Known as ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala is one of India’s most economically successful states.Governed by a democratically-elected communist government, it can boast a literacy rate of over 90 per cent.
The location for India’s first Christian church, synagogue and mosque, Kerala is famous for its beautiful beaches, chilled population and magnificent cuisine. And while a trip through the state might yield magnificent views, a gastronomical tour will provide a history lesson that no book ever could and change the way you think about food forever.
Acquaint yourself with Kerala
Arrive in Cochin and check into the five-star Taj Malabar. Cochin was built in 1932 to accommodate disembarking luxury liner passengers. Take a boat across the bay and acquaint yourself with Keralan history.
Visit the 16th century synagogue in Jew Town on the site of the oldest Jewish settlement which not surprisingly is where the Jewish traders first came in the 6th century BC and lived happily... until the Portuguese butcher Alberto de Albuquerque arrived in the early 1500’s and killed most of them.
Remain on the worship trail walk around the corner past pastel coloured townhouses to the Church of St Francis. Built in 1510, it is where Portuguese explorer and sadist ,Vasco Do Gama, was buried but was taken over by subsequent Dutch invaders a 100 years later and turned Protestant only to become, under British rule, the centre of Anglican worship from 1858.
Back at the hotel enjoy a typical Keralan seafood dinner at the Rice Boat restaurant comprising of chunks of black cod, marsala king prawns subtly spiced and wrapped in a banana leaf, tilapia fish curry accompanied by citrus-flavoured string hoppers (made from rice noodles curled into flat spirals) and three very different desserts. and let the chef explain to you that every ingredient in Keralan food is there not only for flavour but also for medicinal purpose.
A Syrian Christian lunch and cruise on a canoe through the canals
Travel inland and take a canoe down river to lunch at the house of Mr Thomas. Lunch is prepared in the less spicy Syrian Christian fashion introduced by Syriac Orthodox monks who followed the pioneering Saint Thomas to Kerala in AD52.
Such fare comprises predominantly of meat and fish, less chilli and more coriander as evident in the quite astounding fish stew reminiscent of Bouillabaisse.
Subsequently, Thomas the younger will take you on his raft down man-made silent canals, past herons, iridescent kingfishers, cormorants and skinny dipping water buffalo for a botanical tour where you will see plants of every description that Keralans use to cure all manner of ailments from the common cold to kidney stones. jaundice and hemorrhoids.
A colonial mansion, a trip in a houseboat and an ayervadic massage
Travel into the interior and enjoy the colonial grandeur of Taj Garden Retreat at Kumarakom. Formerly the home of the uncommonly rich English ‘missionary’ Mr Henry Baker this impressive 123 year-old mansion borders a massive bird sanctuary whose inhabitants make full use of the hotels foliage.
Take a trip in a houseboats (kettuvalam) and cruise past lush paddy fields, swaying palms and Keralan ladies in bright pink and blue dresses doing their washing in the river and feel as if you have travelled back in time to the days of E.M. Forster.
Enjoy an ayervadic (translated means ‘life science’) massage where you will be dressed in a loin cloth the size of a plaster, covered in enough healing oils to coat a Sumo wrestler and pummeled until the pressures of western life exit stage left. At night partake of an 18-course Moplah meal comprising meen mulagittathu (chilli flavoured fish curry) and undaputtu (steamed prawn dumplings) and aatirachi curry (Moplah lamb in coconut) and taste the effect Arab traders had on Keralan food some 2000 years ago.
Diving for mussels and a barbecue on the beach
Travel first-class on an early morning train along the spine of Kerala to Thiruvananthapuram until you arrive at the capital in the early evening. Check out the city’s biggest market where you can buy literally ‘anything’. Take a taxi to the Taj Green Cove Hotel, Kovalam, wake early the next morning and meet the fisherman at Kovalam beach and board a thin balsa wood raft that, barely big enough to sit on, will take you to the edge of the cliff.
Here try your hand at mussel fishing equipped only with a knife, snorkel and a mask and watch as experienced divers stay under the water for what seems like a lifetime emerging with a bag of mussels that will put your catch of two to shame. After a swim in the Arabian sea watch the sun go down then walk down to the beach for a barbecue and pick your fish from a selection of the finest seafood available to man. At night take a walk to Lighthouse Beach where you might even meet a fellow traveller - albeit with dreadlocks.
Haggling in a street market and a night in glam Mumbai
Fly from the south to Mumbai and check into the luxurious Taj President slap bang in the middle of the city. As the Indian economy booms, the city certainly straddles the full gamut of human experience. Do a bit of heavy haggling down at the Chor Bazaar (Thieves Bazaar) and pick up a few choice antiques. Catch a few lagers in the café Leopold on the teaming markets street where the Australian author Gregory David Roberts wrote much of his novel Shantaram and pick up a few tips from fellow travellers on how to negotiate the city.
At night enjoy a dinner at the Konkan Café at the Taj President Hotel that fuses gastronomic delights from Vasai to Mangalore with Western healthy ideologies. Subsequently adjourn to the hotel's enormously fashionable Bar Wink and nurse an espresso Martini and watch Mumbai’s glamorous and groovy swan about. Finish off the night with a few drinks at Privee, the members only club where the glamorous stars of Bollywood let rip.
Chris Sullivan travelled with Taj Hotels & Resorts, Cox & Kings and Virgin Atlantic. Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces offers a seven-night Culinary Journey to Kerala in association with Cox & Kings, staying at Taj Land's End, Mumbai; Taj Malabar, Cochin; Taj Garden Retreat, Kumarakom, and Taj Green Cove, Kovalam. From £1,945pp (based on a minimum of six passengers) including flights with Jet Airways, all meals (B&B in Mumbai), transfers and excursions. Virgin Atlantic flies daily to Delhi. Connecting flights are available. (Contact Cox & Kings: 020 7873 5000 / wwwcoxandkings.co.uk)