Kochi's vibrant Jewish quarter, historic churches, rich spices, and finger-licking dishes portray the city's melting pot of borrowed and indigenous cultures. And when you step into the Eighth Bastion, you're immersed in the Kochi lifestyle.
By: T. Kashyap
Posted on: July 7, 2023
LF Says: ★★★★.5
A breath of cool, salty air welcomes you as you set your feet in Kochi. In my first time being in Kerala, Kochi seemed to be India’s chill-pill destination, moving on its own relaxed beat. I arrived there in April when this year’s annual Kochi-Muziris Biennale was on its last days, and the city was bustling with contemporary art exhibitions.
The plan was simple, to linger and absorb the charm of Kochi. I reached the city on a bright sunny afternoon and headed straight to the famous Fort Kochi. The air started to feel different: there was a laidback vibe and charisma, and a delicious masala mix of culture.
Kochi's history is a tapestry woven with diverse influences from ancient trade to colonial rule and independence. The city boasts an eclectic mix of cultures, with influences from the Arabs, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese and British. Well, this has shaped its present, a place that celebrates its heritage while embracing progress and innovation.
Once at the center of a lucrative spice and tea trade, Kochi now boasts of family-run homestays, boutique hotels, historical buildings, and godowns (warehouse) turned into aesthetic cafes and restaurants.
My address was also a boutique hotel, Eighth Bastion by CGH Earth, in the charming Fort Kochi. Eighth Bastion, when I arrived, was adorned with artworks for the Biennale. It was like stepping inside a gallery where you can interact closely and personally with art and history.
A plush oasis of history
Right by the beach’s edge and only a short walk from most of the town’s historical attractions, the property has a distinct confluence of contemporary and colonial styles. Kochi used to have seven bastions built by the Portuguese and strengthened by the Dutch East India Company or the VOC. And that’s how this place gets its name, adding to the legacy.
Each of the three different types of rooms is done up in a mix of rich, vintage and contemporary design elements. My room was a classic one with a beautiful, private terrace overlooking the calm ocean and green neighbourhood. The giant, old trees watch over as you take in the pleasing wind of the city.
Eight Bastion is a subtle marriage of old and new; and colonial flair and modern amenities. Adorned with nautical paintings, enamel work and even VOC-branded furniture, my room embraced the aesthetic. The intricate wooden accents in the room accentuated the polished interiors in the form of doors, window frames, columns, and cornices.
Another striking feature of CGH properties’ is their strong commitment to minimising single-use plastics and initiatives to reduce food waste. You’ll find filtered water in glass bottles everywhere around the hotel. Bathrooms have refillable dispensers and reusable cloth bags.
While I couldn’t stop marvelling at my leisurely abode, it was time for me to witness the bygone history thriving in the lanes of Kochi, as I hoped on my tuk-tuk ride that the lovely hotel staff arranged.
Soul-enriching culinary delights
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Kerala's culinary heritage, thanks to modern interpretations and creative twists on traditional dishes. And the restaurant, East Indies at Eighth Bastion, serves as the perfect spot. I found their concept quite intriguing.
The restaurant has a fusion menu that serves progressive cuisine that follows the Dutch trailing map taken in search of spice. Think of dishes from Surat, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malabar, and Bengal; wherever the Dutch have left their impact was presented in gourmet style with a contemporary take on these age-old recipes.
Warm hardwood floors and wooden upholstery all around add to the inviting interior of the contemporary dining room. The dishes included locally sourced ingredients, with flavours that borrow from the land and the sea in artful plating. The space is also an ideal breakfast spot. The crowd here is a mix of creatives and tourists, all converging at the handful of tables scattered around a grassy courtyard and a closed space.
The food has equal amounts of intrigue and clever design. But don’t shy away from getting food on your hands; it’s actually the right way of savouring food in Kerala. And eventually, that’s how you’ll end up eating here.
A day of sightseeing around Fort Kochi left me famished, and Executive Chef Shinto Varghese knew exactly what to serve that was boisterously flavoured and left me very happy for the rest of the day. I started with their special Masala Grilled Calamari with its tangy lime juice zest to whet my appetite. Featuring the aromatic spices of Indian masalas, it was rich, flavoursome, and aromatic. The calamari was juicy and succulent.
Kozhi Pollichathu, a chicken gravy preparation was another dish that left a lasting impression. A beloved dish in Kerala's culinary repertoire served with golden-brown but soft kalappam (a savoury rice and coconut pancake), it features a delightful blend of spices and banana leaves that capture the region's traditional flavours. The chicken was also tender and juicy.
