On the Road in India Part One: Kerala
Last year I spend a couple of weeks driving with a couple of friends from the very south to the very north of India in a three wheeled auto-rickshaw named Bruce Wheelis (lovingly dubbed Brucie). We spent two weeks driving over 2,725 kms in what can best be described as a glorified lawnmower. We had the opportunity to stay in towns that almost never see Western tourists, to get lost on backroads, to see cows painted for festival days, and climb over crumbling Portuguese forts. We also got to eat some INCREDIBLE food and we had the best goddamn time.
Truck stops, street stalls and highway rest houses in India have some insanely good stuff to eat. Some of my favourite meals came from tiny shacks on the side of the road. We experienced the change from the hot, fragrant dishes of the South to the rich, spicy curries of the North along the highways and in tiny towns. My travel diary is full of descriptions of all the meals we ate along the way, too many to fit in one post. My plan for you, dear readers, is to present a series of short pieces detailing some of my favourite food adventures from all over India. I'm hoping to show you just a tiny snapshot of my travels.
I boarded a plane to Kerala from Colombo, Sri Lanka, just minutes after learning my Grandfather had died. I pulled out my phone to turn it off for the fight and saw the message from my family. I'd given them the wrong flight details so they had assumed I would already be in India and happily hanging out with friends when I heard the news. But instead I found myself the only westerner on a crowded flight, and therefore the object of much curiosity, while I coped with the news. I rarely get homesick when I travel, but at that time I felt like I was a very long way from home.
My friends were waiting for me in Allapuzha, or Allepey, which is a city of backwater canals and houseboats, an Indian Venice if you will. It's a couple of hours south on the bus from the airport. I was really not at my 'savvy traveller' best but, fortunately, people in India are incredibly kind. The bus driver who took me to the transport depot realised that I was pretty out of my depth and so he personally escorted me to the correct connection and got me onto the bus, explaining to the driver exactly where I was trying to go. I assume he said something along the lines of "This damn fool of a white lady is totally hopeless. Try and get her to Allapuzha in one piece before she ends up as a headline, yeah?''. A fellow passenger lent me her phone to call my friends and organise a meeting time.
I re-read my travel diary today and there were two phrases that I wrote and re-wrote so many times: Thank GOD for the kindness of strangers, and, we are SO LUCKY. Honestly. There are so many bad news stories about travelling in India. It's dangerous, you'll get ill, it's confronting, it's scary. And, yes, sometimes it can be all of those things. Travelling ANYWHERE can be all of those things. But more often than not, travelling in India is wonderful and the people are warm and generous.
I made it to Allapuzha, my friends poured me an enormous gin and tonic, and we watched the river roll by.
Two days later we were wandering along the waterfront of Fort Kochi to see the giant, counter-balanced fishing nets. Brought by Chinese fishermen centuries before, these nets have been catching fish for a long time. Their skeletal features created a dramatic silhouette against the setting sun.
During the day, rows of makeshift stalls had been set up along the path, piled high with the day's catch. Stray cats weaved in and out of the tables, hoping to snatch a fish while the stallholders were off-guard. We selected some huge prawns, and carried them over to one of the ramshackle restaurants that had set up on the roadside. The kitchen consisted of portable grills surrounded by faux-thatched screens. We sat at plastic tables on flimsy chairs and handed over our prawns to be grilled with pepper, chilli and ginger. They came back partially peeled, heads still attached, and they were hot and spicy. A big squeeze of lime finished them to perfection.
Food in Kerala is fragrant with curry leaves and mustard seeds. The proximity to the sea, and an abundance of rivers have made fish and seafood staple ingredients. Mango and coconut find their way into curries with prawns and squid. We ate pollichatu fish wrapped in banana leaves with onions, tomato and spices. We became regulars at Mary's: the titular Mary cooked while her husband took orders. Mary had a headache the next day so we headed down the road to Uncle's. Not an uncle in sight, but a group of friendly young women served us a very fresh fried fish with a big plate of pillowy Kerala rice.
Our favourite snack was parotta bread: round, flaky dough grilled on flat barbecues in the street outside restaurants. Usually this is served as an accompaniment to curries but we bemused everyone by buying stacks of them and eating them plain. They're flaky and soft. I unwound the coiled up dough, like I would a croissant or a cinnamon scroll.
Since coming back home I've been dreaming of grilled parotta, curry leaves and mustard seeds. The best South Indian cuisine I've found in Canberra is Binny's Kathitto. Their curries, chutneys and breads take me right back to the smells and flavours of Kerala. AND they have Kingfisher beer ON TAP. So it turns out coming home isn't so bad after all.
This is just part one of what will likely be a three part series (might be four, I haven't written 'em yet). I'll keep y'all updated on the next instalment so make sure you're following in all the relevant places: Facebook, Instagram, or just throw your email in the subscribe bar down the bottom of the page. Many thanks, friends.
**Since I began writing this piece Kerala has been hit with terrible monsoon flooding. Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. My heart breaks for the people in this beautiful area.