Kerala is renowned for its food, and Fort Cochin is home to some smart and some simple places for its famous fish curry and other local specialities. Looking like the worst kind of tourist trap, the Hotel Cochin Fort (“Hotel” in this context meaning “restaurant”, as so often is the case in India) stands on a corner opposite posh Brunton Boatyard hotel. We had dropped in a few times for cups of tea and cold beers in the past and were always given fast and helpful service, so we took a chance and booked a table outside for new year's eve. We didn't expect much, just somewhere to stay up late with a few drinks and a place where our friends visiting us from the UK would be able to smoke. But it was so much better than that. The restaurant had quite a few foreign tourists, and I was interested to see some domestic tourists and even some Keralan families there too. Although Cochin Fort offers Italian and continental dishes, we played it safe with the local cuisine. Tiger prawns, seerfish (local name for Spanish Mackerel or Kingfish), chicken and vegetable dishes filled the table and were light, fresh and spicy. My Chemmeen Mango Curry (made with green mangoes) was scrumptious. The wine wasn't bad (Banyan Tree), the beer was cold and the seven of us chatted to the watchful waiters as the clock ticked towards 2013.
Then it all went a bit bonkers: one of the waiters had brought some tunes which he added to an mp3 player belonging to one of the guests and an instant party was born. The doors were barred and we had a lock-in until 2.30am. An impromptu Gangnam Style dancefest to a sound system was so distorted we each danced in the rain to our own rhythm (oh yes, it rained like the monsoon and we all thanked our own gods for bringing some sorely needed water to Kerala). The chef danced on the tables, the waiters and owner's family danced in the rain, my friends danced in the fountain and I danced with a chair on my head.
The next day we passed the guys and had a big hug. It seems that after seven years of being open they had never had a party before this new year's eve. Good times, and hopefully the first of many more.
Bellar Road, Fort Kochi, Cochin 682 001
Alcohol is state controlled in Kerala and bars are kept strictly behind blacked out windows, or in international hotels. If you fancy a beer with the locals you'll have to head to one of the bars dotted around the city. Look for the big black and white diamond sign outside. The best of these is the Bar Oberoi on MG Road. It's not as dark and desperate as most of them, and is kept pretty clean (at least the rats and cockroaches are not visible). You'll be the only non-Indian in there, and if you're a woman you'll definitely be the only one. Between 5pm and 6pm most days the proprietor lights a series of incense sticks, each more smoky than the last, finishing with full-on frankincense that makes your eyes water, but smells nice. The food is average, freshly cooked, and has never made me ill.
MG Road, Ernakulam, 682035, Kerala
Google map: bit.ly/MAryGV
There are plenty of tourist restaurants in the chi-chi streets of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, some listed in the guide books, all expensive (by Kochi standards) and most serving up pretty good food. It's fun to pick a fish from the Chinese nets and to have it cooked in front of you. But for a flavour of authentic local food, at a local price, go to the commercial district of Ernakulam. The Hotel Saravana Bhavan serves the best vegetable thali in the whole of Kochi. (Like many restaurants in India it is called a 'hotel' when all it does is serve food, which can be a bit misleading as the hotels are usually called hotels too.) The non A/C section is always packed with local workers. For less than £1 they'll serve your meal on an ela (Malayalam for banana leaf) and keep re-filling it until you burst. There's an A/C section for posh people who like a bit of space, and cutlery.
As with all restaurants in India, get there early so you can pick up the food while it's still fresh and before the best dishes run out.
Banerji Road, Ernakulam, Kerala, India
+91 484 237 0153
Google map: bit.ly/LuzwlQ
When those ancient traders sailed from the Arabian Sea into the hectic spice port of Fort Cochin, they were greeted by rows of shore-based Chinese fishing nets. Crowding along the estuary, these primitive machines—like gigantic alien sentries from a Ridley Scott sci-fi film—have been in use for hundreds of years, and are found throughout Kerala's famous backwaters. Legend has it they came from the court of Kublai Khan, but the precise date is not known. Still in use today, the cantilevered contraptions stand around ten meters high, and about twenty meters wide. The nets dip in and out of the water all day, staying down for only five minutes before being levered back up. Fort Cochin is the best place to see them up close. Choose a fish straight from the net then watch it being grilled in front of you for a tasty supper.
River Road, Nr Vypeen ferry terminal, Fort Cochin
Google map: bit.ly/Ldl7Hy
If you want a break from the relentless manicured (for India) tourism of Fort Cochin, hop on a ferry across the estuary. Ernakalum District, of which Fort Cochin is only one small part, is Kerala's commercial hub. To get an idea of ordinary life for your average Kochiite put on your walking boots and refuse every offer from rickshaw drivers (not that you'll get hassled here, they are not so used to tourists).
Walk the length of Market Street, from Hospital Street to Banerji Road, and explore the lanes that run off this busy market area. There are no touts, and you won't be hassled to buy a carpet or 'antique'. The fella coming up and asking your name simply wants to welcome you to Kerala and talk to a foreigner, especially an English speaker. You'll find Jew Street, Muslim Street and Convent Road within a prayer of each other, illustrating the easy religious integration which characterises this enlightened state.
Turn right at the end of Market Street on to Banerji Road and pop into the Hotel Saravana Bhavan for the best vegetable thali in Kochi. (Like many restaurants in India it is called a 'hotel' when all it does is serve food, which can be a bit misleading as the hotels are usually called hotels too.) The non A/C section is packed with local workers every day. For less than a £1 they'll keep filling your plate or 'ela' (Malayalam for banana leaf) until you burst. There's an A/C section for posh people.
After lunch head a little further up Banerji Road and turn onto MG Road. Seemati has a fantastic textile section full of silks, satins and cottons for a tenth of the price you would pay in the UK. Chennai silks is great for sarees, salwaars and mens' clothes, they even have on-site tailors.
If you fancy a beer the best local bar is the Bar Oberoi on MG Road. It's not as dark and desperate as most of the diamond-signed bars all over town, and cleaner than most. You'll be the only non-Indian in there, and if you're a woman you'll definitely be the only one. Between 5 and 6 most days the proprietor lights a series of incense sticks, each more smoky than the last, finishing with full-on frankincense bowls.
Hotel Saravana Bhavan
Banerji Road, Ernakulam Bazar, Near Sritha Theatre, Kochi, Kerala 682031, India
+91 484 237 0153
If you would like a wonderful experience in learning to cook traditional Keralan style food, I recommend that you contact Nimmy Paul. I heard about her via various web searches for cookery classes before I travelled to Kochi and I saw lots of people were already praising her 'at home' cooking experiences as Nimmy has been a professional cookery teacher for over 20 years. We went as a group of three friends to Nimmy's house and she took us slowly through four different dishes, which was then followed by a wonderful meal. Nimmy and her husband welcome you into their home and could not have been more helpful. We were all given a small recipe book to take away and since coming home I've attempted about four different dishes - all wonderful!
Variamparambil, Chakalakal Road, Cochin, 682 015, Kerala, India
+91 484 2314293
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