While still planning my trip last fall, my sister-in-law, Bindi, told me that she was going to be antique shopping when she went to Kerala. I thought that was a good idea that sounded like fun so, when my husband and I were in Calicut, we did the exact same thing.

 

Back again on S.M. Street we stopped in at Indian Metals (yes, that is the real name and, no, it is not very original but it is clear) that sold many different types of metal home products. From the brass lanterns, candlesticks and bowls to aluminum pots, this store was crowded from floor to ceiling with merchandise. 

 

The Indian Metals store sells new and antique brass items.

The Indian Metals store sells new and antique brass items.

 

After we entered the shop, we asked the salesman if he had any paras. A para is a fairly large container (looks like a bucket) that was used to measure rice over a hundred years ago when farmers took their crops to market. I am told that each one would hold about 15 pounds of paddy. They are no longer used for measuring rice since India adopted the metric system. Paras had additional uses as well. They would be filled with rice at the end of harvest and used as an offering to the gods. Also, they are filled with rice and topped with a few flowers to welcome important guests to one’s home. The original paras were made from a single hollowed out piece of wood and decorated with bands of brass around the top and bottom for support. Today they are made out of brass.

 

New brass parras.

New brass parras.

 

The salesman showed us several versions of the modern brass paras in various sizes but only had one antique. I deliberated for quite a while because the modern ones looked like really good quality brass that I would be proud to display in my house. Finally we decided to buy the antique one because it was so lovely and unique.

 

New brass parras.

New brass parras.

 

Now we head to Wayanad for coffee, tea and an elephant…

 

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In the old part of town, S.M. Street (short for Sweet Meat Street) is the center of the shopping district. Here one can buy clothes, household goods, antiques, spices and, best of all, snacks and sweets. Since the street is narrow, it is best to park the car and walk around to get the full effect of the atmosphere.

 

SM Street in Calicut, Kerala, India is a shopping adventure not to be missed.

SM Street in Calicut, Kerala, India is a shopping adventure not to be missed.

 

Sankaran Bakery in SM Street in Calicut has the best banana chips in the world.

Sankaran Bakery in SM Street in Calicut has the best banana chips in the world.

I consider my father-in-law to be the world’s leading authority on snacks and sweets since he consumes them every day. Our first stop was the Sankaran Bakery. There we purchased several different varieties of banana chips. Since my favorites are the whole sliced chips, we bought about 3 kilograms (only about 6.5 pounds). These are light and crispy circular banana slices that are lightly salted. We also bought sliced chips that have been cut into quarter, just like pieces of pie. They are crunchier than my favorite but are just as tasty. The third type we bought was the sweet variety that is coated in jaggery after they are fried. My husband loves these. I will confess now that at least a half-pound of chips did not survive to see the next day. Kerala is also known for other fried snacks as well. As you can see from the photo, mixtures with different types of ingredients are common (like Chex Mix). All are crunchy and crispy but vary by level of heat and sweetness. When freshly prepared, there is nothing better with a beer or a scotch than Kerala snacks!

 

 

Inside the Sankaran Bakery in Calicut, India.

Inside the Sankaran Bakery in Calicut, India.

 

Sankaran Bakery also sells delicious desserts. We bought a few pieces of Mysore Paak (a dessert made with ghee, sugar and gram flour that is so sweet and delicious, it should be illegal) and Laddus (made with flour and sugar, and equally delicious). The owner of the store gave me a few pieces to ‘test’ because I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to nibble on them. I wonder if he thought I was an eccentric tourist who needed a sugar fix. He and the staff were very patient with me as I took several photos of them and the shop.

 

Kalpaka Bakery in SM Street in Calicut has delicious halwa in 20 flavors.

Kalpaka Bakery in SM Street in Calicut has delicious halwa in 20 flavors.

Just a short distance from Sankaran Bakery is Kalpaka Bakery and Halva Stores. My husband and I stopped there because of the huge display of dates in the front case. After eating at least a half dozen each day we were in Dubai, I was hooked and wanted more fresh ones. Once we stepped inside the shop, I came to a sudden stop when I saw the entire back wall and side wall were filled with huge blocks of halwa in every color of the spectrum.  Many countries from the Middle East and Africa to Europe and South Asia have their own version of halwa. In India, it looks like a large piece of fruit jelly candy but the flavor doesn’t compare because it is from fruit or nuts, not flavoring. The owner told me they carry 20 different varieties of halva including strawberry, banana, apricot, pineapple, pistachio, coconut and the famous Kerala black halwa.

