If India is on your travel wish list, there is no better way to experience the wonders of southern India’s Kerala region than through the innovative eco-tourist concept of the home-stay, a small intimate accommodation with a local family who serves as host to this captivating and fascinatingly picturesque locale.
My wife and I discovered this pleasure not long ago when we journeyed some 7,000 miles from Charlotte and found one such magnificent destination at Philipkutty’s Farm. Only 75 kilometers from the bustling Indian city of Cochin in the Kottayam District of Kerala, this relaxing plantation and home-stay charmed us for four days at the end of our three-week, self-directed tour of Kerala.
Kerala beckons to intrepid travelers with a warm and humid climate flavored with the scent of cardamom and chilies used in the region’s cooking. The soft grasp upon the senses instantly lets visitors know they’ve entered into a world that is exotic and welcoming. The National Geographic Society declared this subtropical paradise one of the 50 must-see destinations of a lifetime for the complete traveler. Located on a 750-acre island in a backwater canal off Lake Vembanad, Southern India’s largest freshwater lake, Phillipkutty’s is accessible only by country boat powered by locals with long bamboo poles who propel past clusters of lotuses and lilies choking the canal’s edge.
Our hosts Mummy and Anu Mathew, finely attired in silk saris, welcome us with their broad smiles, strangers only for an instant. Soon, we find ourselves not just friends but family. In the family home, our thirst is slaked by a cool, fresh mango concoction. On this day, we are two of only six guests on the property.
Escorted to our secluded cottage compound, we are surprised and pleased by the amount of space we have to call our own. Each cottage offers a large sitting room, spacious sleeping area and full bath. There are ample reading/lounging areas, including our favorite spot right along the canal under the shade of a small verandah. It’s simply appointed, impeccably clean and comfortable. There are no television, phone, computer or even air conditioning to distract us.
Solitude is the first order of business here, as the only thing that breaks our conversation is the chattering of local women washing their clothes on a distant river bank or the cackling of snake-neck birds swooping to catch their mid-day meal. We easily fall into the routine with no watch, no shoes, and no worries.
At midday the first of many culinary treats is bestowed upon us. Mummy’s Syrian Christian Keralan cuisine (born from traditions dating back 2,000 years) is about to change everything I ever imagined Indian food to be.
Each meal is from six to nine courses and offers such delicacies as banana flower fritters, local lake fish (pearl spot), vegetable stews and slightly sweet curries. Served family style, breakfast and dinner are offered in the main family home and lunch out on the covered patio.
Guests expecting the pungent soups, stews, fiery dal and tandori of Northern India may be initially surprised at the vast differences in flavors, ingredients and preparation techniques found in Keralan cuisine.
Nuanced spices and layering of aromatics combine, creating subtle and refined dishes. They will satisfy anyone’s definition of contemporary cuisine. Keralan cooking is recognized as some of the most haute cuisine on the pan-global scene, currently featured in Delhi and Mumbai as the latest culinary trend.
On our first day, we share the island with a young German family on holiday. The following evening we are joined by an Indian couple from Mumbai. Mealtime is leisurely and conversation lively. Anu and Mummy are gracious hosts, sharing our table and punctuating the talk with observations and suggestions about how to take full advantage of the property and the surrounding environs.
For those who wish to more fully explore the food, getting into the kitchen for a cooking class with Mummy is a popular activity.
Here, she’ll teach you the finer art of preparing traditional dishes. You may learn how to make Palappam, the delicate rice-flour pancakes which are served routinely for breakfast. Spongy and meant to be eaten from the hand, they are the perfect accompaniment to Sambar, a lentil, potato and tomato stew which takes on infinite variations.
“In our cooking, we want you to know what you are eating,” says Mummy. “We don’t overpower with heat or spice, but rather offer complex flavors that are layered upon each other.”
Mummy’s Fish Molee is a shining example of her technique realized.
In a clay pot, coconut oil is combined with ghee (clarified butter) and heated along with fresh curry leaves, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, ginger and sliced green chili. After the spices are allowed to perfume the oil, freshly filleted fish chunks are added to the pot along with coconut milk, tomato and onion which simmer until slightly thickened. The result is pure heaven, especially when accompanied by Keralan okra and Mummy’s raita, a light and refreshing condiment of pineapple, yogurt, toasted mustard seeds and sweet curry.
Anu suggests we charter one of the famous Keralan houseboats for the day. Nearby Alleppey is a short drive from Phillipkutty’s. Known as the Venice of India, Alleppey is home to proud boatmen who show off their watercraft and dock at the public marina there.
Resembling oversized junks that would seem at home in a James Michener novel, the initially strange-looking watercraft are quite spacious and charming. They have full baths, kitchens and, in our case, balcony seating. We negotiate a half-day cruise with lunch and enjoy a very lazy and scenic ride down the inland waterway.
The other “must do” activity at Phillipkutty’s is traversing the grounds of this lush and verdant plantation. The vision of Anu’s late husband, the property was specifically developed for both micro-tourism and organic production of crops such as coconut, nutmeg, vanilla, ginger, bananas, ginger and cocoa. Croaking frogs, darting lizards, teal kingfishers and a vast variety of colorful birds dart about as we stroll on the specially raised foot paths that circumnavigate the grounds.
Fishing, bird-watching and cycling are also available.
Perhaps the most enjoyable way of passing the time however, is simply relaxing in a lounge chair, good book in hand, drinking in the tranquility that surrounds you in this very special slice of paradise.
The most direct route is to fly to Bangalore and then into Cochin. Ground transportation is available from Cochin to the Kottayam District where Phillipkutty’s Farm is located.
Several options are available for flights from Bangalore to Cochin.
Tour Booking/Ground Transportation:
Phillipkutty’s Farm: http://philipkuttysfarm.com/
Adapted from Mummy Mathew’s recipe. Serves 2-4. 1 pound firm white fish such as halibut, catfish or swordfish, cut into 1 inch chunks ¼ teaspoon ground coriander ¼ teaspoon turmeric ¼ teaspoon cayenne ¼ teaspoon hot curry powder 3 tablespoons coconut oil (can use peanut oil as a substitute, but do NOT use olive oil) 1 tablespoon ghee (available in Indian markets) or clarified butter Several curry leaves (available at Indian markets) 2 Thai chilies, sliced thin 1 tablespoon minced ginger 3-4 cloves garlic, minced 1 large onion, sliced thin 2 medium tomatoes, quartered 2 teaspoons garam masala (any Indian spicy curry powder will substitute) 1 cup coconut milk Toss fish chunks with next four spices and marinate one hour up to overnight. Heat 2 tablespoons coconut oil and ghee together in large wok or clay pot on stovetop on high heat until oil begins to glisten. Add chilies, curry leaves, ginger and garlic. Add fish immediately and sauté, browning on both sides on high heat. Remove fish and set aside. Reduce heat, add 1 tablespoon additional coconut oil and garam masala. Sauté onions, then tomatoes until soft. Return fish to pan and raise heat to high. Add coconut milk and bring to simmer until sauce slightly thickens. Serve immediately with rice and Indian flatbread (apam).