Flying out of the sprawling urban metropolis of Kolkata felt like another chapter in our adventure, as we headed South to palm trees and the backwaters of Kerala. It would have been the case too, if at first, we did not get stuck in traffic straight away amongst the sprawling semi urban metropolis of Ernakulum. An hour and a half into our hour-long journey to Alleppey it finally started to feel like the tropical India we had thought it would be.
We arrived at Browns Residency where the extremely helpful Matthew showed us where to eat, advised how much the backwater houseboats should cost and where to get our beers from to save money. We grabbed a tuk tuk to the beach where we relaxed in the dimly lit, but cosy feeling Harbour Restaurant for a few beers, a delicious Indian White Wine and our first Keralan dish, Kohzi Varutha Chicken Curry and Poories. It was a good start.
We woke the following morning to go find our converted rice barge, which will be our home for the next couple of nights. Aware that we would not have not been able to wash our clothes until we arrived in Chennai, we still kept aside one set of clean clothes to wear on the boat, and then on the train. Yes, that would be four days of the same t-shirt and shorts but who cares. I pulled on my crisp and clean shorts and jumped in the tuk tuk. 10 minutes later I got out with a strange red splatter across the front of them. It took a few minutes until we realised it was the same red splatter that is seen on the floor, the sides of trains and walls of monuments – paan. Paan from a passer-by’s dyed red mouth had been spat across my shorts. Nice.
We choose our boat, Eden, with the smiling crew of Joseph, Rajesh and Libin. They had to prepare the boat so we jumped back in the tuk tuk where we were driven back to town for Breakfast in Hot Kitchen. We ordered the Masala Dosa, a spiced potato filled lentil and rice flour based pancake, served with Sambol and chutney. Just as this, it is our favourite breakfast, but today we were also introduced to new creation, Vadai, a donut shaped morsel that is flavoured with onion, chilli and curry leaves which, of course, made it even more exceedingly delicious. We grabbed our bags, our beers and our almost clean clothes and headed for the backwaters.
A boat on the backwaters is incredible; completely relaxing and enjoyable. Days would consist of watching the life of the backwaters pass you by. Women washing, men rowing boats along the shores, selling their fresh seafood to the annually flooded houses and passing boats. Chickens would rustle amongst the leaves outside the toddy shops, while the brightly coloured Kingfishers would proudly sit on trees and wires waiting for their chance to dive in to catch fish. We would break from out distant stares only to head to the back of the boat where the boys would teach us the recipes of our lunch and dinner. And the food was incredible. Kerameen Fry, Beetroot and Cabbage Curries along with other traditional Keralan Dishes, such as Aviel and Sambar. We had lost weight before India; we must have surely been putting it back on in these three days.
We would stop at night, so the local fishermen would have the waters to themselves, so we would kickback with a few drinks and some cards. Or, we would sit with a mini fishing rod armed with ineffective dough as bait, watching it dissolve in the water before any fish would nibble on it.
The next day was Sarah’s birthday so, along with the usual time wasting, we made a few extra stops so I could shower her with local gifts such as a 1L bottle of toddy (which we managed to stomach 100mL’s of), some fresh and gigantic prawns that the boys would turn into a deliciously spiced grilled snack, a still-warm cake from a bakery on the waterfront that also served ours – and the crews favourite – Jalebi’s. None of which surpassed my best gift. The most precious commodity a westerner can have in India – toilet paper.
When the time came to return to shore, we were disappointed to leave but will definitely return another time to waste away the days.
We were catching the train north to Kochi today, but Matthew had managed to organise a cooking lesson with Pearly a lovely lady a few doors up. We said what we had wanted to learn so after a shopping list was written, I left the girls behind to jump on the back of a motorbike to get the ingredients from the local stores including the chicken shop where once your required weight is mentioned, they grab a few live chickens, weigh them and past them over the wall to be prepared. You cannot get fresher than that.
We learnt Chicken biryani, that would feed 5-6 people (or 12 of us), a chicken dry fry, a chicken curry and a masala dosa that still has yet to be beaten, mainly due to it being served with a dry and spicy coconut chutney. There was so much delicious food left over, that we had to wander back to browns Residency to collect our Tupperware pot to take as much left overs as possible.
With the chicken biryani meat sweats, we collected our bags, bought our train tickets and settled in for our leisurely train journey to Kochi. Just as we were talking about skipping dinner as we were so full, a man walked past selling chai followed by another selling hot Vadai with a spicy chutney… Maybe we weren’t that full…
We had wanted one day in Cochin as we had heard about another cooking class, Maria’s South Indian Cooking Classes. Our phone calls had not gone well, as our phones in India were rubbish, but we had managed to correspond that we liked non-veg and we were there on the Friday, Independence Day.
Independence Day arrived and as we turned down Burgher St on the quiet morning, some kids ran up gifting us a small Indian flag. We wandered upstairs where Mary was waiting with food laid out on the table in front of her. Unsure of what we wanted to learn she managed to get enough ingredients for a variety of dishes. We spent the start listening to Mary as she described important spices and how they are used and when the shouldn’t be. Along with the dishes we would learn today, we were given and described other Kerala Dishes like a coconut dhal and adaptations to the Dry Fry’s we had already learnt.
We then cooked Mezukkuperutti, an eggplant dish, kidney bean curry, mango pickle and served alongside lemon rice, the most delicious – Chicken Pepper Curry.
We wandered along the beaches of Kochi, watching the 300 year old Chinese Fishing nets dip in out of the Arabian Sea while the fishermen touted tourists for photos. We sat in the Old Harbour Inn enjoying some drinks while we deliberated over purchasing a beautiful wooden elephant. We ate the remnants of our pepper chicken curry before jumping on the train, in the pouring rain, to Chennai.