 

For years I had turned up my nose at black halwa (also known as Kozhikode halwa) because I didn’t like the color. When I was offered a taste at Kalpaka Bakery, I changed my mind and decided I loved it. Made with rice flour, coconut, dark jaggery and ghee, it is a very decadent sweet that melts in your mouth. The flavor is quite unique – my first impression was that it tasted like India: dark, rich, and sophisticated. No wonder it is my husband’s favorite halwa.

 

A small sample of the delicious halwa at Kalpaka Bakery in Calicut, India.

A small sample of the delicious halwa at Kalpaka Bakery in Calicut, India.

 

From here, we went shopping for things that are a lot less fattening…

 

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After our delightful experience on the houseboat, we checked in to our rooms for the remainder of our stay. We were thrilled when we learned that our river view rooms had been upgraded to river front cottages!

 

The rooms were huge. Large enough to require 2 ceiling fans, this air-conditioned cottage was more like a suite with living and kitchen areas, private sit out balcony and a bay window seat. This window, complete with beautiful round pillows is the best place to feel like you are in a tree house, as high up as the coconuts, with the best view of paradise.

 

Our bungalow high up in the trees overlooking the river.

Our bungalow high up in the trees overlooking the river.

I have to admit that the nights I spent at the resort were the best night’s sleep I had since leaving Dallas. The peace and quiet along with a comfy bed…..

 

Gardens at Gardens at the Kadavu Resort in Calicut, Kerala.

Gardens at Gardens at the Kadavu Resort in Calicut, Kerala.

Each day we dined at the Oottupura restaurant that serves traditional Malabar cuisine. The menu offers a variety of food in addition to lovely breakfast and dinner buffets. The food is traditional Kerala cuisine. The dining room is attractive, comfortable and clean offering both indoor and outdoor seating with views of the river. The staff was very helpful and responsive; it didn’t matter if I made a request of someone who was not our waiter, it was handled immediately and courteously. The staff answered all of our questions and knew the menu well. On one occasion, our late lunch seemed to take too long to be served but that may be due to the lateness of our arrival and the fact that we were in a hurry. The menu was very reasonably priced.

 

My only regret is that the restaurant called Uru, which serves Malabar cuisine as well as several international cuisines, was closed for renovations during our visit.

 

In my next post, I will search for the best banana chips and sweets, two items for which Kerala is famous.

Flowers in the garden at Gardens at the Kadavu Resort in Calicut, Kerala.

Flowers in the garden at Gardens at the Kadavu Resort in Calicut, Kerala.

 

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Since my last trip to Kerala, I had wanted to ride on a houseboat. I had learned that people rent them for weeks at a time for a restful vacation. With the luxury options ranging from simple mosquito netting to air-conditioned rooms and gourmet cooks who prepare freshly caught fish for your meals, a trip on one of these special boats would be a real treat. When checking out where we would stay in Calicut, I learned that this hotel offered a houseboat option. I immediately told my husband that we needed to do this for one night.

 

 

Grilled Chicken Cafreal is based on the authentic recipe from Goa India.

Boarding the houseboat at the resort.

 

Upon our arrival at the resort, we immediately checked at the houseboat and placed orders for our dinner. (The food for the houseboat was actually cooked in the hotel kitchen and delivered to the houseboat so I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about food safety.) Our room was lovely with its wooden walls. I was impressed to note that, in addition to a fruit tray, the room was equipped with a full bathroom and shower with fluffy towels. Personally, I think my father-in-law was impressed with the TV and DVD player.

 

One of the bedrooms on the houseboat.

One of the bedrooms on the houseboat.

 

After we were settled, out dinner was served. With the overhead fan mosquitoes didn’t bother us so we could enjoy a delicious meal that was served by a charming and polished waiter. He was prompt and very helpful without seeming obsequious. We dined on who knows what. One dish, Fish Tikka Ajwaini, was superb – lovely spices in the masala and cooked to perfection.

