Right from the start, Kerala felt like home – we absolutely loved living there (even when things didn’t really work properly!). I cannot describe in words how utterly, breathtakingly beautiful this part of the world is… but I do have loads of photos, so be advised, this is a pic-heavy post! You’ll thank me for it though.
Of course, the weather was glorious; we arrived in Fort Kochi at the beginning of February ’13, spent a week finding somewhere permanent to live, made the necessary arrangements, and then went on holiday for a week to seaside village of Alleppey!
Although it was warm (30c/86f), there was enough cloud cover, and a breeze from the sea, to make it not too hot to sit outside. Like the weather, the people, both in Alleppey and in Fort Kochi, are warm, sunny, friendly, kindly folk, and we found them always ready to help in any way they can.
I have to admit that I became completely enamoured with sitting on the beach at dusk, taking photos as the sun went down. It’s astonishing how much the skyscape changed from moment to moment. Just when I thought I had my ‘perfect’ shot, the clouds shifted, and there was another magical vista to take my breath away. I am so thankful for digital cameras – I dread to think how much I’d spend on films and processing otherwise!
Because it’s right on the Arabian Sea (how romantic does that sound?!), Kerala has no shortage of fishermen. From large, commercial ships, to smaller family vessels, to beautiful, vividly-painted wooden boats, to men who simply stand on the edge of the sea, patiently waiting for the right moment to cast their nets.
Many of the villages have an area by the sea, where they dry out hundreds of thousands of tiny fish. I think these are then used as bait and in animal feed. They may have other uses – I didn’t enquire… I was quite happy to skedaddle ASAP, due to it being a bit on the whiffy side.
We used to see so many men casting their nets in the sea – every single day. Some were at it for hours and hours on end, while others only stuck around for a couple of hours in the evening.
And then there are the enormous famous nets, brought over by the Chinese when they made Fort Kochi their home. These nets line the backwaters villages too; at night, it’s pitch black, save for the small lamps on the tops of the nets. Amid all the creature sounds, is the creaking from the nets being raised and lowered, and the gentle splashing of the water as they slip in and out. It’s very atmospheric.
(By the way, while I am vegan, I also understand that I won the geographical birth lottery, which has given me the luxury of having an excellent education, and a lifestyle that enables me to choose what to eat, use, wear, etc. – even where to live. Not everyone in the world is as fortunate; goodness knows, I have seen and helped enough people in my life, who are on or below the poverty line, to understand that ethics are only really feasible when you have a full belly. It would be churlish of me to look unfavourably upon folk, simply because they have not had the advantages that I have, and don’t hold the same ethical views as me; very often, they simply have no choice but to eat what is available to them. It would also feel inherently disrespectful to all the people who struggle, and work incredibly hard to make ends meet – and yet show nothing but kindness and generosity toward curious foreigners such as myself – to pretend that they don’t exist, or to dismiss them as not worthy of documenting, simply because they eat animals and I don’t. That’s why I photograph and post photos of people going about their daily business.)
Down by the Chinese fishing nets are merchants and fishermen selling their catches; some are permanent stalls, consisting of beautifully displayed fish and seafood, while others are just small tables set up for the purpose of selling a few handfuls of small fish, prawns etc. Some of the larger stalls are attached to the restaurants a few metres away; you can buy your food etc. from them, and then take it to the restaurant to be cooked for you. The same goes for some of the fishermen who operate the large nets, except you can actually catch your own fish, and then take it to be cooked for you. It’s not something I would do but if you’re going to eat fish, then how often do you get the opportunity to have something so fresh?
Until we moved to India, I had no idea that there were so many varieties of prawns, or that they could be so large. Average-sized beasties are priced at 350 rupees per kilo (approx. 3.50 GBP), while the biggest tiger prawns I’ve ever seen in my life, sell for 800 rupees p/k (8.00 GBP). The mid-sized ones – which are sold as ‘jumbo’ in the UK, for upward of 25.00 GBP – cost 500 rupees in Fort Kochi. Cheapest of all are the mixed ones, which are about the size of shrimps – you can buy them for around 100-150 rupees per kilo.
As you might expect then, Fort Kochi food is nothing short of amazing. Indian food in general has always been up there in my top three cuisines, and during our time in the UK, we had a Keralan restaurant close by, which gave us a taste for South Indian food. It’s fair to say that it was fundamental in our decision to live in this part of India.
Possibly the best aspect to the food in Kerala is that there is an abundance of vegetarian cuisine, in fact, there seemed to be more veggie food than meaty stuff. The tropical climate means there is a veritable feast of fresh, local fruit and vegetables. For the only time in my life, I didn’t feel as though I was in the minority by not eating animals!
I found that some of the dishes in Fort Kochi were very spicy (I had my first spicy vegetable korma on the night we arrived in FK – it almost blew my face off!) but I soon learned that cooks will tone the food down if you ask them. Something else we found, which was absolutely great, was that at most cafés and restaurants, the food is cooked fresh, from scratch. Of course, the trade-off is that it could take up to an hour for our meals to arrive but it was always well worth the wait. We learned to not go out for food when we were really hungry – that it was far better to go when we were starting to get peckish! The upside of waiting for food to be cooked was that we got to sit down, away from our computers, to just chat or play games together. We actually still play games now, while we wait for our food in European eateries!
The exception to the long wait was in the larger restaurants, particularly those attached to high-end hotels, and obviously aimed solely at tourists. Although the food was still very good, the batches of generic sauces they keep on the go, to which they add other ingredients as necessary, means that it’s not as easy to have vegan food. If you eat dairy, and don’t want to wait too long for your food, these places could be a good option, especially if you like to drink alcohol. Booze is strictly controlled in Fort Kochi, and most eateries do not serve it because the licence is prohibitively expensive. That said, even the larger, more affluent establishments are not allowed to serve alcohol if they are close to a school. I applaud this.
In addition, alcohol consumption is not really a big thing in FK. There is a state-owned liquor store away from the heritage part of town (where most of the tourism happens), which is only open for a couple of hours a day, and which actually looks more like a jailhouse than an off-licence. And trust me, it’s not the place to go if you are female! There are also a couple of bars secreted away in back streets, which, when I went in one to buy a bottle of rum, I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie… and not in a good way.
We preferred to eat at smaller, independent places though – such as homestays – where I could watch the food being cooked (which was a huge bonus for me!), and where it was cooked according to our needs. And where we could drink lime and soda water to our hearts’ content. Believe me, it’s the best drink for quenching your thirst.
I can’t not mention pudding… or rather, mithai – Indian sweets. I’ve had burfi before, laddoo, and a few other sweetmeats but I had no idea just how many different types of these little parcels of nom there are. They were my downfall.
Fortunately, to offset the sweets, there’s a plethora of greengrocers in Fort Kochi, and we quickly made friends with these guys, whose shop was a 60 second walk from our first apartment. Phew!
Oh, and finally, a revelation…. I discovered that I love deep-fried chillis. Who’d’ve thunk it? Unlike their Thai counterparts, Indian chillis are not made from purest evil, and are in fact, very yummy. Especially when they’re like this…
Here are just a few of the dishes I learned to make when we lived in India:
Vegan Mulligatawny Soup
Vegan Murgh Makhani
How to make naan
How to make cashew cream
How to make Madras curry powder
How to make garam masala
Aloo gobi masala
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