The fascinating, yet chequered history of Kochi’s Volga Tourist Home

In 1960s Kochi, eating out was purely aspirational. It was the exception; not the norm and people from ‘respectable families’ never ate out. To this milieu came KC Mathew with an idea so modern and so radical he knew his hometown Pala would not be able to take it.

So he opened one of Kerala’s first ever “Western-style” restaurants in Kochi and called it Volga. Situated at the Carmel Buildings on Banerji Road, it was ahead of its time in every way. One had to wear a suit to be allowed entry, it served Chinese, continental and Mughalai fare, which were exotic to this part of the world and the liquor was fancy and foreign. A live band played and a cabaret was added for effect.

The fascinating, yet chequered history of Kochi’s Volga Tourist Home

A banker by profession, who managed the Delhi branch of Pala Central Bank (owned by his maternal family), one of the country’s first private sector banks, Mathew had no previous experience running a hotel. Yet, he was completely invested in the project. He travelled, did research in his own way, sent out people to head hunt for Volga’s kitchen and ran it like a professional. “Appachan wanted it to be something the city had never seen before,” says KM Alexander, Mathew’s eldest son and Managing Partner of Volga Tourist Home.

Mathew brought in chefs who had experience working in bigger cities and he ensured the décor was top notch. “The doors alone were the topic of discussion. Made of rosewood, they were heavy and inlaid with brass. They opened into a large hallway, which led to the restaurant, with an elaborately ornate false ceiling, one of the first of its kind at that time,” says Alexander. Opened in 1967, Volga was indeed the talk of the town. “When a few from Pala showed up in mundus, they weren’t allowed entry. Miffed, I think they held it against Appachan for a long time,” Alexander reminisces.

The fascinating, yet chequered history of Kochi’s Volga Tourist Home

It is unclear how Mathew arrived at the name though. “He might have been inspired by the Volga, Russia’s largest river,” says Alexander. “Or perhaps, he would have come across a hotel by the same name somewhere,” offers Mathew Alexander, Mathew’s grandson, Partner of Volga Tourist Home and entrepreneur.

Tourists made up most of Volga’s customers. It even had a shuttle service that ferried tourists from the port to the hotel and back. In 1970, three years into its existence, Volga ran into troubled times. Following an issue with the trade union, the hotel was temporarily shut down. However, it reopened a few months later, cutting a few of its frills, including the dress code. But it still drew businessmen from different parts of the State, who made it a point to halt at Kochi to visit Volga. It hosted an after-party of a film award festival held in 1967, which had Sharmila Tagore and Sunil Dutt, in addition to the top stars of Malayalam cinema participating.

The fascinating, yet chequered history of Kochi’s Volga Tourist Home

Volga Appachan as Mathew was fondly called, passed on in 1992. Ten years later, in 2002, Volga ran into trouble again. An anti-liquour campaign forced it to shut down the bar. The hotel functioned without a bar till 2006, but gradually shut down. When it reopened in Kadavanthra as Volga Tourist Home, a striking building in white, Volga had however, only its rich legacy to build on. Kochi had grown tremendously and other players had secured their foothold in the F&B segment. Volga Tourist Home, however, still had a set of patrons, who had seen its day in the sun, who dropped in regularly, mainly for its ginger prawn.

As we sit, mulling over Volga’s chequered history, Satheesh Shinilal, the chef, walks in bearing a plate of its historic dish — the ginger prawn. The dish remains unchanged since it was first made by Shinilal at the hotel almost 50 years ago. “It still has a devoted set of fans,” declares Mathew Alexander. The ginger chicken and ginger prawn, that old Volga served, was the stuff of fantasies.

Arun, the playful tusker
  • Manoj Mathew, the youngest son of KC Mathew (Volga Appachan) was a well-known aana premi (elephant lover). Thanks to him, the family owned an elephant, which was brought in from Kodanad. Arun, as he was named, was mischievous and was a darling of the family. “He has all the attributes of a traditional Kerala elephant,” says Mathew Alexander. Popularly known as Volga Arun, his love for jackfruit was legendary, says Mathew. Once, while on work in an estate near Chalakkudy, Arun decided to take a break. He waded into a nearby river, and splashed around, enjoying himself. This startled a few people who worried whether he was in a state of musth. The mahout, who found him in the river, tried to call him, but Arun refused to come out. It was only after the mahout dangled a jackfruit in front of him that Arun followed him, recounts Mathew.
  • Arun was given away to another family in Vadakkancherry.

When one of Appachan’s managers went to Bangalore, he happened to eat at the hotel where Shinilal was the chef. Impressed by the dishes he tasted, the manager asked if Shinilal would like to come to Kochi and join Volga and he gladly agreed. “The association with Volga, which began in the 70s continues to this day,” says Shinilal. “Volga was number One those days, followed by Oberoi and then Sealord,” he adds. Shinilal doesn’t share the recipe, but what makes his dish distinct is that theprawn is always fresh, he emphasises. Alexander’s brother and Appachan’s second son, KM Paulson (Pappachan), the managing partner, ensures that the fish and meat are bought fresh.

Volga, which is now a two-star property, has a bar in the basement, and a family restaurant with a rooftop eating area as well. And the other dishes that tick the right boxes are bar snacks Kerala pork roast, the BDF (beef dry fry) and kozhi idichathu.

Not many may be aware of its history, but as Mathew Alexander says, Volga is a name that still resonates with an old timer in Kochi.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 4:42:33 PM |

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