 

After dinner we spent a pleasant evening in our cabin. The beds were just as comfortable as those in the guest rooms as the hotel. I appreciated knowing that the crew slept on the boat in case anything happened.

 

The following morning we dined on tasty masala dosas, sambar, idli, fruit and delicious south Indian filter coffee. Breakfast was excellent. I have to admit that, thanks to my mother-in-law, I am a sambar snob. In the U.S., most restaurants’ sambar is watery and tasteless. The Kadavu Resort kitchen knows how to make it correctly: right spices, thickness and flavor. 

 

After the delicious meal, we enjoyed a restful four-hour cruise up and down the backwaters of Kerala. The ride was smooth and relaxing. If my husband and I had been alone, it would have been a romantic trip suitable for a 25th wedding anniversary (or a honeymoon if we were younger). As the sun rose over the water, I could see the trees try to emerge from the heavy fog. I was stunned with the quiet beauty of the river. Coconut trees fought each other to reach the sun. They grew thickly to the bank of the river and many grew horizontally.

 

A view of the riverbank

A view of the riverbank

 

Many houses had been built along the river. I noticed that many of them were huge, even by Texas standards. I was informed that they had been built with the money earned by people who had worked in the Middle East. I have to admit that they were stunning. Several homeowners creatively planted gardens right along the river. In addition to the houses, we saw several tile factories and their tall smoke stacks. I enjoyed watching the men in several boats haul river sand into their crafts to the trucks that were waiting on the river’s edge. Many of these men waved as we cruised by. 

 

Men hauling sand down river for brick making.

Men hauling sand down river for brick making.

 

We even passed a boat with tourists who were photographing us as we photographed them. I’m sure it was a funny sight.

 

Men hauling sand down river for brick making.

Tourists taking photos.

 

All too soon the trip came to an end and we had to leave the boat. After saying thank you to the friendly and helpful crew we headed back to the lobby to check in to our rooms for the next step of our Kerala adventure.

 

Men hauling sand down river for brick making.

What a peaceful view.

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Spice shop in Broadway Bazaar in Kochi.

Spice shop in Broadway Bazaar in Kochi.

During our visit to Kochi last summer we visited some of the shops in the Broadway Bazaar. It is a section of town that is full of small shops. Kitchenware, saris, electronics and spices are just a small sampling of the variety. Each shop is no more than 10 to 15 feet wide and has an open front that bulges from the wide array of products they have for sale. The street was narrow and the sidewalks were even narrower. The area was packed solid with people, auto-rickshaws and a few small cars attempting to move forward. Our driver parked our car in a lot on an adjacent street because he knew that maneuvering an SUV on this road would be a disaster. I do not know how the brave drivers were able to move with all of the pedestrians. One contrast I noticed was people there had a mission to accomplish as opposed to the U.S. where most people are moving slowly and gazing at the merchandise. I had a blast watching the people and checking out some of the stores.

 

Spice shop in Broadway Bazaar in Kochi.

All of the spices are fresh and plentiful at the shops in Broadway Bazaar, Kochi.

The spice store that fascinated me was the Kerala Masala Shop. As you can see from the photo, it had abundant supplies of fresh spices, nuts, lentils, and teas. As I walked inside, the aroma of fresh spices invaded my senses. I was amazed at the variety of each spice. For example, they had several bins of fresh green cardamoms in different sizes. The small or medium sized ones are available in the U.S. but I have never seen such large ones! Of course I purchased a bag of of the large ones to bring home. They also sold exquisite saffron from the Kashmir region of India. I bought several boxes of this since it is so expensive here. (The next time I go I will buy a suitcase full since I like the favor and use it often.) I saw mountains of star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves, turmeric and dried herbs like rosemary that is popular at home.


Wall of spices in one shop in Broadway Bazaar, Kochi.

Wall of spices in one shop in Broadway Bazaar, Kochi.

The store stocked locally grown nuts, specifically, my husband’s favorite cashews. They were larger than the ones available in the U.S. Yes, they were bigger than “Texas-sized.” Their flavor was so fresh and rich that my husband added a few pounds of them to the purchase. Yum!


