we had to leave early. We were pretty happy about that as our breakfast the day before wasn’t much to blog home about. So just toast, fruit and hard boiled egg and we were on our way. We had fantasies of having fresh seafood cooked for us on board our boat for lunch, which we had heard stories of, but the boat we were on was small and crowded and had no cooking facilities and basically just took us out to a random snack shop along the backwaters (M had Lays Magic Masala chips, B had a coconut water – from an actual coconut). Then the boat went back to where we started (we were not pleased with this part of the trip) and there was a lunch waiting for us – another curry buffet. All vegetarian. No seafood. Sad. But there were three new things on our lunch buffet: a strange, fibrous, vegetable we’d never seen before called a drumstick; a pineapple tomato curry; and a porridge like thing the name of which was lost in translation. It was all fine, but not quite what we had hoped for out of our boat trip.

lunch

Fortunately, the afternoon part of the tour was more interesting in that we were taken in a canoe/punt through some narrow canals flowing among the homes of a rural village. So we got to see people doing various types of work along the canal. The Communist Party has done particularly well in Kerala during the past few decades, so this part of India has a great many workers cooperatives, and we were able to see some people making rope and coconut milk at their homes. Really interesting. But you read this for the food, so also know we got to see many spices and fruits growing naturally along the way – all pointed out to us by our ‘gondolier’ and guide. Nutmeg is particularly big here and we were able to buy some right from the nutmeg farmer, but we also saw things like cacao trees, vanilla vines and tamarind trees.

cinnamon
cinnamon trees

When we got home we were exhausted (not really from the boat but from the 3+ hours we spent in the car to and from) but we gathered ourselves together and walked over to the Mattancherry area where we went to Kayee’s Hotel (remember, hotel means restaurant) to partake of two things for which they are renowned. One is Biryani (we had chicken and it was great) and the other is Chicken Fry. This dish might be our favorite of the trip so far. It was small pieces of chicken, fried twice, seemingly, with a heavy coating of explosive spices, most notably star anise, cardamom and clove. It was so delicious that we ordered another dish and almost got a third! They were seriously small portions – we could have eaten them all night. We also ordered Keralan porota (flaky parathas – very similar to what we had in Malaysia) and ended up getting an extra helping of those as well. On the side we were served a tamarind chutney (sorry, no photo) that was much thicker than the usual stuff we get back home with our samosas. It had a sweetness that contrasted nicely with the sour tamarind. M thought the sweet came from raisins. He was very close! It was actually dates – we were in a Muslim establishment and we were told they often use dates in their chutney. A great meal overall, and we are excited to try to figure out how to make chicken fry.

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biryani and side gravy
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parota and chicken fry
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tamarind date chutney

On the way back to the guesthouse we stopped for banana chips (made from the long banana, which is very starchy like a plantain) and a sweet (not really to our liking – grainy this sugar wrapped in a thick icing, with very little additional flavoring).

snack
banana chips and sugary sugar snack with sugar

 

Day 7: Kandy to Kerala

chai
chai!!!

We used to believe that roosters crow when the sun comes up. But if this trip has taught us one thing, it’s that, sadly, they don’t really wait for that moment to start their repeated wake up calls. It’s 6:20 and the local roosters have been at it for a good 45 minutes and there is still no sign of the sun. So, seems like a good time to get up and write.

Yesterday was another mostly travel day. We got up early and were invited in to Bernard and Uma’s kitchen at our guesthouse and watched her make urad dal pancakes. These were delicious-chopped onions and chilis in the batter brought out a savory, spicy goodness. We used these to scoop up the dal that is served with every meal. And the sambol. Which we thought was served with every meal but has definitely been missing from some. Add in the fruit/yogurt/toast/egg and we had another great breakfast.

breakfast
guesthouse

After a couple of elephant related stops (more in a later post) our driver made a stop at a spice garden that was not on our agenda. This was one of those things you hear about where we’re pretty sure he got a kickback for taking us there. We got the super hard sell to buy ayurvedic products after the ‘free’ tour. However it was very interesting to see things like cardamom growing. Last year in Malaysia we went to a spice garden as well but hardly anything was in bloom so we saw a lot of green plants without seeing the actual spices.

Next, our driver indulged another request to eat a local snack. There are vendors along the side of the roads who boil up ears of fresh corn from nearby fields. We wanted to try one and compare it to our midwestern variety. Our driver said that often the vendors boil corn that’s a few days old rather than fresh so he scouted out a good one for us. We were pretty surprised when we bit in to the steaming cob – there was no sweetness at all. Instead the corn tasted like starch with a texture that seems like the corn was rehydrated from dry – when we had corn in our vegetable soup a few days ago that’s what we thought it was. So, in the contest for best fruit/veggie – US wins the watermelon and corn contests.

cornvendor

We made it to the airport in plenty of time and M had a $6.50 latte (they charged everything in USD) sitting among decorations of snow flakes and listening to Christmas carols. The plane food this time was nowhere near the quality of our first Sri Lankan Airways offering. We had bland veggie curry with rice mixed with more of those tasteless corn kernels.

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more typical plane food

On arriving in India, we found the Kochi airport to be a pretty chill place. We easily got out of there and got a prepaid taxi to our homestay. The only hitch was we had to wait for over 30 minutes to get on an overcrowded ferry that took us on a very short (5 minute) ride to the Fort Cochin area. The upside of this wait was that there was a chai walla there to provide our first cup of chai on (non-airport) Indian soil. This was a big moment – B makes us chai from scratch every morning, roasting and grinding spices daily, so the fact that chai is so readily available makes her very happy.

We settled in to our guest house, got a review of all there is to do around town (understood 90% of it, retained 20%) and headed off in the dark and the rain (which had just started, and seems to be following us from place to place) to find dinner. We went to Dal Roti, a place recommended by both the homestay and Lonely planet. The food was more pan-Indian rather than specializing in South Indian food, which was fine with us. We were looking forward to a more North Indian type curry. We ordered a dry fry cauliflower, a chicken breast stuffed with paneer in curry sauce, and flaky paratha. And a mango lassi. The lassi came first and didn’t taste of mango, more pineapple (to be fair, it isn’t mango season). The cauliflower was deep fried, which surprised us, but was tasty. The chicken curry came with a fried egg on top, but was overcooked and rubbery. M missed the curry leaf flavor that was the forward note of most Sri Lankan curries, but the flavors grew on him. The sauce had good heat and lots of cinnamon/cardamom/clove flavors. We happily lapped it up with the perfectly flaky paratha. While we were happy with that part of the meal, the rest was just OK and we will try not to make the mistake of eating somewhere that is almost entirely populated by tourists again.