The united colours of Fort Kochi. A Kochin high tea food walk with Oneal Sabu.

Beef fry at Balan's.

My Kochi food explorations did not end with the toddy shop rhapsody that I had written about in my previous post. I had another exhilarating experience later that day too. That was when Shana and I drove out from the Grand Hyatt Kochi and the car got onto a ferry (the fact that it was a Jag added to the James Bond-like feeling), which took us into Fort Kochi. The route is a big-time saver I am told, though my plans to do the same with K was put paid to the next day which was Christmas evening. The queue to get onto the ferry was so long that that evening that we got our Uber to turn back after being parked in front of the crowded ferry for an hour.

A very contemplative Oneal Sabu

Waiting for us at Fort Kochi was Oneal Sabu. A young food writer, restaurant consultant and maritime lawyer, with whom I have chatted for almost a year on Instagram through his handle @fcboy83. While we were meeting in person for the first time that evening, our chats preceding this are what had made me very keen to go to Kochi. I am glad that we could meet in person when I finally made it there.

Oneal lives in Fort Kochi which, from what I understand, is the heritage district of Kochi. 'The equivalent of south Mumbai in the context of Mumbai," as Oneal puts it. You find the last vestiges of the influence of its Portuguese, then Dutch and finally British settlers in the architecture here and in the culture and food too. Oneal took us on a short food walk/ crawl (we drove through a bit of it and did not just 'walk'). This gave me a glimpse of the cultural cornucopia that forms the foundations of Kochi. The city that is also known as Cochin or Kochin, depending on your age and socio-demographic group, I was told. Oneal prefers to call it Cochin.

Kashi Cafe

We started at the David Hall gallery which is also now home to a lovely café in its garden. Fort Kochi is home to quite a few of these quaint cafes it seems. Some of the others that we visited that evening were Kashi Cafe and the Pepper House (housed in a 200-year-old pepper storage barn). These are the places to go to get your fill of cappuccinos, juices waffles and pancakes and handmade fresh pasta. We did not get to stop at any of these that evening. I cannot tell you how the food is but I did love the languid vibe of these places. I had planned to take K to any one of these cafes on Christmas, but as I mentioned earlier that did not work out.

Going Dutch over a British high tea 

When Oneal showed him my book, Uncle Joy looked at me and said, "I hope I will be in your
next book." I told him that with his blessings, there would be a 'next' someday

A contrast to the ‘arty cafes’ of Fort Kochi is the Elite Bakery. Our first food stop on the walk. You feel as if you have been transported into the really old school bakeries, that you might remember from places such as New Market in Kolkata or Grant Road and Fort in Mumbai, when you step into Elite. It is run by Uncle Joy (James) whose father had started the place in 1963. The original bakery was located at Princess Street, though it now stands at the Burgher Street. The name of the street is a testimony to the heritage of the Dutch in Kochi. As are the breudher buns that we had there. Brown coloured sweet buns made with refined flour. Possibly the only Dutch influenced dish to still exist at Kochi, said Oneal. A treat that he had grown up on. We had the breudher buns with tea and the experience reminded me of the bun maska tradition of the Irani cafés of Mumbai.

We also had a fish cutlet and an egg puff at Elite. These were taken out of the sort of warmers which I remembered from places such as the Jalojoga confectionery chain of the Calcutta of the 80s. The cutlet is a result of the Anglo-Indian heritage of Kochin, said Oneal. The puffs from the bakery tradition of Kochin. A tradition that was possibly a manifestation of the aspirations of locals to get a taste of the lives of the erstwhile British rulers of the city. 

Oneal claims that the first cake to be baked in India was apparently baked in Thallaery in 1883. By a gentleman named Mambally Bapu in a local borma (Malayali for bakery. That seemed like quite a tall claim to make and I guess there would be those in Kolkata, Bandrl or Goa who might dispute this, but I am sure that Oneal has done his homework. 

Think of the food at Elite as a slice of living history rather than a gourmet discovery and you will enjoy your time there.

Masala chai with farsan. In Kerala and not Vile Parle!

Another interesting place that Oneal took me to that evening was Shantilal Sweets. It is located in what is called Gujarati Street in Kochi. The equivalent of Gujarati dominated suburbs such as Vile Parle and Ghatkopar in Mumbai. The shop draws its origins to a pan shop run by a Gujarati gentleman named Shantilal. They started serving tea later and then added the full range of Gujarati sweets and farsan too and that is how a simple paan shop became a supremely popular Gujarati sweet shop in the heart of Kochi in Kerala.

