Friday, April 12, 2024

Kerala...plus my stir frying technique leaves something to be desired...

Cruising on the backwaters of Kerala


Chinese Fishing Nets

Our next stop in India was Fort Kochi in Kerala, a sliver of a state in the southwest corner of India. It’s a lot calmer than Mumbai (although certainly not cooler). The state of Kerala is known for its natural beauty, lush green areas, tranquil backwaters and one more thing - it has the highest literacy rate in India - 96.2%.  Interestingly, it also has stronger and better enforced traffic laws, where motorbike users actually wear helmets or they are ticketed, according to our great guide, Jayakrishnan. Hmm, higher literacy rates AND safer traffic situations…Are they related? 😏 

The highlight of our visit to Kerala was taking a leisurely cruise on the backwaters of Alleppey. We drove a long way to an absolutely lovely hotel in the countryside, Kumarakom Lake Resort. There we boarded a houseboat (just for the afternoon) on Vembanad Lake and set off for a serene afternoon sail.  





      


On another very hot night, we had a lovely evening with Nimmy Paul at a private cooking class in her home, where she attempted to show me some wonderful Keralan Syrian Christian recipes. Somehow her stir frying used a completely different technique than one I was used to. I usually scoop and turn over the ingredients to keep them moving. Nimmy just gently moved them around the oil in the pot. She didn't actually grab the wooden spatula out of my hand, but she indicated that I could use a gentler approach. 😬 

Somehow I've misplaced all my paperwork from that night, so the pictures will have to suffice. But we enjoyed a lovely dinner afterwards (which had been mostly cooked by Nimmy😏) in her beautiful colonial, Keralan traditional home.




I'm not sure putting this photo in black and white
hides the sweat pouring out of every pore, but I tried...

     


Oh, after dinner, Nimmy and her helper wrapped me in a saree as they showed me the elaborate tying technique. 😄















Fort Kochi is a charming town and the site of the first European fort in India, built by the Portuguese. Vasco de Gama arrived in Kerala in 1498 (and was buried here in 1524 until his remains were returned to Lisbon in 1538) and the Portuguese were officially ceded the territory in 1503. They held onto it until 1683 when the Dutch took over and ruled until 1795. Then the British defeated the Dutch and were in charge until Indian independence in 1947.
 
This mix of European rule resulted in very interesting buildings in Fort Kochi, with a mix of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial styles, as well as the wooden sloped roofs of Kerala architecture.
 
We walked around Fort Kochi and stopped at the St. Francis Church of South India, which is the oldest European church in India. It was built by the Portuguese in 1503. An other-worldly purple light greeted us at the entrance, guiding us down the center aisle. 

St. Francis Church

There are long swathes of material hung from the rafters, which are actually fans. They were operated by Indians in the olden sweltering days (which are still sweltering!). They pulled on ropes which were installed outside of the building and made a cooling breeze for the (probably way overdressed) Europeans in the pews. 😬




Another noteworthy thing about this church is that before the Dutch came, the Portuguese buried folks inside the church. Later the tombstones were moved to the walls and an outside graveyard became the customary burial spot.
 
Any visitor to Fort Kochi can’t miss the Chinese Fishing nets. These are old (and kind of rickety to my eyes 🙀) platforms built on the edge of the Fort Kochi harbor. Heavy rocks tied with thick rope provide the ballast to raise and lower nets into the water. Hopefully the nets come up to the surface full of fish. But no matter what the catch is, the fishermen have to contend with birds trying to get first dibs on the fresh fish. It’s quite wild and a little worrisome standing on the edge of the platform. They were introduced by the Chinese and have been in use for over 500 years!

 



  
 
The Mattancherry Palace, also known as the Dutch Palace, is gorgeous inside. It was built by the Portuguese after they destroyed a nearby temple and gifted to the Raj of Cochin in 1555. Inside the palace are magnificent murals of Hindu sacred texts, which unfortunately were not allowed to be photographed.

Royal Baby
   

 

We drove past the Santa Cruz Basilica, one of seven basilicas in Kerala. Our guide, Jayakrishnan, told us to take note of the brass flagpole in front of the church, which he said comes from the Hindu influence in the region. 

Okay, it's not the best photo,
but you can see the pole. 😟

Every Hindu temple has a flagpole in front and during the different festivals the main priest will hoist a saffron and red flag. Christian basilicas in Kerala, like Santa Cruz, have the same kind of flagpole. On Christian holy days, the main priest flies a multi-colored flag, as a nod to one of the many cross-cultural influences in Kerala.  

FYI, here's are two fantastic videos that Jayakrishnan sent me of a celebration at his local temple. (Note the elephants!)

 
 
A fascinating building in Fort Cochi is the Paradesi Synagogue, built in 1563 for the once thriving Jewish community. 

Paradesi Synagogue

 














Today there are two (yup, only TWO) Jewish residents left in Fort Kochi and so the synagogue is not used anymore. They need a quorum of ten adult males to make a minyan and be able to proceed with prayers. But it’s a beautiful space to visit.

The Kathakali performance of classical Indian dance was wonderful. It features male dancers acting out the male and female roles. The audience is invited to attend hours early to see the actors putting on their makeup. It is quite a sight. 

     



 

Friday, April 5, 2024

Spicy Mumbai

For any city lovers, Mumbai is an experience that has to be seen to be believed. The pulse of the city, the energy, even the chaos is unlike any other place. Compare it to any large city and multiply it a million times and put it on steroids and that’s Mumbai! 

You know how Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." Well, it would be impossible to be bored in Mumbai or even to have a lukewarm response to it. There are people everywhere, there is commerce on every street corner (and everywhere in between), there is a constant coming and going. 4 lanes of traffic become 8 as cars, buses, slews of motorbikes, trucks and carts all vie for any space available (and most likely not actually available). All of this is happening as every possible horn is being sounded steadily.

So this is a lot to absorb from a car, (which thankfully was being driven by a professional…at least I think he was!) but imagine having to cross a street like that! We did it numerous times, where there were no crosswalks, no traffic lights, just crossing the street in front of oncoming traffic! It does keep you alert! The funny thing is we never saw an accident, perhaps only a few close calls, but we never witnessed any motorbike, pedestrian or car crash. I can’t really explain it, except that no one was going superfast, but still…😮.

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I visited the amazing Lalbagh Spice Market with Aman, our guide. He explained that, just as with any regional cuisine, every cook has her or his own special recipe and way of doing things. 

Home cooks come to the Lalbagh Spice Market to have their own particular blend of spices made up. They come with a handwritten list, which is actually a formula of how many parts each of cumin, coriander, turmeric, bay leaves and so on are in the recipe. A large quantity of these spices is added to a huge wok-like pan over an open flame with a splash of oil and constantly turned (stir frying-like) over an open flame. Then the desired amount of chilies, (gargantuan amounts by western standards) is added to the mix and cooked some more. The whole shebang is put into an industrial machine and ground into a powder. It’s packaged up and the cook has a spice mix all ready to go, which could last for a year!




 

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Other sights of Mumbai:

The Taj Hotel

The Gateway to India

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (the main train station) a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a gorgeous example of Victorian British Colonial architecture.



Chowpatty Beach



University of Mumbai



Mani Bhavan - Now a library and research center, where Gandhi stayed when in Mumbai
 

The Central Telegraph Building
















Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji Jain Temple