?Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. Her gourmet adventure starts in the vibrant city of Kochi.
I’m on a culinary adventure. Kerala on the west coast of the southern tip of India is known for its beauty and for its food. Gordon Ramsey has been here. Rick Stein has been here. And now I, though definitely not an expert cook by any stretch, am here, to experience the food and learn how to make it from some of the area’s best chefs.
As soon as I arrived at the airport I was bombarded by smells, flavours, colours, and noise. This is the India I expected – bustling, lively, and thriving.
Kochi itself has a history of busyness. The Portuguese came here from the west, followed by the Dutch, and then inevitably wherever there was trade and money to be made, the British. They weren’t the only ones to visit, and all have left their mark; in Fort Kochi where I am staying, there’s the Dutch Palace, Vasco de Gama Square, the Jewish Synagogue, and so on.
On the banks of Vembanad Lake, a busy thoroughfare from the sea through to Kochi port, local fishermen use Cheena Vala, or Chinese fishing nets as the Indians call them, to catch mullet, Indian salmon, and a halibut-like fish locally called Motha.
We went to watch them work, heaving weights at one end, to raise nets out of the sea at the other, singing a Malayalam version of heave-ho, as they went. As they pulled up their nets, a large cargo ship passed by. This is India as you’d imagine it – a mix of ancient methods used against a backdrop of modernity, a mix of cultures, absorbed into one giant melting pot.
The food we ate that evening reflected Kochi’s multi-cultural heritage. Chuttulli Meen, a fish dish handed to our first chef, Ajeeth, from a Jewish family, serving as the Brunton Boatyard Hotel’s signature main course. It was delicious – mullet smeared with roasted shallots and ginger, grilled, broiled, and then layered up onto sliced potatoes and saffron sauce made with coconut milk. It was light and rich all at the same time, clearly Asian food, and yet of immigrant origin.
Ajeeth came to join us after we had eaten. All the fish we ate that evening was sourced locally, he explained, from fishermen who he has built a trusted relationship with over the course of several years. Provenance is important as well as quality. Ajeeth won’t use fish from polluted waters, and takes care to use what is plentiful in the waters and the landscape around. The food can’t help but reflect the place where it’s made. The dishes on our menu may have started out as recipes brought here by Orthodox Jews, or Syrian Christians, but when it’s made with the ingredients of the place, it can’t help but become local in flavour.
Sounds like every dish has a story to tell. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.
Johanna is a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.