For millennia traders from all over the world have come to the coast of Kerala to buy spices, for this is where the world's best pepper and cardamom have always been grown. Ships from Egypt, Rome, Arabia, China, Portugal and Holland docked in the port city of Kochi, from where they returned home laden with the spices that were avidly sought by food lovers from Lisbon and Paris to Damascus and Xi'an.
Jewish traders from the middle-east were an essential part of the spice trade and there was a thriving Jewish community in Kochi, located a short distance from the King's palace where they lived under royal protection. The oldest synagogue in India, dating from the mid-sixteenth century, still stands in the centre of Kochi's Jew Town, which is even today the heart of the spice trade. The Indian Pepper Exchange, where bulk trading of pepper is carried out, is located a few minutes walk from the synagogue. The surrounding streets are lined with spice shops in which you can buy every type of spice imaginable.
The wealth generated by the spice trade has always attracted people eager to control it. The Portuguese, led by the explorer Vasco da Gama, landed on the coast of Kerala in 1498 and seized control of Kochi. They built the first Catholic church in India, now known as St Francis, and it was here that Vasco da Gama was buried when he died in Kochi in 1524. Fifteen years later his body was moved to Lisbon where it still lies in a cathedral built near the docks from which he sailed.
After a century and half of Portuguese rule Kochi was captured by the Dutch, who were in turn displaced by the British in the early nineteenth century. The old town of Kochi still shows a fascinating mixture of Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. The harbourfront is lined with cantilevered fishing nets, a memorial to the Chinese trades who were once frequent visitors, that are today an iconic symbol of Kochi's fascinating history.
Colonial Fort Kochi is the best place to experience the multi layered history of this area. Here you will see old churches, synagogues, palaces and forts including a scenic beachfront area with the Chinese fishing nets.
On our way to Fort Kochi, we got stuck in a massive traffic jam right outside this shop selling freshly fried banana chips, a specialty of Kerala. Banana chips being a weakness of mine and as traffic was at a standstill, we stepped out for a quick look.
It was fascinating to see raw green bananas sliced into thin chips, deep fried and transformed into crisp, warm wafers imbued with salty, banana flavours. I loved them so much I almost made a meal out of them!
When we finally reached Fort Kochi, we found the picturesque beachfront area bustling with tourists as well as vendors selling everything from trinkets and souvenirs to snacks like pakoras, pickles, roasted nuts, coconuts and even freshly caught fish, which they offered to clean for us right on the spot!
The Brunton Boatyard Hotel is an oasis of calm at one end of Fort Kochi and occupies the gorgeously restored historic shipyards. Breathing in the quiet elegance of this place, with colonial era decor, made us feel as though we had stepped back in time!
The cuisine here is authentic, drawing inspiration from Kochi's long trading history with Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese and British.
At their History Restaurant, each dish speaks a different language and reflects a unique heritage. You will find Anglo Indian beef cutlets on the menu, as well as Syrian fish curry, Portuguese pork vindaloo, and a sublime cinnamon laced, coconut milk creme caramel called Vattalappam that pays homage to it's Dutch roots.
Executive chef Ajeeth Janardhanan met with us to share some of the stories of Brunton Boatyard as well as some of his treasured recipes. He sometimes takes groups of visitors on a tour of the area, stopping by at vegetable and fish markets and other interesting sites to give people an idea of the multi layered history of this place.
Our lunch was at the Armoury cafe of the hotel. Sitting back in this lovely, cool space with a beautiful bar at one end, overlooking the busy harbour and lovely scenery at the other, was a rejuvenating experience. The seafood thali with grilled marinated fish, spicy mussels, masala calamari and the delicate prawn biryani with spicy mango pickles had us hooked! The food was incredible, well prepared with fresh ingredients and local spices and just so flavourful!
One of the most popular dishes on their menu is First Class Railway Mutton Curry. I was drawn to this dish by its intriguing name. The story dates back to the British Raj, when first class compartments of steam trains used to be reserved for the English and their families. Indian curries were deemed too spicy for them and therefore not served there. One day a hungry officer smelled good things cooking, followed his nose to the train kitchens and insisted on a taste of the mutton curry simmering on the stove. He liked it so much that he insisted this curry always be served on the train's first class compartments as well!
Chef Ajeeth and his team still follow the traditional recipe of preparing this mutton curry, including cooking it in a brass pot for over 4 hours. Here is his wonderful recipe which is great with Coconut rice, appams or naan.
First Class Railway Mutton Curry
11/4 lb boneless, cubed leg of lamb or goat, trimmed of fat
1/4 cup plain Balkan style yogurt
4 cloves garlic, minced or grated
1 inch piece ginger, minced or grated
Salt to taste
2 tbsp oil
4 each, whole spices: green cardamom, cloves, star anise
2 inch stick cinnamon
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 large plum tomatoes (fresh or canned), pureed in food processor
20 raw cashews, powdered OR use 2 tbsp ground almonds
1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, ground black pepper, turmeric, paprika
1 tsp each: ground coriander, ground cumin, garam masala
1/2 cup thick coconut cream, skimmed off the top of a can of premium coconut milk
2 tbsp each: chopped fresh coriander leaves, fresh lemon juice
Combine lamb or goat, yogurt, minced garlic, ginger and salt in large mixing bowl. Toss well to coat, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or preferably overnight.
Warm oil in deep heavy saucepan or skillet set over medium heat.
Add cardamom, cloves, star anise and cinnamon stick. When the spices sizzle, add onions. Saute until lightly browned, about 8-10 min.
Add lamb with all of its marinade, stirring to mix into the sauce and browning for 5 min.
Add tomatoes, powdered cashews or ground almonds and all the spices. Cook until tomatoes blend into the sauce and thicken it slightly, about 8 min.
Add 1/2 cup water, cover pot and reduce heat to very low. Cook until lamb is very tender and sauce thick, about 2 hours or longer, stirring occasionally. If curry starts to burn at the bottom of the pan, add another 1/4 cup of water.
Mix in the coconut cream and cook for another 15 min. Fold in the fresh coriander and lemon juice.