Saturday, April 6, 2013

Kochi Marching Forward!

Okay, enough of my Cairo reminiscing, am back to Kochi gushing! And for good reason too! The past month saw me swelling with pride over two completely divergent visits I made in the city within the same week. The first to the newly opened LuLu Mall and second to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012. Occupying two opposite ends of any spectrum out there, these two ventures however, gave me reason to believe that there is much to be expected from our emerging metropolis. And it was important that they happened together for me, as it illustrates the very exciting fact that there is a very diverse and all encompassing cultural landscape being created in this magical city.

When LuLu Mall finally opened up on Sunday 10 March 2013, I was not one of those people hyperventilating with anticipation. Yes, I was excited about the prospects of a new shopping option in the city and in particular the arrival of national brands like Westside and Crossword, but I was not screeching my way through the traffic to get there. I have never been a big mall person. For me, they served the practical purpose of shopping under one roof for a variety of brands in controlled climatic conditions; and not arenas for social activity. This is probably because of a childhood spent in a city that boasted of wonderful weather for a large part of the year that made walking around very simple. Our socializing as teenagers was spent outdoors, playing games and hanging out with each other in sporting clubs, the Indian embassy lawns and the backyard of the AUC Hostel where we lived. Besides the fact, we were of course not privileged enough those days to have any decent mall to just hang out in! Even when I went to the States for my further studies, the trips to any of the malls were very shopping focussed in nature, not a social outing. So it's no surprise, that ever since malls opened up in Kochi, I have only been frequenting them as a shopping destination and lately more for watching movies at the multiplex theatres.

However, the hype was growing over the days of all that was going to be opening at LuLu Mall. The indoor rollercoaster, the skating rink, a bowling alley, plenty of eateries, including McDonalds, and much much more. The day finally dawned and LuLu Mall was opened to the public amidst much fanfare...and record breaking traffic! Our neighbours, Benson and Anupa, pitched in their loyalty for the LuLu brand and went on the first day itself, braving two and a half hours traffic for a distance that would have been covered in fifteen minutes on a regular day. We were the luckier for it, for they came back with grand stories of the new mall in town and all the goodies within. My ears pricked up when I heard about the hypermarket which contained everything and anything that we would require, especially meats and cheeses!

That was enough to get my interest going. The next day was Monday and as soon as Rehan got back from school, we made our way to LuLu, with the expectation that there would be less traffic as it was a weekday and school exams were going on. We figured it was wise to go before the vacation season started at the end of the month as the place would undoubtedly be a zoo with out of town visitors. We were right and despite it just being the second day of opening, we were at LuLu in fifteen minutes and were soon driving into the copious parking lot made for 3500 cars.

And yes, there's no doubt about it. LuLu Mall is as grand as it is being made out to be. Four floors of commercial and entertainment paradise awaited us. Corridors wound their way through twists and curves in the structure, as more and more stores became visible. My first question to the information desk was whether Westside had opened up and was given the affirmative answer. And it made me even more excited to find a Marks and Spencer getting ready for opening right opposite the Westside showroom. Yes, finally Kochi ladies get some decent fashion outlets to shop from! And another store that has arrived in town is the international favorite, The Body Shop. Now if only Bath and Body Works would come over too! Most of the other labels in the mall were those of stores that already had outlets in Kochi, other than of course LuLu's signature stores like their Hypermarket, Celebration, Fashion and Connect outlets. The only one we actually went to on our first visit was the Hypermarket, as Fashion and Connect were too crowded, and Celebration just seemed like another silk saree showroom.

The Hypermarket was beyond comparison, THE highlight of the place. A truly international level supermarket with stacks and stacks of goods. Even though most of the grocery brands on the shelves were those we could get outside, the very fact that they were displayed in stacks higher than us with many of each item staring out at us, just filled my heart with joy. Other than the self serve aisles, there were also special counters for all kinds of imported cheeses, olives, cold cuts, nuts, chocolates...ah the list goes on.

And then comes the Meat section. Now, despite being a population that loves its beef fry and mutton biriyanis, Malayalis have a difficult time getting decent meat in Kerala. Often tough and chewy, there is no concept of the right cuts of meat in any local butchery here. If you are lucky, you can get the entire tenderloin, at the most, and even that, you have to make sure that the butcher removes the tenderloin in front of you, or they may pass off a piece of thigh instead! Your best bet is to just plonk it in the pressure cooker and over cook it away! As for chicken, I never realized how hard it is to get a simple chicken cut according to its different parts, until I came to Kerala. Usually just chopped up randomly into small bits, such that you can't figure out a leg from a neck, eating chicken pretty much meant blindly going into your meat just for the general flavour. Nothing irks my dear hubby more than not knowing what piece of chicken he is eating! So, imagine, the lilting euphoria that went on inside us when we saw beef, veal, mutton and chicken in abundance, and all displayed according to their specialized cuts. Steaks, medallions, mince, boneless, thighs, offal, wings, was all there for our consumption!Now I just hope the local populace takes full use of this service and keeps the demand high for such products, otherwise we will be back to the pressure cooker!

