Obese Hong Kong food writer drops another size on India trek

Mischa Moselle manages to lose another 5cm off his waistline as he visits Fort Cochin and Jew Town in the capital of India’s southernmost state – and he’s finally found good coffee

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2016, 5:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2016, 5:47am

I’m in Thiruvananthapuram for a spell, but fortunately not a spelling test. Better known as Trivandrum, Kerala’s state capital is my kind of town – there are museums, a weird restaurant and some shopping, which also turns weird.

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The Napier Museum has a small collection of figurines of Hindu gods and goddesses, a temple chariot and leather puppets from Javanese wayang kulit shadow theatre, and Balinese face masks. It also has a scale model of a boat made by the craftsmen of Beypore, where I saw dhows being built a few weeks ago. The Museum of History and Heritage is a brief tour through the ancient history of Kerala, including explanations of the early form of writing on the walls of the Edakkal Caves.

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At the other end of the 4km Mahatma Gandhi Road is the India Coffee House, which resembles a large terracotta dovecote. Inside the tables are arranged around a spiral ramp which is negotiated by waiters in uniforms with a great deal more military pomp than one might expect from a business that is a worker’s cooperative. The food is good but the coffee is superlative, the only decent one I’ve had in three visits to this tea-loving country.

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I stop to shop between the museums and the coffee house and cause quite some consternation when I try to buy my wife a sari. It takes me more than 10 minutes to convince the staff that I know what the garment is and that I am serious about buying one. I hope they believe it is for my wife and not me. Later I email a photo of it to my wife. She doesn’t like it.

I’ve come from Fort Cochin. I was mostly at the historic port to visit Jew Town. When my parents visited the area three decades ago there were still nine practising male Jews in the community and my father stood in as the 10th man needed to conduct a synagogue service. Now there are so few remaining Jews, even though the community has been in the town for possibly several millennia, they can muster a service just about once a month.

The area around the synagogue has become a tourist trap but the temple itself is very calming. The floor is made of 400-year-old Chinese willow pattern tiles, each said to be a little different. I don’t like to stereotype but can’t help irreverently wondering if the 17th century merchant who donated them hadn’t got a good deal on a job lot of seconds.

Fort Cochin is a nice place for walking, reminding me in many ways of the relaxed atmosphere of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. There are lots of alleyways hiding quaint cafes and guest houses. A look into a courtyard might reveal an art gallery such as OED, where the modern art is by reputable artists and on sale for millions of rupees. Even the gallery postcards are handmade and cost Rs2,000 (HK$233) each.

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I also stop by the Hot Pepper gallery shop – just like many a gallery shop there’s not much stock but it’s artfully arranged and very pricey. On the other hand, I can’t find an actual attached gallery. Another shop, called Xara, which I think is a gallery shop, turns out to be the gift shop for the boutique Spice Harbour hotel. This also has the contemporary brushed concrete and steel restaurant 51 Xanaria that’s so good I come back the next day for more of its Mediterranean-influenced flavours.

Many of these places are on Bazar Road, which is also lined with rice, tea and spice agents, taking in deliveries from the nearby countryside. Every so often a truck carrying sacks of rice arrives, quickly followed by an entourage of pigeons and goats, blocking the road and causing mad traffic jams.

It is generally but not always balmy. On one occasion I have to stop after an hour and can’t work out why. I return to my guest house and spend the day sweating, paranoid I’m coming down with malaria or dengue fever, only to find out in the evening that the temperature hit 40 degrees Celsius outside.

“That’s a little hot for us,” says my landlady, with a certain flair for understatement.

She provides me with a different Keralan breakfast each morning, the favourites being thick pancakes stuffed with ghee-enriched, sweetened grated coconut and golden raisins and a sandwich containing a paste also made from grated coconut and just enough chilli and garlic to blow your head off first thing in the morning. I find I’m generally eating far less than I would in Hong Kong.

Including days lost to keeping an unbreakable promise to spend Christmas with the children, I’ve walked another 80km.

Now for the moment of truth. After a scary tangle with the tape measure that convinced me I’d gone up 5cm, I was relieved to learn that, in fact, I had dropped 5cm to 127cm. All this is better than nothing but I hope it can be improved upon.