Smoked eel, sticky rice, albondigo… Kochi's taste buds are more enterprising than ever

Once upon a time ‘Chinese’ food summed the eating out - food from another culture - experience with gobi Manchurian and chilli chicken with fried rice being the highlights. Then came the burgers followed by the pizza chains. ‘Continental’ aka ‘conti’ was always there, the club sandwich, coleslaw and Russian salad variety limited to either in-flight meals or the star hotels.

That was then. Today Kochi has gone, food-wise, international, authentically. You can pick from Italian, Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic and Tibetan too. Chinese is inevitable.

Speciality restaurants
Several hotels in the city have dedicated restaurants – Holiday Inn has Roma which serves authentic Italian food, Ramada Cochin has a Tex-Mex restaurant Mexicana, Taj Malabar has The Pavilion dedicated to food from the Orient, Sian at Gateway serves the pan-Asian experience while Crowne Plaza’s Trilogi serves Italian and Chinese with Indian and there is Tokyo Bay which serves Japanese. Mainland China has opened a restaurant in Dream Cochin.

The Indonesian nasi goreng, Malaysian satay and Thai ‘curries’ have been on eatery menus so too the hundreds of ‘Arabic’ food joints serving eats such as shawarma, khubous, kabsa biryani other varieties of grills and breads. But this explosion of varied flavours is a recent, welcome phenomenon.

Travel and exposure have been the biggest influences that have changed the way people look at food; it is now seen as being experiential. Chopsticks instead of or with forks, low seating, teppanyaki counters, wood-fired ovens…all these have become components of the experience.

“People are now open to trying out different things,” says Chef Rasheed, executive chef, Taj Malabar. Capitalising on this newfound openness, The Pavilion menu will soon feature Vietnamese food.

Understanding of food has changed. The broad category of continental food, for instance, has given way to distinctions – French, Mediterranean is classification of Italian, Spanish and such. “For instance people are aware that continental isn’t exclusively French,” Rasheed adds.

These restaurants stick to the keep-it-as-authentic-as-possible policy. A policy which demands occasional tweaking, “we have patrons who demand that the food be made spicier. We resist as far as is possible but we do end up giving in,” says Liril Mathew, executive sous chef Roma. Roma boasts original Italian cuisine. Unlike the regular pasta and pizza fare, the restaurant serves full course meals. The full course meal is not a popular concept, says Liril. “Our guests go in straight for the main course. And generally it is pizza or pasta.” The pizzas, unlike pizza-chain pizzas, are thin-crust cooked in the stone stove at the restaurant, the smoky flavour of which is popular. Pasta, which is made in-house, too is a hit.

Japanese cuisine is one that does not take to tweaking and adaptation too much. And Tokyo Bay has stuck to keeping things original, with ever so slight changes. Kochiites have taken to teppanyaki, sushi and sashimi wholeheartedly says Marina Sidney, general manager Tokyo Bay. Chef Jaffer Ali of The Gateway agrees.

“We have live counters for teppanyaki (which is a live grill), it is interactive and people enjoy it,” says Jaffer. Sushi wrapped in seaweed and sashimi, which is raw fish are very popular, he adds. “No! There is no ‘raw fish’ mental block at all,” he adds. Cold noodles and salads at Tokyo Bay has a dedicated following, says Marina.

Ramada’s Mexican specialty restaurant Mexicana serves Tex-Mex and some authentic Mexican food. Albondigo (a meatball soup), nacho, burrito, fajita, taco, tortilla, enchilada, empanada…are all popular says Ramu Butler, executive chef. “Everybody cannot handle spice. We offer three options – original, medium and normal. Our people who like everything spiced cannot handle the heat. But people want to try things out.”

But Liril disagrees. “Everybody is not open to experimentation. It is not about requesting more spice. There is a certain diffidence or shyness or maybe it is apprehension to try new things. They possibly feel self conscious about asking more about the food. We have a variety of cheeses such as buffalo mozzarella which is a starter but few people would try it.”

Increased footfalls
The specialty cuisine restaurants are not just limited to bigger hotels. For instance there is the Tibetan Chef’s Restaurant, in Fort Kochi, run by Tibetans Tenzin Gimgee, Tenzin Losel and Angmo, is known for its four kinds of momos and fresh, handmade noodles.

These specialty restaurants have a dedicated following, which is niche. Not all may savour the experience. “There has been an increase in footfalls but it is not enough to open the restaurant for lunch and dinner. So for the time being it is just dinner,” says Ramu Butler.

Tokyo Bay, Marina says, has plans to keep the favourites on the menu but will add other Asian cuisines such as Vietnamese, Malayasian and Indonesian to ‘widen its scope’. Roma sees walk-in guests who demand ‘naadan’ food and suggest that they be added on the menu.

Appam-stew, puttu-kadala, kappa-meen and masala dosa will always be close to Kochiites’ hearts but they are making space in it for sashimi, sushi, momos, nachos and more.

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