If ethnic taste of foods can be fun, exploring their source can be even more exciting. Such journeys can make us travellers. One such destination could be Fort Kochi, which has a layered history of centuries. A defining chapter from its 17th century has been the coastal strip's tryst with the Dutch rule. Ruminating that era, a restaurant functions in the suburb. Its name: East Indies.
Behind the name
The restaurant, opposite the cemetery in Fort Kochi, is housed in the Eighth Bastion Hotel owned by CGH Earth. Why is the restaurant called so? Well, it is in memory of the trade voyages of the Dutch undertook from Indonesia. Aptly, the restaurant serves dishes from countries east of India. Say, Malaysia. Or, just places east of Kochi. Such as Andhra or Kolkata. Even south of it, if spice matters in the taste. Say, Sri Lanka.
Faded from history
The prawn and fish that go into the curry you eat in Fort Kochi could be local. But their recipe needn't be, going by the reminder from East Indies restaurant. The taste basically comes from the Dutch kitchen, some 450 years ago, when that country's invaders were busy with their transcontinental journeys. The invaders had synthesized their cuisine with the ethnic ones they got in touch during such trips. For, these men from Europe too, like Keralites, had a weakness for tasty food. Else, how can coconut paste be part of a Dutch dish!
What all to eat? It's a usual question from a customer just as the waiter comes to the table. At East Indies, though, the names in reply can be startling: chingri macher, chicken satay…. Take them easy; just try the items. The first one, for instance, is made out of tiger prawns. It's already quite popular among Bengalis.
In fact, for the Bengalis, chingri macher is more of their own ethnic food. It's into their province the Dutch brought its initial taste. There it underwent minor modifications. Today, you first fry the prawns smeared with masala. Then, it is boiled with coconut paste to the extent of making it almost devoid of the presence of water.
It's a Thai dish that finds mention in the travelogues of late writer S K Pottekkatt. The wanderlust Malayali (1913-82) introduces it in his book Bali Dweep.
In East Indies restaurant, there is great demand for chicken satay. It is prepared out of boneless chicken that is smeared with masala and then burned optimally after inserting as pieces into an iron rod. So tasty that if you take your hands off the piece on the plate, your co-eater would have snatched it and chewed it down.
Next is what looks like a makeover of Kerala's ethnic koonthal fry. Also, for those heavily into seafood, there is Udon noodles. Here again, the star is the koonthal fish.
To be precise, the restaurant housing the hotel is what used to be the headquarters of the United East India Company of the Dutch. Not surprising (but interesting), thus, that the chairs at the hotel bear an inscription: VOC. It is the short form of the 1602-founded imperial company's name when written in Dutch language.
The main hall of East Indies features a picture of the vintage St Francis church of Fort Kochi. So vivid, that the visitor gets the feeling of eating food sitting in the shades of the shrine. The travellers at the restaurant may include people from the Netherlands as well. Members of the families who visit Fort Kochi to get a feel of the place their ancestors lived more than four centuries years ago. The city, which was the Dutch territory's capital from 1663 to 1795, does have its share of such kind of tourists.
As if keen to serve them with a regional variety of their native dishes, East Indies restaurant plays a good host to the new-age Dutch traveller. To anyone, for that matter.