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Friday, Nov 22, 2019

Ruling the waves: Seafood meets art as Kunal Vijayakar heads to Kochi

On the sidelines of the biennale, the foodie makes time for houseboats, tiger prawns, crab and karimeen.

mumbai Updated: Mar 01, 2019 19:36 IST
Kunal Vijayakar
Kunal Vijayakar
Hindustan Times
The Malabar Parotta, that flakiest of pastries, takes centrestage in the Seafood Thali at Dakshin Coastal, at the ITC Maratha in Mumbai.
The Malabar Parotta, that flakiest of pastries, takes centrestage in the Seafood Thali at Dakshin Coastal, at the ITC Maratha in Mumbai.
         

It’s a tough one, art or food? I was born with an unusually obsessive fondness for food, but I also grew up with a passionate predilection for drawing and colours. One endearment led me to excessive eating, while the other had me studying at art school. But what if you could chew on both at the same time?

This month, fate led me to a city where I could indulge in both pursuits. Kochi in Kerala. It’s that time of year when the whole island of Fort Kochi transmogrifies into an art gallery. I made a quick trip down for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2019 and I felt blessed, because after all, Kerala is God’s own country.

Of course, God’s own country was very hot. After a quick prayer to God to drop the temperature by at least a few degrees, we set off for Alappuzha on our first leg. We headed for the backwaters. Now I don’t know where the backwaters start, but we knew we could join them here. The plan was to sail on a kettuvellam (houseboat) and sample some special food, especially the breakfasts.

The houseboat was more luxurious than I had expected. Bedrooms, sofas, even air-conditioning. Yet made of bamboo and grass, with a fully equipped pantry and a free chef included. Redeeming for a hungry man, endurable otherwise. I turned my attention to nature. The backwaters are indeed impervious and the backcloth truly woven by God. By now I was beckoned again by God’s other creation, hunger. 

The chef, who spoke in Malayalam, very close to Latin in my comprehension, quickly steamed up some Puttu and Kadala Curry. Puttu is rice flour mixed with water and steamed, but it’s honestly timeless. In the days of yore, Puttu was steamed in coconut shells. Of course that, like so much else, has been replaced with stainless steel. Kadala is a channa curry with tamarind, spices and coconut. Puttu and Kadala are like the Malayalam version of Romeo and Juliet, made for each other.

Fort Kochi, still reminiscent of colonial India, has a large waterfront with even larger fishing nets. As history explains, these nets were Chinese contributions. Here, fisherfolk scoop up fish by the tonne and sell it right there and then! What’s more, little makeshift kitchens dotting the beach fry, roast and grill the catch to your caprice.

My catch included 1 kg tiger prawns, 1 kg crabs and karimeen. Karimeen is Kerala’s favoured fish. Found in the backwaters, it’s an ovalish fish a little larger than your hand, gray-green in colour, with tiny, shiny diamond-y spots all over its body. It’s the backwater’s mini version of Aquaman.

Deft fingers holding woks and spatulas tossed the seafood with onion and spices to produce the spiciest and most peppery recipe. A recipe that I’m sure does not exist in traditional Kerala cooking. But what the hell, with flaky parottas and beer bottles hidden in paper bags, it was heaven.  

Next stop, Fort Restaurant on the riverfront, for a Syrian Christian meal. The horizon was lustrous with the lights of a brand new cargo terminal. As large oil tankers and cargo ships crossed us noisily in the night, we started with fish cooked in green mango. Slices of black pomfret in a mildly spiced gravy of coconut cream, spices and green mango. Spicy, tangy and smooth. We followed that up with Prawn Olarthu. Medium-sized prawns dry sautéed in onion, ginger, garlic and curry leaves, with fried slivers of dry coconut. And ended with a Syrian Christian-style Pork Vindaloo. Quite different from a Goan or Mangalorean one, this Kerala vindaloo had a strong flavour of fenugreek and mustard seeds. Another night done, face stuffed, ready for bed.

The morning after was long. After lumbering from paintings to sculptures and sculptures to art installations, it was time to tramp from art installation to lunch. We decided to head into Ernakulam for lunch at the vociferously bona fide Dhe Puttu, at Edappally. And ordered the whole menu, or so it seemed.

Unlike most parts of India, duck is quite staple in Kerala. It’s a gamey meat, tastier than chicken and cheaper than mutton, which makes it quite a popular choice here. There’s Duck Roast, Duck Piralan, Duck Cooked in Coconut Milk. We ordered a Nadan Tharavu (Duck Curry). The duck’s meat was sinewy and the spices, potent and persuasive.

What I missed sorely and would have loved with the duck was Kappa. Kappa is boiled and sliced tapioca seasoned with grated coconut, chilli, salt and turmeric and can be a luscious alternative to rice or parotta, with Kerala curries. Dhe Puttu also served a chicken cooked with white pumpkin. Chicken Kumbalanga Curry, apparently a specialty from the kitchens of Thrissur.

The Dhe Puttu menu, under its specials, does a few inspired dishes named after popular Malayalam films starring its owner, superstar Dileep. Like chicken kheema and boiled egg in rice and wheat puttu, named after a super-hit film Kunjikoonan, where Dileep plays a double roll. Or the romantic hit Meesa Madhavan, which is also a dish of dried beef sautéed with shallots and crushed chilli, stuffed in wheat puttu.

There is no better way to end a Kochi meal than with Beef Kaya Ularthiyathu. Kaya is green raw banana, and this curry is spectacular, as the meat melts away in the spices and coconut, and the raw banana adds a squishy bite to the spicy gravy. This gravy with the flakiest pastry in the world, the Malabar Parotta, proved to me that Kerala is indeed God’s own country.