A quick weekend getaway is often the best way to break the monotony of being a working stiff, without incurring the wrath of your boss by taking an extended vacation.
However, typical Indian salaries, especially for those working in creative fields, often feel like they are missing a couple of zeros. And after trading the better part of your paycheck for a plane ticket, all the great food and experiences you wanted to indulge in suddenly don’t make it into the vacation budget.
Thankfully a little forethought and smart spending can go a long way in God’s Own Country. Kerala often poses as India’s saving grace when it comes to human rights, implementing sustainable environmental strategies, as well as being a hub for arts and culture. The case is the same for budget vacations that don’t skimp on the fun.
And what place better to visit than Fort Kochi! The Southern city is not only steeped in art and history, but is a veritable paradise for foodies. Ahem, well, let’s change that to a culinary paradise for non-vegetarians. If you are eager to sink your teeth into a fish head the size of a football or go on a wild goose chase for Kerala’s best toddy, this is your guide. Otherwise, you can join the trail of ‘white whales’ waddling off cruise ships, who despite ambitious intentions, only scratch the surface of this one-of-a-kind town.
So check out HG’s 48 hours in Kochi for INR 4800.
Cherish A Cheap Stay: INR 2000 for 2 Days
Although there are plenty of great hotels and hostels in Kochi, homestays are often the smartest way to get a comfortable stay for a reasonable price. You want to be diligent when you are looking for homestays, as you don’t want to be woken up by screaming children or be bothered by uncouth proprietors desperately urging you to purchase their cousin’s overpriced backwater tour.
An excellent option is Cherish Homestay, which provides clean private rooms with balconies and surprisingly good wifi. The owner and his family do live on the first floor of the three floor building, however they are lovely people who are happy to help you if you need anything, yet never for one second impose anything upon you.
So you wind up with a twin bed, for you and a friend or partner to shack up in, for a great price. It is important to mention most of the hostel crowd in Kochi are a great bunch to hang with - however, they don’t compare to a clean room and shower you don’t have to share.
Airport Shuttle for INR 70
With a distance of more than 40 km coupled with rough traffic conditions journeys from Kochi Airport to Fort Kochi typically take over an hour. The airport does have a prepaid taxi stand, yet travelers can save close to INR 1000 by simply taking the AC Airport Bus for INR 70. These buses are comfortable, clean, and travel into Fort Kochi every half and hour to forty-five minutes. It is best to check the bus schedule before you book your flight.
Scooter Rental for INR 350
Once you get into Kochi renting a scooter is your best bet for transport. Local taxis can be a bit expensive and the Autos often don’t stick to their meters, especially if you don’t speak Malayalam. A daily rental should cost INR 350 (Mr. Richard of Cherish Homestay would be happy to sort one out for you). Given Cherish Homestay is in a prime Kochi location, most places you want to visit are only a five to ten minute walk, so you only need to rent a scooter if you want to explore a little outside the Fort area.
Eat, Replete, & Repeat For No Great Feat
Breakfast @Kashi Art Gallery for INR 300
Kashi Art Gallery is the way to kickstart your day in sunny Kochi. A spinach and mushroom omelet garnished with cheese accompanied by bread so soft it makes your pillow feel like a bag of potatoes is the way to go. Wash all that goodness down with a cappuccino or watermelon juice, unbuckle your belt, and dig into Kashi’s much-loved chocolate cake for an extra INR 130. The huge slice chocolaty goodness looks like it was cut out of the giant cake in Matilda, and to make things better, this bad boy is bathed in a pool of chocolate sauce.
Pepper House for INR 380
After an afternoon of exploring the Fort Nagar area, a pit stop at Pepper House is the place to duck into for a little shade and the best damn lemonade of your life. After restoring some electrolytes to your body the Cafe’s Alleppey Fish Curry or Grilled Aubergine Salad are both worth a try.
However, the real treat lies in Pepper House’s Library, a free space open to anyone who needs to feel the spine of a book in their hands. The spacious room offers more than than 3,000 books and 1,000 DVDs on art, design, fashion, photography, architecture, theatre, art history and culture.
Pepper House is also kind enough to provide television sets and headphones so visitors can the library’s films or documentaries.
Just make sure you swing by 10AM to 6PM from Tuesday to Sunday.
Although it doesn’t fit into the budget, a bit of shopping at the Pepper House Design Shop is good fun. The shop does appear a bit bougie at first. In fact, I looked at the price tag of a dress I thought might earn me a few brownie points with my lady friend, and instead earned myself a minor heart attack from an INR 12,000 listing. Yet after I regained consciousness I wound up finding quite a few items of interest for those without trust funds.
