Kochi, India. We arrived yesterday in Kochi, a large city on the Arabian Ocean, and are staying in Fort Kochi, the oldest part of the colonial history of this city.
We were driven from Munnar, by our young friend, Murugan, who had proven himself so adept on the one-and-a-half lane roads of the mountain areas. He assured us he knew Kochi and would be happy to drive us there. By the time we arrived, almost five hours later, we learned something about Murugan. Perhaps his experience with the big city occurred during a school trip in his youth. It seems that his mountain skills were poorly adapted to highways with lines indicating lanes, a non-existent concept in Munnar. Yes, there was a tremendous amount of honking and screaming (mostly mine) while we were in the modern part of Kochi, whose roads are reminiscent of Houston freeways. Without Don’s computer navigation skills, we wouldn’t be here yet.
But when we crossed the river onto the island of old Fort Kochi, we entered a different world. We are staying in a lovely inn called the Tea Bungalow. This mustard-yellow building was built in 1912 as headquarters of a UK spice-trading company before being taken over by Brooke Bond tea. It was used as a bungalow getaway for employees stationed in Munnar when Brooke Bond, marketers of Red Label and other brands, was one of the largest mass-market tea manufacturers in the U.K and India. The company now has a greatly reduced market presence since being taken over by Unilever. The company bungalow, however, remained in operation until about 20 years ago when the present owners took it over and converted it into a boutique hotel. It has a great colonial feel and a wonderful pool that helped beat the midday sun today.
This territory was granted to the Portuguese in 1503 by the local Rajah. The Rajah also gave them permission to build a fort near the waterfront to protect their commercial interests, which the Dutch later destroyed. The Portuguese built their settlement behind the fort, including a wooden church, which was rebuilt in 1516 as a permanent structure, today known as St. Francis Church, still standing. Vasco de Gama was buried here, and then his remains were whisked off to Lisbon, where we saw them recently. But he was here first! (Also, note the wonderful old fans, and the Hindu-ish insistence on bare feet.)
Fort Kochi remained in Portuguese possession for 160 years. In 1683 the Dutch captured the territory from the Portuguese, destroyed many Portuguese institutions, particularly Catholic churches and convents. The Dutch held Fort Kochi in their possession for 112 years until 1795, when the British took control by defeating the Dutch. Foreign control of Fort Kochi ended in 1947 with independence. Such an important port; so many masters.
We left our hotel today, intending to do a few chores and see four important sites. No sooner had we stood still for two minutes, then we were taken over by Saleem, a tuk-tuk driver of great persuasive powers, who became our chauffeur for the next three hours. We saw all our sites plus things we would have missed, stopped in a shop to have some linen pajamas made for Don, ordered a new screen for my phone, had a much-needed cold drink, and visited the tombs of Saleem’s parents. Not bad for three hours, and all for $8. There is absolutely nothing like having a tuk-tuk driver anticipating your every need. Drink? Food? Clothes made cheap? Samsung? Cure for cancer? No problem. It’s like being adopted. Being New Yorkers, we were initially very resistant to these guys, certain that we were being hustled. But no, they simply make you their responsibility, meeting all your requests, and making sure that all traffic stops while you walk across the street, guided by your driver. I just love it. Yes, power corrupts absolutely.
The most amazing place that we would have never seen on our own was the “washing place” that Saleem kept talking about. This is where, if you are rich or a hotel, your laundry is taken to be done. Men twist and slap each garment against stones (stone-washed?) and then they are hung out to dry in the glorious sun. Finally, little men labor over irons to make each item look perfect once they are done.
Because the electric irons are very expensive to operate, this laundry also used old-fashioned irons, which burn coconut shells as fuel. This was an astonishing operation. We are sending our laundry out tomorrow. Hope it goes here!!
We saw one other church, Santa Cruz Cathedral, which has a clear Portuguese lineage. (The tile work gave it away.) it was originally built in 1558, then destroyed by the Dutch, and rebuilt in 1887. The stations of the cross on the ceiling were unusual, as was the gold pole in front of the church – just as one would see in a temple. Of course, it does have a cross on it.
There was more, but our heat resistance wore out, and like the crocodiles, we had to get out of the sun and back to the hotel. I have never been happier to see a pool.
Don’s Food Corner
Following the rattling five-hour drive from Munnar, we had no interest in exploring the neighborhood of the hotel to find an acceptable restaurant, so, as seems to have become a habit, we just tucked ourselves into the hotel’s restaurant (which was still opened in the late afternoon) and hoped for the best. While it might not have been the best, it was certainly more than adequate.
I am focusing on Kerala specialties and ordered malabari chicken curry, which was billed as chicken cooked in rich coconut gravy with Kerala spices. This dish was so delicately spiced and so creamy that it reminded me of the chicken korma that comes from the north and is served in so many Indian restaurants in the U.S. But the Kerala version does not use cream or yogurt to achieve that creaminess — just coconut milk. There was nothing dramatic about it. It was just yummy and comforting.
Jo had deep fried shrimp and a pile of the best French fries we’ve had in India. Her stomach was telling her to go for salty and greasy. The fries went fast.
Today, following a mind-spinning swirl around town in the efficient travel sprite called a tuk-tuk, we ended back at the hotel as equally dazed and confused as we were after the trip from Munnar. And, again, we had another late lunch at the hotel restaurant.
This time I tried another Kerala chicken dish, varutharacha chicken curry, which was described on the menu as boiled chicken in roasted coconut milk. If you look at the photos you would swear it looked exactly like the malabari curry. And while they might look similar, they sure don’t taste it. Unlike the smooth, creamy flavoring of the malabari curry, the varutharacha curry had a sharper, spicier and more complex flavor profile. While malabari soothed you, varutharacha hits you in the face. It’s when you taste two different versions of what seem to be essentially the same dish — chicken in a form of a coconut sauce — is when you start to appreciate the range of flavorings the same basic ingredients can deliver just by altering the cooking methods. In these two dishes, for example, malabari uses pure coconut milk and varutharacha uses pan-browned coconut scrapings as the basis of the gravy. Makes all the difference.
Jo opted for the deep-fried shrimp and French fries again. Unfortunately, there was a different cook on duty today and the end result was the shrimp never got delivered. Oh well.
We’re going to attempt to try a different restaurant tomorrow, but who knows how wiped out we’ll be after another whirlwind day in Saleem’s tuk-tuk. Indian energy can be draining.