Sea Jewels!
Like the Meat section, the Seafood section was also copious and reasonably priced. But frankly, living in Kochi, an abundance of sea creatures is nothing really that new to me and the fun of buying fresh fish directly from a waterfront market holds a lot more significance. The one thing we did buy though were the mussels, or kallumakay, which are very popular in the northern part of Kerala where my mother is from, but harder to find in Kochi. Kallumakay is one of those foods that is steeped in childhood summer nostalgia for me. We used to come every year for our summer vacation, which was of course the monsoon season in India. Mussels are not generally available at this time, but somehow my aunts and uncles would manage to find some in the market so that we could savour their unique texture and flavour. Simply marinated in salt, chilli and turmeric, these little marine parcels would be shallow fried, and obviously consequently devoured by us. That tantalizing taste was enough to keep us satiated for the year. If we were lucky to get enough, my aunt would pickle some and we would carry it back with us to Cairo, to relish sparingly with our meals there. Even after being back in Kerala, the Kallumakay experience is still restricted to the northern regions, but we make sure to indulge every time we are in Kannur or Calicut. So obviously finding it in the local supermarket, in both the shelled form and the peeled form was a sight for sore eyes!  

Needless to say, with such wonderful produce available, the hypermarket also had an entire ready to eat food section occupying an entire side of the store. There were sections for chaat, Chinese food, Kerala specialities, grilled chicken, an entire salad counter with arabian and regular condiments, bakery items and live jalebi and aish/qubus counters. Like in Arab countries, the Aish/Qubus were constantly rolled out on a conveyor belt and delivered oven hot in packets of five. It was interesting to see so many people carrying out dozens of packets of the hot Aish. Am thinking many were folks who had lived in the Gulf at some point, where this affordable staple bread was such an integral part of their lives there. As for the jalebis. So so so so sinful! Am so glad I only took 250gms, otherwise we would have polished off even a kilo of those treacly sweet monsters!

The CROWD at McDs!
We actually didn't end up eating at the hypermarket, because the kids were dying to go to the McDonalds next door. As far as I am concerned, a McDonalds that doesn't serve Big Macs is about as non McDonalds as it gets! People who have only eaten McDonalds in the Europe and the US may not understand what the big deal is about McDonalds, coz its pretty crap there. But there really is something to be said about the beef patties made in the Arab world. Whatever they do with it there, they do it right!  While a McChicken is a nice change, only having chicken and veggie options hardly gets me interested here in India. That I can get at any fast food outlet, why should I head to McDonalds? But then, the kids want their Happy Meals, and what do they know about the joys of biting into a big fat juicy Quaterpounder! I must say though, whatever said and done, the efficiency of the management at this particular branch was amazing. The crowds were thronging and when I saw the queue at first, I thought we would never get our food. But I hardly waited for five minutes before it was my turn at the counter and within another five minutes I got my food. With plenty of space in the restaurant, we even managed to find seating despite such a big crowd. Now that says a lot for the foresighted planning of the management.

The rest of the mall, other than the stores that have opened, is still coming up. Most of the entertainment consoles are not up and running yet. Some of the food court restaurants have opened, but nothing really caught my eye as being different to what is already available in other malls. There is a branch of the legendary Kozhikode based Paragon restaurant opening up in the mall, which is something to look forward to. They also have some fine dining options coming up as well, but somehow a fine dining place that doesn't serve alcohol just doesn't fit right. I actually would love to know what kind of restaurants they have planned for the Marriot Hotel that is coming up within the LuLu complex. I had a brief moment of excitement when I saw something called Aroma Thai in the list of outlets at the Mall. Yay! Finally a Thai restaurant in Kochi, I thought! That excitement was nicely doused when I realized that it was the name of an upcoming salon cum massage spa in the mall!

The Sunlit Atrium
Of course, Kochiites are also eagerly awaiting the arrival of the nine screen PVR Cinema that is getting ready for the public. We got a brief glimpse of the place that is almost ready from the outside, and it just looks fantabulous. The more screens available in the city, the more chances of more movies of different genres managing to get screened here. Good news for Kochi film buffs indeed!

All in all, the visit to LuLu was highly satisfying and if nothing else, it brought a semblance of a new world to Kochi. How that pans out in the future is something that we just have to watch and see. As parents and responsible citizens, it is important that we give due recognition to ventures like these that bring a sense of prosperity to the land, but at the same time we have to make sure we are not over consumed by it. Malls should not become the only arenas for our children to have outings, just because it easier and more convenient for us to buy them fun in cool environments. We are blessed with a lot of avenues of recreation in this city, and it is up to us to make full use of them.With the vacation season on, am racking my brains to figure out ways to keep the children entertained, in the outdoors, without falling prey to the heat!

