HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cochin: Welcome to God's Own Country

My entry point into the subcontinent was Cochin International Airport, about 40 kilometers outside of the city it is named after. Doesn’t sound that far away, right? Well, in India, no distance can be taken for granted. Thanks to incredible traffic, terrible roads, cows, and rain, the bus ride to the western edge of the city, an island called Fort Cochin, took over two hours. Although I guess the traffic is understandable, considering the fact that Cochin is the biggest city in Kerala, with a metro population of about 1.5 million.

I was dropped off in the dark of a Fort Cochin street, disoriented, my way lighted by a few weak street lamps and some brilliant bolts of lightning. I found my guesthouse thanks to a very helpful autorickshaw (from here on just called “auto”) driver, checked in, and went to get dinner.

I had a great mushroom masala at Femina Family Restaurant, a roadside shack, along with rice and parota, which is the primary type of bread eaten in southern India. The meal was a great start to the trip in terms of food, and I made it back to my room just before the rain started again. I should mention that I had arrived just a few days before Kerala’s monsoon season was set to start. Locals spoke in hushed voices about ‘June 1st’, as if it was the day of reckoning. Many people thought I was crazy for showing up just as the rain was about to start. Such timing made for some humor later in the trip.
Anyway, back to Fort Cochin. The following morning I went for my usual amble around a new place. Cows and goats wandered aimlessly; the cows grazing on weeds and the goats eating, well, pretty much anything, by the looks of it. People were going about their morning business in many ways: going to temple, cooking food, opening shop, etc.

 I made my way over to Mattancherry Palace, which was originally built by the Portuguese in 1555 as a gift to the local leader. The Dutch repaired it in 1665, so it is also sometimes called the Dutch Palace. Today, it isn’t really all that impressive, but there is a mildly interesting museum inside, and it’s a good place to get a sense of the old, and also to gain an understanding of how the colonial European empires vied for control of this vital stop in the international spice trade.

Next up was a neighborhood with probably the most politically-incorrect official name I’ve ever heard – Jew Town. Home to an old synagogue and some very colorful craft shops, this area gave me another glimpse of old Cochin.
Paradesi Synagogue
I picked my way down bustling Bazaar Street, which was heaving with morning commerce: storehouses were packed with sacks of potatoes and onions, and trucks were nearly running over livestock as they hurried to deliver their goods. Men were hauling things all over the place, and I struggled to stay out of their way.

Eventually I made it to the northern tip of Fort Cochin, where one can find the ruins of the fort the island is named after, some swanky hotels, and the fascinating Chinese fishing nets. These nets employ fishing methods that are 1,000 years old, and as you stand on the coast of the Arabian Sea and look back, they stand in striking contrast to Cochin’s modern container port, located just across the bay.

modernity v. antiquity
At this point I began to realize that, as fascinated as I was by the colonial relics, the locals were equally fascinated by me. This will come up again in later posts, but many people simply stared at me, while others were eager to just shake my hand, even if they couldn’t speak any English. A lot of locals asked me where I was from, and their reactions to my response surprised me. We hear a lot about how America’s reputation around the world is in tatters – the country is arrogant, ignorant, and loud; it is simply a new version of the old imperial powers. However, whenever I told someone I was from the U.S., their face lit up with joy, and many responded with something like “Ah! The USA! A great place!” A significant number also made their fondness for President Obama clear as well, a fact that would surely annoy anyone at Fox News. Despite his unpopularity back home, Obama is clearly still beloved on the other side of the world. Some people would simply shout an exultant “Obama!”, and one young man added, “Yes, Obama, much better than Bush!” An auto driver even had a “Yes We Can” campaign flyer on him. (He was using it as part of a scam, but still.) Such enthusiasm startled me, since political discourse in the U.S. has become so hateful. What a refreshing change it was to talk to people that aren’t filled with blind rage about someone!

After an excellent lunch of a Vegetable Paneer Kati roll and banana lassi, I met up with my childhood friend Kevin, who had come from Chennai. We would be traveling together for the next week. That night, at the Casino Hotel on the island between Fort Cochin and Ernakulam, the center of the city, we had a seafood dinner that, we both agreed, was one of the best we had ever had. That’s saying a lot, coming from two natives of New Orleans. Our menu was rolled out to us in a cart (first time that’s ever happened), and we were able to choose our own fish, shellfish, and a massive, arm-length lobster. The shellfish platter, which consisted of grilled crab, prawns, and lobster, was extraordinary, and the fish, cooked inside a banana leaf, was absolutely delicious. This meal set the food bar quite high after just two days in India.
the menu
Fish cooked in a banana leaf.
Staggeringly good
I really enjoyed my two days in Fort Cochin. There is a lot of history to soak up, and the food is great. It’s the perfect place for a soft landing in India – smaller crowds, fewer bloodthirsty buses, less noise, etc. Two days is plenty of time to walk around and see the sights, so if you’re ever in southern India definitely check it out.

The morning after our amazing seafood dinner we packed up and headed to Munnar, a small town in the mountainous Western Ghats. I’ve got some stories from that place, but they’ll have to wait for the next post.

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