Seagull Restaurant for INR 440 (INR 880 for two)
A couple of cold, large beers, a huge plate of beef pepper fry, and four garlic butter parathas cost around INR 800. This Kochi favourite hugs the port, and is one of the very few places you can get a drink on the waterfront. In the early evening you watch the slow trail of fishermen’s boats ambling back into the harbour with the stunning background of a Keralan sunset.
Mullapanthal, roughly translated to Jasmine Shed, kicks negative stereotypes about toddy shops to the curb with their amazing ‘nadan’ food, and atmosphere. This is not some squalid shack on the outskirts of a one-horse village, serving up shoddy, homemade hooch that can knock you on your ass faster than Muhammad Ali.
At this place, the glorious ‘white lightening’ tapped from Kerala’s many palms is just an added bonus when you embark on the forty minute drive to Mullapanthal. Cooks in sweat-stained banyans hustle from the joint’s kitchen, towing gigantic, brass urlis of various fish curries across the dining room. The ebb and flow of these massive vats, each wafting a unique flavour, almost seems like a purposeful way of increasing their patrons’ appetites.
The first thing you order should be a Kallu Shap classic, like the Meen Thala Curry. This dish is a legend amoung Toddy Shop-style meals, and one taste will explain it all to you. The enormous King Fish (Yellowtail amberjack) head wades in a pool of spicy red curry, full of red chilis, and coconut milk.
I have no qualms eating the fish head curry as is, however, if you don’t want to hurt your waiter’s feelings, a side of tapioca mash is in order. The tapioca comes particularly handy when you come to the dregs of the red curry, as the starchy mash was born to sop up spicy gravy.
The most expensive food item at the joint is the Karimeen Pollichathu for INR 350. This is Pearl Spot fish marinated in spices, which is then tied up in a banana leaf, and steamed. Seeing buzzed Uncles unwrap their banana leaves is almost like looking at the faces of children on Christmas morning, barring the glass of booze in their hand.
Mullupanthal’s cooks also add cashews to the marinade, which works wonderfully with this Malayali delicacy.
Tibetan Chefs Restaurant for INR 200 (INR 400 for two)
It may seem strange to get Tibetan food in Kerala, but this place is a Kochi classic. A few helpings of their hearty beef momos for INR 140 atop their bustling second floor section hit the spot for not alot.
Fusion Bay for INR 350
This little joint doesn’t seem like it’d house some of the best food in Kochi, yet their Syrian Christian food is out of this world! The restaurant is famed for its pollichathu style fish (masala spiced and grilled in a banana leaf), however, the Fish Masala on the Syrian Christian menu is by far the most pleasing for your taste buds and your wallet. For just INR 350 you get an appetizer of pumpkin soup and then a jam packed thali with a healthy portion of fish boasting an amazing masala base. It has a bit of heat, but is also tangy, a taste best balanced with a sip of solkadhi.
XL Bar for INR 340
XL Bar is often jam packed with both travellers and locals, making it one of the best places to get sloshed your first night in town as you can soak up some good travel advice with your alcohol.
However, you want to make sure you get to XL early in the evening, as Kerala’s drinking laws have become obscenely ridiculous. Unless you are a frequent and local customer you can often expect to be kicked out of the bar at 10:30 pm, no matter how you grovel. Also, they quickly sell out of the regular Kingfisher Lager, so unless you don’t mind Strong beer, it is best to arrive early.
The waiters at XL are not only over-enthusiastic about pushing patrons out the door at your Grandma’s bedtime. A downtrodden entourage of Brits regalead their me with their sad saga at XL Bar as they cradled several Kingfisher Strong bottles wrapped in newspaper.
In a single week this was their third time getting thrown out of XL Bar. Their first offense was playing a game Rummy, which the waiters deemed as gambling, and thus gave them the boot. A couple days later they got thrown out for sparking a doobie, which did not go down well for them. Moreover, these poor English folk who are for the most part powered by pints of lager, faced the uncomfortable reality of Kerala’s dry days - the first of every month is a dry day.
If you enjoy taking pictures, Kerala is a photographer’s paradise. In fact, simply walking along Kochi’s seaside lanes often avail photographers the opportunity to sneak inside old, abandoned manors and snap a few shots. However, if exploring Fort Nagar with all its old churches and chinese fishing nets is too mellow for you, Kochi is not short of fun activities. House Boats along the Backwaters are popular with a lot of folks as well as early morning yoga workshops. Kalaripayattu classes are also easily available for those who still have string in their step.
Nevertheless, perhaps the best way to explore the city is to hop on a bike, and zig zag through the lanes of Fort Nagar, stopping by whatever strikes your fancy.
Representational feature image via India’s Invitation
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