Which brings me to my visit to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012. We had been wanting to visit the Biennale from the time it started in December. But as procrastinators go, of course the trip kept getting delayed. One of the downsides of living in Kakkanad, is that we get very lazy about crossing our self imposed Lakshman Rekha, ie the NH Bypass, especially during the daylight hours. A trip to Fort Kochi, which we used to happily do frequently when we were in Kadavanthra, has now become a whole expedition in itself these days. Finally we reached right to the end of the Biennale and realized we better make our trip over fast! Its a different thing that they decided to extend the Biennale till the weekend on that day!

Bright As A Nano!
Anyway, let me just say, I had images of what the Biennale would be. We had seen enough photos posted by friends who had already been. A boat full of junk, white violins dangling down from the ceiling, a painted car, so on and so forth. True, all those were there, but at a scale at which I had never imagined. I had expected random installations in different parts of the Fort Kochi area, not more than fifty in just one location itself! We started our experience at Aspinwall, the erstwhile home to a trading company. Somehow from the time we arrived in Kochi, this building had always intrigued me, with its rustic air of old worldliness. At the time, it was still the office of the Aspinwall company, and hence we couldn't get access inside. But from outside, and when across the water from it in Vypeen, I would often get lost in its colonial charm.

The different faces of Art
For the Biennale, Aspinwall' s ruggedly pristine environs had been transformed into a semi alfresco art museum, housing a wide range of contemporary installations by artists from all over the world. Walking through the property, all our senses were put into action by not just the installations, but this sprawling compound that took stage as their canvas.  Smells from different eras permeated the inner halls, providing a unique ambience to the out of the box installations in view. What impressed me right from the beginning was how well each installation was labelled and explained, in both English and Malayalam, making the art in front of us so accessible to even the layman. I can't pretend to be an art connoisseur who immediately necessarily "got" all the work that was displayed. But the thought process that went into imagining such work and executing it, using sometimes, the most obscure items was something that had my mind buzzing with stimulation throughout my journey there.

Waterfront cemetery
But there was one particular installment that did capture me in totality and lingered on, way after I reached home. That of the grinding stones. When we climbed up a little concrete stairway to a low loft containing nothing but ammikallus or grinding stones strewn across the floor. It definitely made no sense. Then we came down and entered the next room which opened out onto the waterfront, and all around us were the desolate "other parts" of the grinding stone machinery - the giant mortars that the ammikallus would go into to do the household grinding work. These grinding stones in the olden days performed some of the crucial culinary functions in the homes. It was in these stones that spices were ground, rice was reduced to batter and meals were started. The stones were actually built into each house's structure, an integral part of its very being. Over the years, many of these houses were razed to the ground, but somehow, nobody wanted to take on the responsibility of demolishing these grinding stones. They were considered too sacred. Instead they were just left around, often taking new roles as lamp posts, a stool on a roadside etc. They literally disappeared into the landscape. What the artists of the installation did was to collect these stones and assemble them here, to bring them back to visibility. To give them a cemetery. Maybe it's because I am cook, a foodie and worship my food, but I was engulfed with emotion, just being there amongst all those grinding stones, with so many stories to tell from so many homes over so many years. Wow!

With the growing city as witness, a unique memorial
And it wasn't just the halls, even the waterfront on which the building was perched, had been put to use with one of the most touching tributes in the form of art around. Alongside the building, a row of buoys holding up photos of men who had lost their lives to the waters in front of us, either through forces of nature or man-made problems,  bobbed upon the gently waves. With each bounce, the bells on top of each buoy, would tinkle, in memory of those lives lost, creating a melody of tinkles that merged with the swishing of the water beneath. Yes. Profound.

The cocoon of negativity, all set to be burnt away
After a full afternoon of totally immersing ourselves at Aspinwall, we made our way to Pepper House down the road. Not before noticing the giant cocoon like bamboo structure hanging above our heads, with sacks piled up underneath. This installation involved some participation on the part of the viewer. We were to climb up the path made of sacks, and put our head through a big hole in the otherwise mesh of the cocoon. There we were to get out all our negative thoughts into that confined space, to be left behind inside the cocoon's mesh. At the end of the Biennale, this cocoon was burnt away. Putting to flames, all the negative thoughts and energy that confounded our minds with it.
Pepper House Courtyard

A porch full of stories...Pepper House
Pepper House, though a much smaller exhibit ground, housed some equally profound pieces of art too. Including the now iconic room filled with white violins dangling from the ceiling. Like Aspinwall, the structure of this archaic building contributed as much to the installations within. 

Artwork of children from various schools in Kochi
We finished our evening with coffee and cake at our favourite Fort Kochi art cafe, Kashi, which of course was also part of the Biennale. While there, I regretted having coming so late to this grand event that had been in the city for the past three months. More than anything else, I was really kicking myself for not having exposed my children to this phenomenal experience right here in their city. An experience that involved learning how to navigate the heart, mind and soul through the mysterious corridors and pathways of creativity and deciphering the various messages emanating, each person having their own interpretation of the same matter in front of them.  The best part was, unlike so many other "activities" available in the city, this had  nothing to do with consumerism and instant gratification!

