Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Pimenta Spice Garden, Kochi, Kerala

Having been immersed in the fascinating, sense-assaulting chaos of Mumbai for a couple of days, it was both with sadness and relief that I alighted the Netravati Express train that was to take me all the way to tropical Kerala. The journey was one of the highlights of my trip; I loved the teeth-tingling sweetness of chai and the delicious vegetarian curries brought to your berth, and being knee-to-knee with your fellow travellers meant I met a host of locals, all of whom were keen to share their tips for travel and to know more about the cold country I’d come from. And, the journey brought me to another highlight – a one-week vegetarian cookery course at The Pimenta Spice Garden in Muvattapuzha, Kochi, where this amateur yet enthusiastic chef was put through her paces.

My host was Jacob Mathew, a quietly confident cook, guide and historian who not only taught me how to make dishes such as kovakka peera pattichathu (gourd with spices, curry leaves and tamarind), fresh paneer and mung dhal curry, but introduced me to the locals and took me on a tour of the nearby plantations, markets and factories. Jacob also brought some of the best breakfasts of my month away. He’s passionate about well-sourced food, and you don’t get fewer food miles when the coffee and pineapples come from your very own homestead. From the markets came fresh papaya, passion fruit and melon, and eggs from neighbourhood hens were whipped up into nicely salty omelettes by Madhu, Jacob’s highly skilled and softly spoken “kitchen fairy”. Delicious and simple, this breakfast was a perfect introduction to the tropical bounty you can find in Kerala, and a wonderful way to start a day of culinary adventuring, market shopping and wrestling chapatti dough into submission. It’s not cheap, but being firmly off the tourist trail means you’ll see parts of the state you might miss otherwise. Worth every penny.

Price: 82, 500 Rs (double)&  59, 400 Rs (single) for the week-long course. 3-day courses and bespoke trips available on request.

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JK Regency Hotel, Mumbai, India

Finding yourself stranded at Mumbai airport at 1am – having discovered that the taxi and hotel room you booked are no longer available to you – is not the most auspicious way to start a solo trip around the south of India. A fat, nicotine-coloured moon made little impact on a fog-strewn night as I stood, pale and sweating, in the car park with a look of “what now?” on my face. All guide books, locals and airport staff will advise you not to get a taxi that you haven’t booked, and certainly not taken to an unknown hotel in the centre of the city’s Northern district without someone knowing where you’re going. Which was, of course, exactly what I did. While my taxi driver enquired after my boyfriend (and I hastily made up a false engagement and a Thor-like countenance), he weaved the car through impossibly narrow streets past the slums that circle the runways. It was a truly filmic sight, with stray dogs slinking around piles of garbage and men hauling Hindu icons from a covered van into a darkened building.

Eventually we reached the rather grandly named JK Regency Hotel, though I soon discovered the only lordly aspect was the price. My room was above the restaurant and imbibed with an aroma of old cooking oil, the sheets displayed evidence of previous guests and the bathroom hosted a family of mosquitos under a dripping, broken shower head. In such surroundings it wasn’t hard to make an early start to the day, though not – of course – without breakfast. Wary of being too adventurous I ordered toast with jam and a masala tea. Which was, in fairness, what I got. The tea was hot but peppered with floating miscellany, and in a feat of culinary genius the toast was solid and dry with a distinctive methane after taste. An inauspicious start indeed, but one that would make me very grateful for the culinary delights that were to come.

Price: too much. Breakfast not included (or recommended).

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