My flight to Cochin is cancelled. After two days on the phone with spectacularly unhelpful ‘customer care executives' from the airline and website I booked through, I realise that desperate times call for desperate measures. We're going to have to drive from Chennai — 10 hours to Coimbatore, and then five more to Kochi. My longest road trip in years.
The highway's not particularly interesting. In my imagination it's peppered with rustic restaurants, filled with burly truckers tucking into plates of picturesquely steaming food. Blame the movies, and foodie road shows. In reality, there are teashops and a smattering of spectacularly neon food joints.
We finally stop at a nondescript restaurant in Vellore, which the driver promises is ‘first-class: neat-and-clean.' It opens with a busy juice stall, fragrant with the scent of ripe pineapples and fresh oranges. Inside, it's bright with tube lights and bustling with cheerfully noisy crowds. We're quickly served big, fluffy idlis teamed with flat, crisp spinach vadais on big steel plates. They're followed by tiny tumblers of fabulous coffee, dark, aromatic and piping hot.
Later at night, our next stop is the GRT Hotel in Salem. It's heaving with men in crisp white dhotis paired with blindingly white shirts and chunky gold chains. The coffee shop is packed with families, all brandishing hyperactive children in annoying squeaky shoes. My chicken soup tastes defeated: like the chicken has been interrogated for hours in a darkened cell. There's paneer cooked with a chunky dal, which we eat with impossibly cute mini naans. Driving into Coimbatore at midnight, we lose our way and stop for directions. An intimidating gang of biker boys overhear us, and offer to help. After much turn-left-then-turn-right instructions, they finally decide to lead the way, and we get the coolest escort ever — a chivalrous convoy bursting with kindly machismo.
In the morning a friend meets us at Sree Annapoorna Sree Gowrishankar, to introduce us to what she promises are the best dosas in the country. There are three restaurants in a row, and she directs me to meet her at her favourite one: “the one with mango juice pictures on the wall.” After much peering at walls, we finally meet and it must be admitted — the masala dosas are spectacular. Crisp but substantial, spread with a mildly spicy potato paste. Flamboyantly pink rose milk is their house specialty. And of course, there are vadais — proudly plump and billowy, with golden peppercorn studded exteriors. The scenery changes as we move closer to Kerala, vociferously green coconut trees and that Malayalee staple — tea kadais strung with richly coloured bananas. Lorries with ‘Keep Deshtance' and ‘We two – Ours one' signs trundle past.
At a checkpoint, I investigate the teashop. Its contents don't seem to have changed in decades. There are big glass jars filled with swirly murukkus, blocks of crumbly Mysore pak and biscuits generously plastered with tutti frutti. Between the pain balms, Cibaca toothbrushes and dusty bottles of Mirinda, I spot packets of samosas, enthusiastically eaten with tea by travellers perched on rickety pink plastic stools.
We're on NH47, and every few kilometres, there's a ‘Tiffin Ready' sign. Sometimes it's accompanied by a menu, often boasting Indo-Chinese staples like chilli chicken and fried rice.
At the border, boys sell sliced pineapple from bright plastic trays. Of course there are more teashops: thatched huts, covered in plastic sheets weighed down by deflated bicycle tyres. People stand around reading newspapers and gossiping and they drink tea served from old dented kettles.
A bus called ‘Lizzie Mol' thunders by, followed by a lorry named ‘Pee Eue Ech.' (I kid you not!) Its only rival is a bus named ‘Indian Airlines', covered with proudly purple flowers set against a green background. I consider booking a ticket on it for my next trip. Flying by road must be an interesting way to travel!
Keywords: reluctant gourmet