Now I await Dec 2014 for the next Biennale, to show my kids how their hometown Kochi blooms internationally  on the art scene. Well done to all those who put this together. It was one mindblowing effort!

After the Biennale, the famous painted Nano was exhibited at the LuLu Mall...right next to McDonalds!! Could not end this blogpost of mine on a better note!!

Monday, March 4, 2013

When the REAL home descends on the new home...albeit briefly!

Fishing for home status! 
It was just so recently that I had remarked to Purushu that Kochi was really starting to feel more and more like home, as I felt my nomadic roots digging deeper into this strange reclaimed soil that marked the birthplace of both my boys. We discussed how, unlike the two of us, our boys at least could answer a simple question like, "Where are you from?" with an answer as simple as Kochi. And I sat back, as we drove around our home city, late in the night, feeling mighty pleased and settled for the first time in a long long time.

Kitschy Cairo!

And then BAM! We go for the wonderfully organized Egyptian Food Festival today at the Trident Kochi and amidst all the typical Ancient Egyptian kitsch - like the giant golden pyramid in the middle of the buffet, King Tut masks pasted on every window and the brightly coloured sheeshas/hookahs, I suddenly didn't feel so Kitschy Kochi any more!!! Instead, I found myself aching for my original hometown Cairo like never before! Yes, definitely the type of yearning that brings tears to the eyes!

Seeking out the Masri! With Mr Camel as witness!
This deep homesickness took root with the very first glimpse of the waiters bobbing around the Trident's Travancore restaurant, decked in black waistcoats, red waistbands and matching red tarbooshes on their heads. Before even looking at the buffet spread, I sought out the Chef, who I knew had been flown in from Egypt, eager to meet somebody from the homeland. Upon being introduced to the gentle Chef Ibrahem, who has been working with the Oberoi Hotels in Egypt for more than twenty years, Arabic words started tumbling from my mouth, sometimes getting mixed up with Hindi words that kept jostling their way through, as if to remind me of my new existence. Uff, totally annoying! And hello,  when did this alien Hindi even become a part of my lingo anyway?!! The Chef, probably upon sensing my lack of fluency in Arabic, tried replying to me in English at first. But a part of me wanted to keep on speaking in this language that had been dormant for so long. I gave two hoots for my lousy grammar, inadequate range of words and nosy interferences of Hindi wannabes. I just wanted to feel at home by speaking a language that I had been surrounded with while growing up. A language I had been surrounded with in a homeland which only has memories that include my father in them. Chef Ibrahem must have sensed this wistful craving of mine, for he soon obliged and slipped into Arabic with me as well.

Koshary-a complete meal in itself!
Chef Ibrahem was extremely courteous and as all Egyptians go, extremely generous, spoiling us with his hospitality. When we asked him if the favourite street meal, Koshary, was available, he said it was not on the menu that day. But in ten minutes, we found two bowlfuls of the delicious rice-macaroni-chickpeas-lentils-fried onions bonanza, arriving at our table, complete with tomato salsa, shata (chilli sauce) and garlic oil, specially made by him for us. Along with it came freshly baked whole wheat Aish Balady (pita bread) and a platter of Egyptian sweets, including Konafa. This of course was all in addition to the lovely delicacies that were already part of the buffet.

The enticing salad bar.
As for the about forgotten tastes taking center stage again. I was thrilled to find the dark olive green bundles of the exquisite Wara'Enab gleaming at me from the salad counter. Basically vine leaves stuffed with a special rice preparation, this has always been one of my favourite Egyptian salad items. In addition, there were many other salad favourites, including fattoush, in which a regular green salad is tossed with pieces of hardened pita bread. Oh and let me not forget the olives!! Its an annoying feeling when you eat something you had always eaten and realize, damn, these were so good, what is this crap I am eating in the name of olives these days! The piquant silkiness of its rich flesh, married with the spicy brine, brought a whole new, or should I say old, joy to the experience of even just eating an olive!

My mom with her dear old friend Tut.
There were also many of the famous Arab dips on offer. While Hummus has become pretty common in restaurants in India, my dip of preference has always been Tahina, made of sesame paste, yoghurt, garlic, lemon and olive oil; which is difficult to find even in the metros. One of our ultimate childhood joys were the grilled burgers that we used to eat at the Gezira Sporting Club after our swimming sessions in the summer. There was nothing fancy to these burgers, just a freshly grilled burger patty slapped inside a white bun, slathered with tahina. Consumed on the ravenous appetite that comes after swimming, nothing could taste more sublime.  It was the Tahina that did the trick! So imagine this girl's joy upon savouring the perfect Tahina, here in Kochi, of all places. Teamed with the paprika sprinkled Egyptian buns, the Tahina was  just heaven as far as I was concerned and could have made an entire meal for me!