The people who worked in the shop really knew their spices – origin, freshness, etc. They were very generous in giving samples to taste before I made my selections. In addition they were very generous with their time for a person who they won’t see again for a long time.

 

I had a great time that afternoon poking around several spice shops. I’m sure Kachi was very entertained by watching me! I can’t wait to go back!

 

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One of the oldest buildings that the Portuguese built in India is the Mattancherry Palace. Built in the 1550s, it was given to the raja of Kochi as an appeasement to make up for stealing from the Hindu temples. Many generations later the name was changed to the Dutch Palace.

 

Entrance to the Dutch Palace in Kochi, India.

Entrance to the Dutch Palace in Kochi, India.

The entrance to the palace is on the second floor so one must climb up a long flight of steps on the outside. The architecture of the palace is very simple; rectangular building surrounds a central courtyard. Inside are beautiful murals that depict religious themes and life at that time. The most distinctive feature of the palace is the use of wood in the ceilings and the raised thresholds between the large rooms. You have to lift your foot up a good 12 inches to step into the next room! One room has large, two built-in window seats that would be a nice place to spend an afternoon reading a book. Costumes worn by the royal family, armor and household items are on display. This is not to be missed!

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During our Kochi travels, we spent a few hours at the Hill Palace which was the home of the royal family of Kochi. This palace was built in 1865 on the top of a hill after the original palace was flooded. Upon arriving at the palace grounds, one can climb straight up the steps to get to the front door or take the smooth winding road. Both sides of the steps are huge gardens filled with flowers and trees. After reaching the top of the hill, one has a magnificent view of the entire city.


The majestic front steps of the Kochi Hill Palace in Kerala, India.

The majestic front steps of the Kochi Hill Palace in Kerala, India.

 

 

Upon entry to the museum a huge elephant carved from rosewood with ivory tusks greets every visitor. Inside the palace the rooms are large and airy. The walls are beautiful and floors are wood or mosaic. The rooms have glass windows but some, especially along the walkways, have shutters to let the breezes flow through. On display are the maharajas’ treasures from all over the world including Japanese vases, a magnificent gold crown that was given to the king of Kochi by the Portuguese (it weighs over 3 pounds) and an elevator that was imported from England. Different rooms were filled with sculpture, jewelry, antique currency, weapons and carriages.

 

The front lawn of the Kochi Hill Palace in Kerala, India.

The front lawn of the Kochi Hill Palace in Kerala, India.

I am glad that the palace is being preserved by the local archaeological society for all to see since all of the princely states are long past.
 

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Last September I posted an entry about the Kochi backwaters since I had learned from my daughter that this is a major business and tourist attraction of the area. In looking at the volume of pictures that she took I was impressed enough to find out what it was and give you an informational overview. My husband, son, in-laws and I took a five hour boat tour around the central part of the backwaters so I can now say that I have now seen it firsthand. Here are my impressions.


Cranes at the port on the backwaters in Kochi.

Cranes at the port on the backwaters in Kochi.


My first thought was the immense vastness of the backwaters. At the center it looks like a large harbor that has an active shipping port on one side that loads and unloads huge international freighters. Also around this area I saw many modern office buildings that comprise the downtown area and, in a different direction, a contrast in Old Kochi. (Blog entries about what I saw at Fort Kochi will be published in a few weeks.) From this harbor, many rivers flow to different parts of the state making it a natural highway.


Many boats of different types could be seen on the water. From fishing boats to ferries, the backwaters was a busy area. Looking at the calm water I could see thousands of clusters of small green plants that float along in the fresh water. (You can see them in the foreground of the above photo.) I don’t know their name but their numbers suggest that the water is not polluted. The biggest disappointment in the water was the amount of trash floating in it. People on the boat, mainly tourists from other parts of India, seemed to think it is acceptable to toss their empty drink bottles and other trash into the water. I was shocked by this behavior. (More on the trash epidemic in India in a future entry.)

 

The Chinese fishing nets, cheena vala, which are featured on the cover of my cookbook, are found next to Old Kochi at the entrance to the from the Arabian Sea. It is an amazing sight to see the mechanical principles at work that I learned in high school as the nets are lowered and raised using large rocks as the counter weights. Just behind the nets are stands where the fresh catch of the day is sold.

 

Chinese fishing nets, cheena vala, are found on the Kerala backwaters.

