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
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