Needless to say, after the gorging of the koshary and salad items, the tummy was already full. The glass of beer that came with the meal was very welcome at this point, as were the few puffs of the sheesha that I indulged in, in between. It had been almost ten years since I last had a sheesha. Those days, it was still "harmless" and not addictive or unhealthy like cigarettes. Of course, since then, research has proven this pacifying theory wrong, so it's probably better that I don't have it at my easy disposal any more! To think I even had my own sheesha in my apartment in Seattle, where friends from all over the world used to gather late in the night, post parties, and just hang out around it! Yes taking those few puffs, which I incidentally coughed through this time, did conjure up some lovely memories.

Karan is most amused!
The kids were also very thrilled on discovering this new facet of their mom. While our mischievous Karan, who had once before categorically stated to Purushu upon seeing a man smoking a cigarette that he would do that too when he became big(!), egged us on to puff more at the sheesha, Rehan found his interest in Egypt and its history swelling. I then realized how much the place we grew up in shaped our knowledge. Especially when Rehan asked me what a "Pha-raa-ohh" was. As I explained to him that it was the name given to the kings in Ancient Egypt, it occurred to me that at his age of 9, not only did I know what a pharaoh was, but I even knew the names of most of the Egyptian Gods by heart and even a lot of the letters in hieroglyphics, thanks to our concentration on Ancient Egypt in Mr Miller's class. But then, Rehan would beat me hands down even now when it comes to knowing even the basic rules of cricket!! Yes, we definitely are working with different parameters!

Golden Pyramid Buffet Centerpiece
After a while I almost forgot that we were in Kochi, and it was only when I found it strange that Purushu was talking to one of the tarbooshed waiters in Malayalam did I land back in Kochi with a thud and headed back to the main course to complete the meal!

Coming back to the main course, I didn't think I would eat anything, but the Beef Kebbeh, a stewed meat dish, Chicken in Coriander Sauce with Chickpeas  and Baked Fish were hard to resist. And wait, they had Egyptian style rice too, with vermicelli, and Bamia, and I can just go on and on. Frankly, by the time I got to my Bamia, I could not eat any more. I was that stuffed!
A super special platter of Egyptian sweets,just for us!

But how was I to leave the dessert table. Especially with the decadent semolina goodness of Basboosa looking out at me so lovingly. And whats an Egyptian meal without a final topping of Om Ali? Okay enough now Nandini. You have eaten enough for the whole week!  We actually ended up packing up most of the sweets that Chef Ibrahem had so graciously given us, along with the freshly baked Aish Balady he had made for us to take home!

All in all, it was an out of the world, surreal experience. And the irony of it all was that it took place in the Trident, the new fancy name for the age old Indian hotel chain, The Oberois. Actually, not many people in India know that some of the prime Oberoi properties in the world are in Egypt, the key one being of course, the Mena House Oberoi. Located at the foot of the Great Pyramids, this erstwhile palace was where we were carted to as children on special occasions to eat Indian food. The famous Mughal Room restaurant there was a special treat for all of us.

The Mena House Oberoi at dusk. Yes its real!
In retrospect, even getting there was an exotic experience. First a drive through the city, crossing the majestic Nile, past all the farmland with the giant pyramids looming in the distance. We kids used to compete to be the one who saw the pyramids first. In the beginning from a long distance away and then increasingly, with the urban sprawl, it took getting right to the entrance gates right beside the Mena House Oberoi to see even one towering above us! And then we would enter the precincts of the Mena House Oberoi, walking up carpeted stairs, through the gilded halls, exotic metal lanterns hanging everywhere and mirrors extending the hallways with their gaudy reflections. It was a maze just reaching the Mughal Room, the final corridor almost like a secret hideaway, tucked away in the back, opening out into the restaurant that suddenly reverberated with the lilting melodies being performed live by the in house Indian orchestra. There, with Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar's famous songs playing in the background, we would tuck into the flavours of India in Egypt !
A thoroughly heartwarming and satisfying lunch out.

So imagine this new scenario. Albeit a little less exotic, here we were, in great anticipation, making our way through Kochi city to Willingdon Island, passing the great Vembanad Lake and the Sanjivani hospital in which the children were born (incidentally, when Rehan was younger, he used to play a similar game of finding Sanjivani in the horizon, just like we searched out the pyramids!). But this time, with Amr Diab and Umm Kolthum playing in the background  as we dug into long lost Egyptian flavours in India!!

Its been six years since I last stepped foot in Egypt. And that realization dawned on me today like a pile of bricks. How does one stay away from home that long? A trip back is long over due! Thank you to the folks at Trident for opening my eyes...and my soul.

We ain't in Egypt any more! Why?!!!
*For those Kochiites interested, this food festival at Trident Hilton is on till March 09. They have both lunch and dinner buffets. The cost per person is Rs800, inclusive of all taxes. This also includes the complimentary glass of beer and usage of the hookah counter. I for one, totally recommend the experience! And if you are in Mumbai, Chef Ibrahem will be there next, at the Trident Mumbai from March 11th onwards*

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bring On The Midnight Gelato!

