Quirky cafes in old-world Mattanchery tweak and recreate fancy menus from around the world
I am contemplating camels. ‘They're getting reading for a beauty contest,' I'm told, over glasses of refreshing lime soda. The painting's a riotous burst of cheerful energy, with diva camels pouting coquettishly from a canvas festooned with colour. The lime soda, no doubt designed for the delicate exotica-hankering Western palate, is boisterously fizzy, subtly sweetened and generously laced with ginger.
We're at Fathima's Art Gallery and Café in Kochi's atmospheric Mattanchery, famous for its Jewish Synagogue, a happy combination of bright hanging lamps, hand painted blue tiles and nostalgia.
Over the years, the road that leads to the synagogue, once occupied by its Jewish congregation, has been gradually conquered by those inevitable accoutrements of tourism: annoyingly flirty shopkeepers whistling suitably-salacious movie tunes, bargain-hunters weighed down by cameras and quirky cafes.
It's easy to relax into a holiday rhythm in surroundings like these. To play tourist in your own backyard. Wandering around Mattanchery and Fort Kochi, we sneeze over antique furniture in dimly-lit stores, try on ridiculously flashy jewellery and — of course — bounce from café to café, sampling the flavours of the world, all inventively, and endlessly, tweaked and recreated right here.
From Goa to Rishikesh, some of the country's most individual and accessible restaurants have sprung up between all the touristy tat that accompanies fame.
As people from around the world are drawn to explore India, whether it's the cities or small towns, restaurants and cafes rise up to meet the demand. Suddenly, it's possible to taste a kaleidoscope of food from around the globe within just one square mile. Let's not be naïve — ghastly tourist traps abound, brandishing fancy menus rife with promises the kitchen can't deliver.
In the short time we spend in Fort Kochi, we blunder into many. Stately houses remade into pricey ‘homestays' where every piece of calamari might as well arrive in diamond solitaires considering how much you pay per plate. Eventually, we get smarter, and stop seeking air-conditioning and expensive views. Our art café, for example, a rambling old building cluttered with canvases, packets of fragrant spices and indigenous perfumes, throws up some surprising gems. Homemade cake and my painting of mascara laden camels for instance.
Thanks to expatriate restaurants enamoured with India the food scene in tourist hubs such as Kochi has been getting increasingly dynamic over the years. Clients include both homesick tourists and locals, enjoying food that becomes more authentic, even as it grows more diverse.
We're delighted when we stumble upon Upstairs in Fort Kochi, an unpretentious Italian restaurant done up in cheery blue, wooden rafters and potted plants. Of course, true to its name, it's accessed by a steep staircase, worn with wear and topped with a rubber dinghy. Inside, sounds from the street battle, soulful Italian music and the fragrance of espresso hugs everything.
The menu's individual, breaking away from the cheese-rosemary-salami route most conventional Indian-Italian restaurants favour. There's schiacciata with speck and taleggio cheese and pasta with a chilli cream, besides the old faithfuls: lasagne, meatballs and spaghetti bolognaise.
When owner Fabio Battistetti (quickly dubbed ‘Fabulous Fabio' by the girls I was dining with, courtesy his rippling muscles and charming Italian accent) turns up to take our order we realise why. Fabio's a chef who specialised in Japanese cuisine, working in London. Five years ago, when he decided to settle in Kochi, he realised Italian food would be easier to create and sell. Hence this menu featuring dishes from his home town, Milan, and Northern Italy. We dine on chicken involtini, crisp and salty outside, stuffed with olives, ham, capers and melted cheese. There's pizza decorated with thin slices of parma ham, the colour of corals. We end with apple tarts piled with vanilla ice-cream, melting rapidly against the warm buttery pastry. And pannacotta, lush and wobbly, served with a fudgy chocolate sauce.
There's nothing quite like creating your own holiday, at your own pace. Replete with long languid lunches.