What fascinates Kochi-based Nimmy Paul’s international guests — she hates the word ‘tourists’ — is how so much food comes out of her modest kitchen with just two gas burners. A traditional Malayali meal sometimes boasts two dozen dishes and Paul does most of the cooking herself though she has two maids to help her, Her guests, whose number touched 1,000 last season, love the personal touch she provides as well as the fact that she is willing to share the secrets of Kerala cuisine with them and even teach them how to rustle up a dish or two if they want to.
The Kerala tourism industry picked up in a big way in the last decade and ‘home stays’ have become both common and popular. In a sense, Paul, a cookery teacher, did the right thing at the right time by deciding to host and teach foreign guests in the late ’90s. Armed with a list of travel agents provided by her first cousins (who run the Casino group of heritage hotels), she turned entrepreneur. She got her first guests in 1997 but no one, least of all the travel agents, thought she would become a big hit on the tourist circuit. “It clicked because I maintained quality service and did not give importance to monetary returns. The guests admired this and felt obliged to promote me,” she says.
Paul says another phrase she doesn’t like is ‘home stay’ because many of her guests do not stay at her home at all. They attend a cooking class, have a meal, enjoy being part of her wonderful home and leave. “I give a room only to those who want to learn more about cooking or understand Kerala cuisine,” she says.
She may charge a guest just for one room (usually the one that used to be occupied by her son who is now away studying engineering) but in truth, the entire house is at their disposal. “Being a part of the entire household allows them to really understand the Kerala way of living,” she says.
Paul remembers how veteran journalist of The New York Times, RW Apple Jr, who died two years ago, attended one of her classes. He not only wrote about her but also became her “American godfather”. Another celebrity who visited her home was travel writer Paul Theroux but she did not know it was him till he had left. “Now, we are in regular touch,” she says.
Does it bother her that her house is always full of strangers? “No, because the guests are brought only through travel agents and if it is a direct booking, my husband Paul sends them a questionnaire, after which we get a good idea about them. Thank God, I haven’t had a bad experience so far,” she says.
So what is the key to success in this field? “As long as the host and hostess are friendly and maintain good hygiene, they will do well. You should not think of it only as a business but do it with passion and dedication,” she declares.
She says her guests love it when she tells them about Indian spices, their unique flavours and medicinal effects. “It is not as though I have done a lot of research on the topic. Whatever I have learnt from my mother is what I pass on,” she says.
Paul was one among eight children in her family and the only one not to do a post-graduate degree. “What I liked was cooking and keeping a good home and my mother taught me all the nuances. And that’s what I do best,” she says.