Those of you who know Purushu and I, will be aware of the frequent late night dates we go on in the city during the weekdays. Once the kids are tucked into bed, we two adults head out all the way across town to M.G.Road...for the wild life of dessert!

Until recently our sojourns usually took us to Naturals Ice Cream, occasionally Cocoa Tree or much less frequently, Canopy at Abad Plaza. The bright lights would beckon from the colourful interiors of another haunt open on M.G.Road that late in the night, Haji Ali, which serves up the most authentic falooda in town, but a cursory check of the whopping number of calories in one serving has so far managed to keep us away! Especially at night!

But now we have a new entrant on the late night dessert scene in the city and we find ourselves veering in the direction of Milano Ice Cream to savor the scrumptiously delicious Gelato that they serve there.

Exactly a month ago to the date,  the ever gracious Giancarlo Segalini (who coincidentally turns a year older today too-Happy Birthday!), egged on by his wife Sara, started this gelateria in Ravipuram. Sara has a long standing relationship with Kerala through her Coir and Jute business and when Giancarlo visited our God's Own Country in April last year, he noticed there were no gelaterias here. And thats how it started. Ah a simple and noble thought, which has brought such joy into the lives of us Kochiites! 

The quaint little gelateria sitting opposite the new Tanishq showroom in Ravipuram has this deceptively simple chocolate brown hoarding outside that indicates its existence, but take the bait and walk inside and you are transported into another wonder land altogether. Pristine white walls and cute little arches beckon you through the entrance and to the treasure that lies at the end of the narrow hallway, extended by the clever use of mirrors.

The treasure at the luscious end of the tunnel being of course, the luminescent display of the day's freshly made gelato all set for gobbledom, manufactured right there on site by Giancarlo and his master chef,  Maurizio, who is as jolly as an Italian chef can only be! White haired, hurly burly and with a belly that boasts of satiatingly amazing food escapades, you like to know that you are being fed by this jovial funloving chef! 

But then, how could he possibly not look the part, he after all hails from the Italian province of Parma. Now if Italy is known as the food capital of the world, well, anybody who knows their penne from their fettuccine will know that Parma is the capital of that food capital!
The wonderful Milano team. (L-R) Giancarlo, Shafiq, Maurizio and Muhammad

So when you know your Gelato is being made by someone with that kind of pedigree, of course your tummy rumbles louder. But there is a task to be accomplished first. Choosing  your flavours. The young men at the counter who do the honours of serving you the gelato, at first glance, seem to be imported from Italy too. After all, the owner is Italian, the master chef is Italian, even the entire sylvan decor of the place is designed and executed by the Italian designer, Paolo Zani. And these fellas standing there with their jet black gelled hair and Mediterranean complexion, not to mention, the bright red Gucci loafers, they gotta be Italian too, right? Wrong. They are Mohammed and Shafiq from Kasargod! Could have fooled me...:)

So Mohammed and Shafiq help you choose your flavours, giving you as many tasters as you want before you nail the deal. Yes this is the bewildering part. On one hand you have the sweetly tart fruit sorbettos that gleam at you with their bright colours, then you have the comforting milk based flavours that are combined with the required crunch and punch to keep you in heaven, and then those chocolate flavours designed to hit your head with enthusiasm. Best of luck with choosing!

I think of the flavours I have tried so far, the purplish pink Fruit of the Forest, a vibrant medley of all things berry, is my absolute favourite. Plus, you get to convince yourself it's healthier because it has less fat than the milk varieties(uhuh...). But if you do choose to go down the more decadent path, then the Chocolate Orange has the right blend of sweet and bitter to keep your mind tingling for a while. 
I did like the Milk and Honey one too which had bits of home made meringue sprinkled on top. Another Sorbetto that blew my mind was the Strawberry...intensely strawberrylicious as it gets...YUM! As you can see, I can go on and on. Am looking forward to seeing the new flavours that this team brings forth over the days, as they get more familiar with the local produce. Just imagine when mango season rolls around...ah Manga Mia! :)

Once you have chosen your flavours, Mohammed and Shafiq serve it up for you according to your choice of size and bowl. Whatever you choose, they make sure to make even that experience a pretty one. The Strawberry Sorbetto/Ferrerro Rocher rose cone is something I cannot forget...:)

As for the rates. Get this. The small cup comes with two flavours at Rs50, the medium with three flavours at Rs80 and the large cup with three flavours but larger sized for Rs100. I know...what a STEAL! 


And of course, if you want it on a cone, its Rs5 extra...but go for it! It took me a trip to Milano(the Kochi one of course) to realize that eating gelato out of a cup is one of the biggest injustices you can do to yourself. 