The menu has some all-time household favourites and some new ones rustled up with a twist. Although delving into the rich flavours of Kerala cuisine is highly recommended here, try other dishes as well like udon + seafood, wild mushroom + soba, and Kashmiri yellow paneer—they do not disappoint as well.
Kerala’s historical past has greatly shaped the eating habits of the region. There is no one kind of cuisine that the state is popular for. Food habits differ among different communities and the respective regions that they dominate. The coming of the Western communities brought a direct influence on the cuisine of Kerala.
On the last day of my trip, Chef Varghese and I went to the fish market near the famous half-dozen giant cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, or cheena vala as locals call them, to select some fresh fish for the day. A throwback to the 14th-century times, the nets are a symbol of Kochi's maritime heritage and a testament to the trade connections between Kerala and China.
Watching the fishermen operate the giant fishing nets in the morning is a spectacle in itself. A group of 6-7 fishermen coordinate to lower the humungous spider-like, 10m-tall nets into the water and then raise them back up to catch the fish. We got fresh pomfret and I must say, Chef prepared a feast that day!
I feasted on two pomfret dishes: one that was a flavourful and tender fish fry made in a blend of spices and shallow-fried to perfection. The other one was a pomfret curry, a rich and tangy one served with a soft and slightly sour Kalappam. Dip one piece of the kalappam in the luscious gravy, infused with spices and tempered with curry leaves, and you'll realise what a delicious seafood treat it is. Caution: you might end up licking your fingers after savouring each bite.
The food here is highly rich in flavours and the spices and local ingredients shine through. After staying here a few days, I think I realised why Europeans were hell-bent on conquering the spices of this place.
Delving into Kochi’s lanes
A walk through the Fort Kochi quarter helps uncover the layers of influences–from trading, spice markets, churches by the Portuguese and Dutch and more. The lanes actually embody the artistic soul of the city: one of warmth, creativity, and cultural fusion. Throughout the area, your eyes are delighted with visions of vibrant street art, murals, and graffiti, from local traditions to social issues and contemporary themes. The architecture of the colonial-era buildings reflects a blend of European and traditional Kerala styles.
The origins of Kochi can be traced back to the ancient port of Muziris which served as a crucial link between India and the rest of the world, attracting trade from the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese.
I started my trail with the St. Francis Church, built in 1503, making this India’s oldest European church. Behind the faded yellow façade, the barrel-vaulted interior takes travellers to the tombstone of Vasco da Gama, who died in Kochi in 1524. From there, I went to Mattancherry, once a vibrant centre of the spice trade and Jew Town.
The people at Eighth Bastian took me sailing across the vast Arabian Sea against the vibrant hues of the setting sun. The calm and gentle waves of the sea create a soothing ambience while the sight of the nets silhouetted against the setting sun makes for a captivating visual spectacle that draws both locals and tourists alike.
In Mattancherry, its history of bygone trading days is still visible. The streets boast of alluring spice smells and a lively buzz. These European-era bungalows, with their terracotta roof tiles and butter-yellow or mint-green façades are still there–some turned into cafes and restaurants. Some of these old locked godowns that haven’t seen the light since the pre-colonial era haunt tales of history. However, their walls have turned into canvases for art enthusiasts.
Before you head to the vibrant shopping lanes of Jew Town, make a stop at the elegant Mattancherry Palace. The sloping rooves and ornate wood-carved ceilings show that the palace blends Keralan and colonial styles. Next, it was time to head to the majestic Pardesi Synagogue.
Even though the heat was piercingly intense, the aesthetic lanes of Jew Town with Belgian chandeliers, antiques, and an 18th-century clock tower transport you to another world. So grab a chilled lime soda and walk down the historic Jewish quarter that is lined with shops selling everything, from perfume and lavish antiques to hand-embroidered artefacts.
As the day softened into the golden evening, I decided to catch the breathtaking views of the coastline. The people at Eighth Bastian took me sailing across the vast Arabian Sea against the vibrant hues of the setting sun. The calm and gentle waves of the sea create a soothing ambience while the sight of the nets silhouetted against the setting sun makes for a captivating visual spectacle that draws both locals and tourists alike.
Coordinates: Napier Street, Fort, Kochi, Kerala
As the sun began its descent, casting a warm golden glow over the water, I marvelled at the changing colours of the sky, wishing to witness this spectacular sunset in my life again. The vibrant oranges, pinks, and purples blending together created a spectacular canvas, however, now only etched in my heart.
LF Says: ★★★★.5