Thanks to Kublai Khan

Fort Kochi, India. Supposedly a legacy of traders from the 13th-century court of Kublai Khan, the cantilevered fishing nets operating in the harbor of Fort Kochi are amazing to see.

We got there yesterday in late morning, when the pickings were slim. Men periodically labor to raise the nets from the water, and take whatever has been caught – then do it all over again all day. A lot of work for one or two fish, as we saw happening. Evidently the catch is better in the morning. The fish are sold quickly – if you want them fresh, this is the place to go.

Forgive the quality of the video. Someday I’ll sit down and learn the editing process, but this might be entertaining.

Today, the faithful Saleem was waiting for us as promised, and helped us complete a few chores, before taking us to the Anglo-Portuguese Museum, right next to the Bishop’s House. The museum is filled with relics of the Catholic churches damaged by the Dutch invaders. Supposedly, no photos were allowed, but the young docent said if he didn’t let visitors take pictures, no one would come. As it was, we were the only ones there, so he was excited to explain it all to us. He is a devout Catholic, so we got the full treatment. I noticed some old chess pieces, now that one curious and observant reader has reminded me that the game originated in India. Many lovely things there, with the added bonus of the ruins of the original fort in the basement.

One piece seemed especially symbolic of what we see here as a great co-existence of religions. It is an ancient door lock, which contains iconography of all religions in the city.

Our driver Saleem is Muslim, and he showed us the mosque where his parents were married. But he was equally enthusiastic about showing us the Calvinist church, yesterday’s basilicas, Hindu and Jainist temples, and a synagogue. Here is just a sampling of what we saw.

But a word about the Jewish presence in Fort Kochi. It was believed that the earliest Jews in India were sailors from King Solomon’s time. It has been claimed that following the destruction of the First Temple in the Siege of Jerusalem of 587 BCE, some Jewish exiles came to India. Their presence has certainly been long-standing, though most of the community left India after the founding of the nation of Israel in 1947. Saleem says only two families, a total of six people, remain. 

The area once occupied by the Jews retains the unfortunate name of Jew Town, though only non-Indians cringe at that. To get to the remaining synagogue, we endured a gauntlet of shops and charming – but aggressive – shopkeepers, ready to display their wares. No photos inside, of course, but there was a lovely memorial garden nearby that is well-tended by descendants of original members of the community.

And speaking of well-tended…

With all due respect to the other parts of India we have visited, Fort Kochi is the cleanest and most attractive city we have seen yet. There is no garbage on the streets (a miracle!); I have only seen three cows – and they were traveling together; and there are no stray dogs in evidence. Of course, since this area would thus qualify as “India-light,” it naturally attracts cruise ships and day-trippers who do not represent the finest of the Western tourist species.

Unlike in Pondicherry, the colonial presence here left a very large number of stylish residences, and there is a great sense of peace and prosperity here, at all levels. It is a very lovely city I could imagine living in – as long as Saleem took care of me every day!

Don’s Food Corner

As promised we found our way to a place to eat lunch, (always our main meal of the day), other than at the hotel.

We went to a place near the harbor called the Tea Pot, which promised a range of different Indian and Anglo dishes and even “high tea.” It didn’t turn out to be quite as quaint and Anglo-reminiscent as the guidebooks implied. This was definitely not a tearoom that you would find in Rye, England. It was far more rustic than that but colonial in atmosphere if you consider that the languid fans overhead delivered more silent and less effective swirl of air than the air conditioning we were frankly hoping to find.

The menu, however, was indeed eclectic. Jo found a grilled cheese sandwich that came with a few humidity-challenged potato chips. Toasted in a panini press, the cheese in it looked suspiciously like pre-packaged slices of white American cheese. It probably was. I have seen those slices, still in their wrappers, offered on breakfast buffets at a few of the Indian hotels where we have stayed. Hey, it’s imported!

On the advice of one of the guidebooks, I ordered what is considered a specialty of the house: Indian rarebit. Well, I thought, I’m going to get some type of cheese with Indian spices in it poured over some toast or, perhaps, on some type of Indian bread. Oh, no. Instead, two large oblong and deep-fried fritter-looking things arrived. I cut into one of them and it looked like some Indian concoction brushing up against the concept of meat loaf. Then, I got nervous. Did they misspell “rarebit” and mean “rabbit?”  (There were French people there so maybe that’s what they were looking for.)

I got clarification from the waiter. Seemingly proud of the invention, he explained that it was vegetables and egg formed into that unusual shape, encased in some type of batter and then deep-fried. I remarked that I had always thought of “rarebit” as some type of melted cheese poured over toast. He agreed, amused. This Indian “rarebit” had an interior texture that was close to a Chinese egg roll (a remnant of Khublai Khan?) but then encrusted with something completely Indian. It actually tasted rather bitter. I only ate one of them.

Because I thought the “rarebit” was going to be a small starter, I also ordered the Tea Pot’s version of Kerala fish curry. It took a long time to get to the table — almost an hour — but it was worth the wait. This was the best, most delicately spiced version of this regional favorite that I have had so far — including the version made in Nimi’s class. The fish was unusually tender and flavorful. Did it come from the nets around the corner? If so, there is something to be said for absolutely fresh fish. You’ll note in the photo the great number of curry leaves in this dish. Those curry leaf trees grow wild and they don’t hold back using as many as possible in these dishes. Delicious.

2 thoughts on “Thanks to Kublai Khan

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