Take it on that cone and look at all those pretty colours before you indulge. Bury your nose into it, smell it as you eat through it and allow its creaminess to drip onto your fingers. Total sensory indulgence...that's the only way to go! 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Wheeled back into action by a movie!

Getting this blog running again has been on my mind for some time now. But I just was not getting that final energising push to do so. And then last night, I watched Annayum Rasoolum and I knew...the time had come.

Why this movie you may ask? A 3 hour long intense love story that some of the fellow audience found more comfortable to giggle through or berate(though nobody walked out)?

Because in it I saw my beloved city, Kochi, in a way that it had never been seen before. This is no ordinary feat, mind you, considering every movie these days seems to have Kochi as its backdrop. Heck, walking into a film shoot has become a regular occurence for all Kochiites. You just can't escape the film units which throng every possible location out there.
Panampilly Nagar,  Vytilla Junction, Marine Drive, the Rainbow bridge, the old bungalows of Fort Kochi, the city's malls and luxury hotels have all become regular canvases for films to roll out on.

Thus to shoot within the very same tiny geography and engagingly bring out a rustic, hearty core of Kochi, centred primarily in older hearths like Mattancherry and Vypeen, was a masterpiece move by the team of Annayum Rasoolum.

Within the subtleties of this intense romance, just like the city the story is based in, there is of course deep soulful love, but there is also darkness. There is joy, there is materialism, there is crime, there is frivolity, there is sadness, there is freedom, there is ecstasy, there is achievement, there is heartwrenching comedy, there is purpose and of course there is reality.

However what ends up being most fascinating for me, and so smartly executed, is the way the city actually relegates itself to  a backseat role while the movie instead plays out inside the diverse modes of transportation Kochi has to offer.

Speeding buses-not the AC Volvo buses that are featured often in films these days, but the regular breadbox ones; noisy ferries; privacy ensuring autos; convenient tourist taxis; and zipping motorbikes are all used as 'vehicles' to move the story forward, each with its own timely significance, yet always keeping the city as witness. When all else fails, the hero, played flawlessly by Fahadh Faasil, turns to his Forrest Gump instinct and RUNS!  Also constantly looming in the background against vivid hues of different skylights are the huge ships and barges that are so intrinsic to the socioeconomic  fabric of Kochi.

No, I wasn't thinking about all this so deeply while watching the movie. I actually just sat back and allowed its slow pace to engulf me with the lives of the characters before me.
Yet again and again, along with the unique characterisations of the entire cast, I found myself drawn to the different essence of Kochi that emanated from the screen.

Interestingly the transportation metaphor never occured to me till much later. While we were leaving the cinema hall, I heard a lady rebuke the movie saying all it had were scenes that jumped from a bus to an auto to a ferry etc. She had actually nailed it. Thats when I rewound the movie in my head and realised it was a lot more brilliant than I had initially resigned it to be.

And I couldn't have been happier for I get simple pleasures from using public transportation. I actually enjoy taking the bus when I can. I think the ferry system in Kochi is one of the most efficient, cost effective but most under utilised method of navigating this city that  is essentially an archipelago of islands. I can't wait for the Metro to finally arrive. I find tourist taxis in Kochi are some of the most reliable, safe and economical in the state and country.

So of course a public transportation junkie like me would find it absolute genius to use these simple day to day objects in our life as a platform for the movie!

Thus for me, Annayum Rasoolum, with its thorough exploration of a somewhat simple romance between two regular people,  has became more of a visual and cerebral exploration of Kochi, the enigmatic metropolis that I now call home. Nothing much in the characters or their lives resembled my own, yet the feelings resonated within. Thats what good cinema does to you.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Falafel, grilled chicken and noodles for the soul!

To say that the last few weeks have been busy would be an understatement. With a house being done up for yours truly and her brood to settle into, its just been a life of running around like a headless chicken. So when a kindly viral fever took over me and subsequently Purushu, we had to sit back and take some rest. In the evening today, although still getting over the fevers, we decided to go out for a drive and ended up ordering take out from the Food Village in Jawahar Nagar.

See, Food Village is not some place you would generally gravitate to by just seeing it from outside. For one thing, their decor and seating leaves a lot to be desired. We had ignored this place for the longest time just because it looked so uninviting with its minimal decor and cafeteria like look, almost like it was just another one of those wannabe multi-cuisine eateries where the only dishes they could serve correctly were the regular Gobi Manchurian, Chilli Chicken and Kerala Porotta. The bland lighting and glass paneled doors all contributed in making this place look, frankly, unappetizing.

But when I finally found myself eating at Food Village upon the recommendation of Shailaja, whose opinion on food I value tremendously, I was quite impressed by the Hot and Sour Soup that contained copious amounts of exotic ingredients like shiitake mushrooms and tofu (as opposed to just the carrots and cabbage we are all so used to); the Caesar Salad that was not just filled with yummy bits of roast chicken but also loaded with Parmesan Cheese (a rarity in the market); and the heartwarmingly delish Pad Thai, which hitherto, even some of the so called best restaurants in India have disappointed me with.

