If there is anyone left who still believes that Indian food is best enjoyed after 10 pints of lager then the Taj Hotel Group tour of Culinary Kerala might be just the ticket. Known as ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala is one of India’s most economically successful federations. Governed by a democratically elected communist government it boasts a literacy rate of over 90% and more importantly proffers some of the finest grub in the world.
Of course, the first Westerner to fully appreciate the mind boggling cornucopia of Keralan delights was the Portuguese explorer, adventurer and thoroughgoing butcher, Vasco Da Gama, who, in 1499, stumbled upon its shores and was buried in Cochin some years later- which is where our trip begins.
Built in 1934 the Taj Malabar Cochin, just over the harbour from the old town, is a full on five star hotel retreat with an spa to die for and a quite marvellous infinity pool that looks over the bay and, whose grandeur is only topped by its cracking dinners. Our first chow down in typical Keralan fashion comprised multiple courses, almost like a taster menu: chunks of black cod, Marsala king prawns subtly spiced and wrapped in a banana leaf, Tilapia fish curry accompanied by almost citrus flavoured string hoppers (made from rice noodles curled into flat spirals) and three very different desserts. Quite an astonishing assault on ye old taste buds. I was so taken aback that I had to steady myself with liberal lashings of chilled Sancerre (yes you can drink here). From the first mouthful I was in love and by the last I was full to bursting.
The next morning we jumped on a boat across the bay to Fort Cochin. Our first stop was Jew Town, which, not surprisingly, is where the Jewish traders first came in the 6th Century BC. They lived happily until the Portuguese butcher Alberto de Albuquerque, arrived in the early 1500’s and killed most of them - leaving just one tiny synagogue that today serves the 30 remaining Jews in the town. Travelling on foot we walked by brightly painted houses in the Portuguese style next to shops owned by a Mr. Almeida or a Mr.De Souza, passed typical back packer hotels full of ginger dreadlocks and bundles of spice shops full of ginger until we came to The Church of St Francis. Built by Albuquerque in 1510, it was in taken over a hundred years later by the Dutch who declared it Protestant, then used by English Anglicans as their parish church during the Raj.
A hop, skip and a jump later I was sitting down to a famously healthy pro biotic Hindu Sadya vegetarian lunch at the hotel. Comprising liquid curry, Sambar, the famous south Indian vegetable stew in crushed lentils, onions, chillies coriander and, turmeric and side dishes of Thoran minced string beans and cabbage mixed with grated coconut. “Every ingredient in Keralan gastronomy is included for a reason,” explained our culinary guide Sriram Aylur, head chef at London’s Michelin starred Quilon restaurant. “They are there for their medicinal benefits as well as their flavour adopting Ayervadic [which translated means ‘life science’] influences. Pepper is good for a cold , Fenugreek is anti flatulent.” I must say, after such an onslaught of veg and lentil, I was glad of the latter while my companions were ecstatic.
Following a magnificent kip that night in a bed the size of Lake Geneva the next morning we travelled inland to the home of Mr. Thomas that, situated on a secluded riverbank in the middle of the jungle, is accessed only by canoe. Sitting at our make shift table surrounded by coconut trees, we sampled a home cooked lunch prepared in the less spicy Syrian Christian fashion. It featured more meat, fish and coriander and less chilli, and was introduced by Syriac Orthodox monks who followed the pioneering Saint Thomas who came to Kerala in AD52. Another example of Keralan adaptation it included Meen Mollee; A fish stew with potatoes and onions simmered gently in a creamy white sauce flavoured with black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, lime juice, and coconut milk that, eaten with Appams – soft spongy rice flour pancakes- and helped down by a few ice cold Cobra’s, was the stuff of legend.
Consequently, given a flimsy bit of bandage about the width of a child’s finger to cover my privates I was plonked on a table, doused in enough fragrant Ayervadic oil to cook a large cow and kneaded by a man named Sunny.
At this point I was up for a little lie down but thankfully, Thomas Junior, was having none of it. So, in a little dug out canoe we ventured down the achingly silent river into man made canals past tiny iridescent blue kingfishers, herons and cormorants while Jr. pointed out plant after plant whose healing properties are apparently able to sort out all manner of ailments from the common cold to kidney stones.
Our next destination was the magnificent Taj Garden Retreat that, known as ‘the little jewel of Kumarakom,’ will plonk you slap bang into the pages of a Rudyard Kipling novel. Built in 1823 this elegant and essentially British colonial sprawl sits on the edge of the massive Lake Vembanad next to a bustling bird sanctuary. Known for meditation, massage and Moplah cuisine, I skipped the first and plumped for an Ayervadic rub down. Consequently, having been given a flimsy bit of bandage about the width of a child’s finger to cover my privates I was plonked on a table, doused in enough fragrant Ayervadic oil to cook a large cow and kneaded by a man named Sunny. Yet curiously, even though I’d been humiliated by bandage, greased like a Mongolian wrestler, and dutifully massaged, I walked away feeling absolutely marvellous.
Dinner that night was a Moplah or Malabar-Muslim feast that reflecting the 22,000 year influence of Arabic traders on Keralan cuisine (India’s first Mosque was built in the province). It came in at a mighty 18 (small) courses but, unlike said Arabs, we had both wine and spirits to help it all down. Pomfret cooked in mustard, fenugreek, garlic and green chilies, sea brill marinated in salt, turmeric, chicken stuffed with prawns, an incredible Chicken Biriani. A glorious dinner fit for a King, it really took my breath away.
To be sure, the next morning I did not want to leave the enormously tranquil Kumarakom- not ever - but after much kicking and screaming was persuaded, to tear myself away in a Southerly direction down South through the spine of Kerala, past the bustling townships of Allepey, Quilon and Trivandrum to our final destination, The Taj Green Cove Kovalam.
The hotel occupies a hill overlooking the beach at Kovalam, which, as luck would have it, was the location for our closing dinner in Kerala. A magnificent sunset barbecue consisting all kinds of sea beasties including oysters, sea bream, langoustine, sea bass and tilapia. All that one might enjoy in a Marsala (coriander, chilli and cumin) or a pepper, cinnamon and cardamom sauce or just slapped on the barbie au naturel, I pushed the boat out and unable to stop myself gorged plate after plate of perhaps the freshest most delicious fish I have ever come across. Some wag suggested that I might well have eaten half of Kerala’s annual catch in one night and on refection I don’t think they were far wrong.
The perfect meal to end a perfect five days in Kerala that, featuring some of the finest meals I have ever encountered, not only allowed me the inside track on this beautiful destination but also illustrated why their food is the envy of India and furthermore why the province produces some of India’s most accomplished chefs. Kerala is indeed the sum of it’s many quite remarkable parts.
Book the five night Taj culinary tour of Kerala with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000 / www.coxandkings.co.uk £1,395 per person (twin share) including flights, accommodation with full board, transfers and all excursions.
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