The hot badam milk was introduced at Shantilal a few years after they started serving tea, said Oneal. This was done for kids as kids were not allowed to drink tea. Drinking the masala milk is a childhood memory of Oneal. The beaming smile on his face when he entered Shantilal reiterated this fact.

Dhokla chaat at Shnatilal

We sat at the Shantilal for a bit and I enjoyed the dhokla chaat, the every refreshing tea and the badam milk that I had there. The latter so sweet, that it seemed as if milk had been added to sugar instead of it being the other way around!

There was a young boy sitting at our table with his father. The boy looked far more grown up and serious than us three adults and finished his badam milk with studious concentration. Just as Oneal would have once upon a time.

Badam Milk at Shantial.

Oneal introduced me to Raunak, whose grandfather had started the business on the way out.

Raunak, the grandson of the late Mr Shantilal

I looked at the the kalli mundu (lungi) clad Malayali gentlemen enjoying their chai at this Gujarati run shop and was struck by how seamlessly this Gujarati family had become part of this city in south India. This is what my India is all about.

The mother gravy of Kochi


Our last stop at Fort Kochi that evening was Balan’s 25 year-old beef fry and porotta shop at Puthiya Road. We had the beef curry which featured what Oneal likes to call the ‘mother gravy’ of Kochi (the gravy is used with chickpeas too and not just beef), beef fry and porottas. Both the beef curry and fry were spicy and delicious and the meat in both was very tender. You get mutton (goat meat) here in the morning said Oneal. The sweetish maida porottas were the perfect foil to the peppery heat of the meat dishes. The porotta was square in shape unlike the usual round 'Malabar' ones of Kerala.

Porotta, 'mother grav,’ beef fry, beef curry porotta

According to Oneal, what we know as ‘Malabar porotta’ from Kerala is a fairly new phenomenon in reality here. It had apparently originated in Sri Lanka and then came to Kerala through Tamil Nadu. The original version was square according to him and that is how they continue to do it at Balan's.

Rahul (with the beard), Karthik (with the big smile)

Porottas became popular in Kochi it seems once small shops likes these started serving porottas with beef fry and curry and the combination became a hit with all. A story later confirmed by Karthik Murali and Rahul who are food enthusiasts from Kochin.

The way these thattukadas (small shops) had made the beef dry and porotta combination popular reminded me of how the vada pav stalls of Mumbai are said to have introduced the idea of having the batata vada from the home kitchens of Marathi tais (aunts), sandwiched inside the once forbidden pav of the city’s Goan and Irani bakeries. Thereby giving birth to the iconic vada pav of Mumbai.

The way food evolves and breaks through social barriers is indeed fascinating.

Mr Balan

Incidentally, Mr Balan who runs the shop, is the only Hindu who runs a beef curry and porotta shop at the Muslim dominated Puthiya Road. Yet his shop is amongst the most popular around, says Oneal.

One India

Jamshedpur, Kolkata and Kochin respectively. My visits to these cities were my last three trips in the year 2019.

In the food that I had at each, the restaurants that I went to, the people that I met, the message that came across was consistent. That of unity in diversity. That we are a nation made up of people who are ‘many in body but one in mind,' as the saying goes.  There could be blips and aberrations no doubt but at the end of it all, this is the reality that no one change or deny.

To me, this is the story of one India.


With Karthik Murali

Footnote: Let me end this tale with one more sweet memory of my Kochi trip. This is from when Karthik Murali, who runs the group Eat Kochi Eat, had come to meet me at the hotel the afternoon I left for Mumbai. He had most kindly brought me a Mallanchare matured plum cake from the Pandhal cake shop.

“The best Christmas cake in Kochi,” he told me as he handed me the box with a big smile.

I came back to Mumbai and opened it when my mother in law, a fellow Christmas cake lover, came over. One bite of this moist, boozy, brilliantly spiced cake, and we were both in agreement with Karthik.

Mallanchare Cake


More picture

On the steamer to Fort Kochi

David Hall Cafe, Fort Kochi

The Pepper House

Do watch this video that we shot at Fort Kochi:

This is the third and the last of my three part series from the trip to Kochi. Here are the earlier one:

1. What makes for a good Keralite breakfast
2. The Toddy shop experience

I would like to express my thanks to our hospitality partner for the trip, Grand Hyatt Kochi