At daybreak, the Chinese fishing nets of Fort Kochi are spread out like the skirts of a woman, waiting to catch the falling sun between their folds. A little later, the auction by the nets begin. The fishermen start selling fish in bulk to vendors and hotels. There is the clamour of voices shouting to be heard, and the distinct smell of fresh catch.
Aiyla, mathi, kozhuva, kannambu... They are all available. But the most popular is kannambu, or mullet. It is what Sebastian Varghese uses to make chuttulli meen, the signature dish of his restaurant in Brunton Boatyard, a heritage hotel in Fort Kochi. The recipe for the marinade of the fish was handed down from a Jewish family who lived there. The fish is filleted, smeared with roasted shallot paste and grilled. It is then broiled in salamander. The cooked fillet and potato is layered over a saffron sauce and accompanied by roasted aubergine and okra.
“The roasted shallot masala was exclusive to the Jews,” says Sebastian. “But the aubergine and the okra are elements we added. We have remained true to the values that the dish symbolises, and the essence of its taste, innovating mostly on the style and the presentation.”
Fort Kochi is the oldest European settlement in India. It was an important trading post controlled by the rulers of Kerala before the Portuguese came here in 1503, attracted by the availability of the ‘Malabar Gold’, or the valuable Keralan pepper, and ruled until 1682, when the Dutch took over. In 1795, the British came, and administered the place till India gained independence in 1947.
If you amble down the cobbled bylanes of Fort Kochi, you get the sense that the world is slowly purring to a stop. Everything moves at a leisurely pace—the foreigners in bohemian clothes sitting and smoking outside a roadside café; the mundu-clad men idling under the banyan tree; the person behind the counter of the only bakery in town that sells bruder, a sugar plum loaf which is of Dutch origin and is very popular here.
The cuisine of Fort Kochi bears traces of Portuguese, Dutch, Anglo-Indian and Jewish influences. The food habits of people here have evolved because of the constant trade that took place, says Oneal Sabu, a food writer from Fort Kochi. They have always been adaptable to change. Since not many people lived in Fort Kochi, there was a lot of intermixing of cultures and cuisines of different religions and communities. A popular dish, for example, is that of a different kind of biryani made with apricots, a mainstay of the Gujarati Bohra community that lives here. Everything has got an element of Kerala, like the rice and spices used, but is prepared in a very different way. The chuttulli meen was popularised by the Jewish settlers in Mattanchery because mullet was kosher for them. They prepared the dish using local ingredients.
Many of the hotels of Fort Kochi are capitalising on the rich history of the place by recreating dishes from the past. Some of these hotels themselves are built on heritage properties. The Brunton Boatyard, for example, used to be a shipyard set up by George Brunton more than a century ago. The luxury hotel has been designed to reflect its nautical roots, with the open-air reception resembling a ship deck, and a giant anchor placed in the main courtyard around which the hotel is built.
Situated right opposite the Chinese fishing nets is Kerala’s oldest hotel, Old Harbour, built in 1788. It is owned by Edgar Pinto, an Anglo-Indian who has restored it in a simple and minimalistic manner, retaining the original facades and elements of Dutch architecture. As we wait for our Portuguese pork vindaloo and rice on the lawn outside, the air is so humid that the intermittent breeze is a blessed relief. And so is the sight of our vindaloo, which was plated in an immaculate manner and tasted as good as it looked. The spiciness is tempered with a slight sweetness, which Biju Varghese, who prepared the dish, says is added by grinding raisins into the gravy to balance the flavour of the Kashmiri chilli.
Vindaloo is the Indian version of the Portuguese dish carne de vinha d’alhos, or meat marinated in wine. It quickly became a favourite of the people here, who replaced the wine, which wasn’t easily available in India, with coconut vinegar.
Our final stop was at Oceanos, a quaint restaurant in Fort Kochi that serves great seafood. Their butter garlic prawns was the best I’d tasted in a long while. But this time, on the trail of authentic Fort Kochi food, we decided to try the fish paal curry with appam. The paal curry is made by cooking the fish in the second extract of coconut and adding the thick part of the coconut milk at the end, before you take it off the flame. “Fort Kochi mostly consists of the fisherman community who devised the paal curry as a cheaper alternative to the Syrian Christian dish of fish mappas that is popular in places like Kottayam,” says Sabu.
As we make our way back to the bustle and noise of the city, we were left with the impression that we were returning from one of those rare places that has stayed the same—in its character, culture and cuisine—the more it has changed. A place paused in an eternal yesterday.