With this background info on the restaurant's strive towards authenticity, I took the brave step today of attempting to try their Falafel, to soothe out my Taameya craving. I knew it would not be as good as Egyptian falafel, just because they were making it out of chickpeas rather than fuul beans, but hey, something is better than nothing. The fact that it came with some hummus was a good enough incentive. In embarrassingly multicuisine fashion, we also ordered some noodles and dragon chicken for the kids. We gave the order and they said that they would deliver it to our home, which was very welcome, as it meant we didn't have to sit around waiting in that rather cold environment.

Instead, we decided to induce more food into our waiting period by heading to our favourite joint for grilled rotisserie chicken, Al Barad, at Vytilla Junction. Here, a fine full chicken, perfectly marinated and grilled, was chopped into four and packed with the complimentary garlic paste, tangy pickled carrots, cucumbers and green chillis and qubus bread. I assure you, we have tried out so many places in town, but nobody does grilled chicken like the folks at Al Barad. While we got into the car with this "parcel," we got a call from home - it was my mom letting us know that the Food Village delivery guy had reached. Wow, their speed was quite impressive! Now we only had to wait and see whether the food would do justice as well.

And sure enough it did. The falafel was perfectly fried, without any extra grease and with as much flavour as chickpea falafel can have. The accompanying hummus, that was embellished with tasty olives, was a winner too. I made myself a Taameya sandwich and truly relished the flavours that had been missing from my palate for so many years now. The noodles were great value for money and Rehan particularly loved the Dragon Chicken which consisted of around ten pieces of juicy boneless chicken tossed in a spicy sauce garnished with spring onions and cashew nuts. The grilled chicken from Al Barad, as always, hit the right spot.

All in all, our eclectic dinner was just the perfect dose of medicine for the fever we had been fighting off. And it is such a wonderful feeling to know that we could get this tasty meal consisting of so many different types of cuisine, here in our own Kochi - without having to pay a bomb for it. I am liking where the food journey of my city is going, that's for sure!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Watery ways

The monsoons are finally here and the cool weather is a wonderful respite from the heat that the city faces through the rest of the year. But as any Kochiite knows, along with rain, comes the flood filled streets. Really, on even a meagerly rainy day these days, the roads are completely sloshed, making driving through them an absolute health hazard for our cars. We already have one spark plug as a casualty of this! Automobile agencies and car workshops are sure to be laughing their way to the bank at the moment.

And at least those of us fortunate to be able to travel by car can avoid the wetness in our recirculated air cubicle. For those who are traversing by feet, its an even more horrendous experience. Time to return to the mundus and lungis and Hawaii chappals!! For all those forward emails going around about Mallus and their mundu folding behaviour, this is the perfect answer...we sure know how to be practical about our clothing!! Atleast with a mundu, only our feet get wet, not our garments (atleast from the water beneath).

On a serious note though, its almost scary how our city has become incapable of dealing with rains. Hello, we live in a tropical area! Why is it then, that when it pours, the roads look like we are living in a city experiencing rains for the first time in hundred years! That be said though, its a relief to see that one day of dryness does allow the water to flow out somewhere, enough to allow us to, for once, be relieved to see our pothole-ridden roads' surfaces. But how much longer can this city sustain that also? With the construction that is constantly growing in any area that can be remotely called "waterfront", more and more land is being reclaimed, and less and less area is available for the water to go. Hence during the rains, the drains have nowhere to empty out into and its our roads that get inundated with all that sick water. Scary thought that. And the fact is, no road escapes this peril. Least of all, the grand ole M.G.Road, which starts to look like the M.G.River on rainy days, especially towards the North side.

If the civil society doesn't join hands to do something about this, together, this flooding crisis is just going to get worse with each year.

Lets start from the very beginning!

Welcome to my blog folks!

Been wanting to do this for so long now, but somehow always kept putting it off. Plus I had too many different genres of things I wanted to write about, hence I couldn't decide on what my blog would be about. Then Eureka! Why not write about everything and use this as a chronicle of the growth of this city I live in through the eyes of Kochiites like myself, my family and my friends! Its a lovely thought to know that with this, I can literally write about anything I want that's called freedom!

Here's my take on food, movies, shopping, events and entertainment, along with, almost surely, cribbing of everything that goes wrong, as it is wont to do in our kitschy city. Fellow Kochiites, feel free to join me in venting your views too in any of these spheres.

Okay, just as I was engrossed in typing this, my two year old son, Karan, managed to get his hands on a jar full of kumkumam(vermillion) that we got from the temple, and yes, its all over the place and my hands are smeared with the Devi's bright red powdery blessing, sent via the little brat!

So on that auspicious note, here goes...lets start this journey of Kitschy Kochi, today, Thursday 09 June 2011. Am excited to see where we go and where we land up. Sure its going to be one fantastic experience!