Chinese fishing nets, cheena vala, are found on the Kerala backwaters.

 

 

Toward the end of the boat ride I saw my first house boat, or kettuvallam. Since our visit to Kochi was in June during the monsoon season, it had its plastic rain screens lowered to keep the passengers dry. They slowly travel up and down the waterway as moving hotels that can accommodate many people among their many bedrooms. Originally built as grain barges that transported rice to market, most have been upgraded with generators to provide electricity and air conditioning. I hope to have the opportunity to check out one during my next trip to Kerala.

During the last 30 minutes of the trip, our luck ran out. Monsoon rain started pouring down on us. We couldn’t see the shore through the torrents of rain. The benefit the rain brought with it was a significant drop in temperature. Most of the small pleasure craft scurried for shore as quickly as possible. As the rain diminished, a bright yellow fishing boat chugged by us on its way to its berth; the captain of our boat had the same intention. The rain only lasted about 30 minutes and, by the time we reached the dock, it had ended.


The next thing we had to do was find a ride back to our hotel…


 

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The stories from my trip to India continue…


I visited a shop called The Spice Market in Jew Town which is part of Old Kochi which was settled by Jewish traders and sailors 2000 years ago. It is just down the street from the Paradesi Synagogue that was built in 1568. I entered this shop because I was drawn by the attractive display of spices in front of the store and I wanted to find out how the local people buy their spices.  The shop is a women’s co-operative in which all of the products are made and sold by the local women. They make carved wooden spice boxes, saris, jewelry and home decorations, as well as sell packaged spices.


The Spice Market in Jew Town in Old Kochi, India.

The Spice Market in Jew Town in Old Kochi, India.

 

The women I met in the shop were so friendly to me. In the photo to the right, they are Kiran Devi, Sindhya, Daisy, Sheeba and Naufia. They welcomed my taking many photos of the shop as well as taking pictures of them standing by the loom that they use to create beautiful saris in the back room. Notice that all of them are wearing the elegant traditional Kerala style sari. By the time I left the shop I felt we were friends!

Kerala ladies in traditional dress.

Kerala ladies in traditional dress.


One thing that I found that was very interesting was that they sold small jars of different masala or spice blends. They had them for chicken, fish and meat as well as biryani and tandori masala. So popular in the States, I didn’t expect to see them in Kerala. I had assumed that since they had the spices and generations of experience in mixing them that they would not need to use premixed spices. I guess the modern Indian woman is busy too, just like we are in the U.S. I bought one jar of each and will test them out over the next few months and let you know how they taste.


A sample of spices available at the Spice Market in Old Kochi, Kerala.

A sample of spices available at the Spice Market in Old Kochi, Kerala.

 

I really enjoyed meeting the ladies at The Spice Market. I left their shop with several bags filled with goodies. This visit was the highlight of my trip to Kochi! I look forward to returning to see them again.


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Last week I posted some photos of Kochi that my daughter took last year during her trip to south India.  As you can see from the pictures, Kerala is a beautiful state with scenery that is full of drama and mystery. 

 

The most dramatic feature to me of Kochi is the backwaters.  When I first heard the name I thought it would be a smelly swamp.  I couldn’t believe how my husband raved about the area.  The term does not match the beauty or the vitality of the area.  It is formed by five lakes that are linked by canals and fed by 38 rivers.  500 miles long, it is half the length of the state of Kerala. Freshwater from the rivers meets the saltwater from the Arabian Sea giving it brackish or slightly salty water.


Apartments and businesses line backwaters commanding a very high price because of the view.  Ferries transport people to the various islands in Kochi and tankers and freighters move oil and products to the large international port.  Fishermen use Chinese nets to catch fish for local consumption and export.  There is always activity on the water.

 

The most impressive sight is the house boats, or kettuvallams, that slowly travel up and down the waterway.  They were originally built as grain barges that would transport rice to market.  With the introduction of modern transportation, the Malayalis converted them into vacation residences.  Many are very luxurious with air conditioning and personal onboard staff.  They are extremely popular with locals and tourists alike.  This is on my list to check out when I go to Kochi next summer.

Dock along the Kerala Backwaters.

Dock along the Kerala Backwaters.

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