January 10 - 14, 2006
Tellicherry, Kerala, India
“As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are, otherwise you will miss most of your life.” - Buddah
As a service to foodies paying attention, I must say more about the cooking school I alluded to in my last entry.
If you love traveling for food and strive to go where no one (tourist) has gone before have I got just the place for you; Ayisha Manzil. Located in Tellicherry, a region that has locals scratching their heads wondering where in India is Tellicherry? I tried looking it up on the internet but they don’t have a website and nothing came up other than recipes for the eponymous Tellicherry peppercorn. To get there I was told to hop on the overnight train near to where I was staying in Southern Kerala and in the morning I’d be picked up at the station in Tellicherry. I did what I was told.
Promptly at 8:00am I was met at the Tellicherry train station by Jissu Jacob, Ayisha Manzil’s house manager and resident naturalist, and escorted to the property. After a short ride we arrived at the top of a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea. I moved quickly from the second-class overnight train cabin to first-class status. The heritage house is a strikingly beautiful 150-year-old Colonial home situated among coconut and tamarind trees. The house, built in 1862 by British colonel-turned spice trader named Murdock Brown, has six bedrooms filled with family heirlooms and antiques. A staff of nine devotees at Ayisha Manzil glides about the house barefooted keeping total order so guests may experience an atmosphere of tropical peace and tranquility.
CP Moosa, whose grandfather purchased the home in 1900, greeted me upon arrival. His specialty, I quickly realized, is catering to out-of-towners. His past life for 35 years in hotel management prepared him for making people who are far away from home feel right at home. Moosa took his honed skills in-house and since 1996 he and his wife, Faiza, selectively play perfect hosts to mainly Western travelers looking for an authentic Indian experience that goes a layer below the surface of mass tourism. Before you can say Moosa the Macha (in Yiddish it means ‘The Big Cheese’, in Hindi it means fun. Both perfect descriptions of Moosa) he’s organizing your daily itinerary and giving you loads of options on how to spend your time in this secluded and small yet culturally rich region.
Moosa kept my days filled with adventures to the local spice and fish market shopping for top quality cashews, saffron and golden raisins to include in the Fish Biriyani planned for the evening cooking class or to the nearby 2.5 mile long and clean beach to swim or watch local families and friends pick bivalves from the sand for suppertime. Quite a few times I simply chose to lounge around the emerald tiled swimming pool and write in my journal. After all, I was on the greatest, most fabulous, best ever vacation of a lifetime. Why not laze about? When I removed the rush and hurry from my routine I was able to truly and deeply relax.
Moosa rattled off local activities from which to choose. The most unique and unforgettable on the list was Theyyam. A local religious, ritualistic art performance, Theyyam is performed as an offering to the deities and often held to bring good fortune to significant events such as marriages and house-warmings. Theyyam refers to both the form or shape of the deity and to the ritual. After several hours of watching the Theyyam “character” apply make-up and get into costume the religious rituals got underway. Wild pounding of drums, cymbals clanging and whirling around in circles helped the performer to channel the spirit of the deity. I was entranced by the otherworldly atmosphere created by the performer as he transcended from his physical state of being into the deity. Hopefully the Theyyam photo album to the right and audio recording at the bottom of this entry give a more accurate account of what goes on at a Theyyam performance.
Let us not forget the reason I endured the twelve-hour overnight train ride to Tellicherry in the first place. Determined to find an Indian woman who could teach me to cook Indian food, I had heard a few good things about Faiza Moosa; she was invited to be the guest chef at a top hotel in Lyon, France. Also BBC featured Faiza cooking Mopilah cuisine along the Malabar Coast and aired the segment twice. That’s all well and good but was I going to be able to roll up my sleeves, play around with different colored spice powders and sear some beef? I’m not strange. Really, I’m not. I just get great pleasure from the cooking process. I don’t even mind the clean up part. OK, that’s a little odd, I admit. (Not to fear. There is no cleaning. Only kitchen staff diligently keeps the cooking area clean and clutter free.) My only complaint is that the staff prepped too many ingredients ahead of time. Maybe they mistook me for someone who didn’t want tomato juice dripping down her wrist or fingers smelling a hint like onions and garlic the next morning. I do! That’s part of my fun!
A shy, cherub-faced woman, Faiza isn’t a big conversationalist. Nevertheless, her presence in the kitchen commanded my full and undivided attention. A small spiral bound notebook filled with family recipes was handed out. The assignment was to prepare five dishes to be enjoyed later that evening by my fellow houseguests around an elegantly set dinner table. The menu included Beef Stew, Tamarind Prawns, Fish Biriyani, Chappati, a few vegetable dishes and Scrambled Banana for dessert. Of the eight houseguests only two signed up for the class. More dishes for us to cook.
Mopilah (Muslim) Malabar cuisine has its own version of The Holy Trinity in Cajun cooking; bell peppers, onions and celery - coriander, chilli and tumeric powders are added to just about every dish. Mopilah Malabar cuisine makes use of the region’s various fresh vegetables and elaborate spices like mustard seed, grated coconut, cardamon, cinnamon and cloves. The food isn’t excruciatingly spicy but they get the point across with plenty of green chillies. Home cooks have control over how much or little heat to apply. Faiza kept a watchful eye while I acquainted myself with new ingredients and together we prepared an Indian feast. The only Macha in the kitchen at Ayisha Manzil is Faiza Moosa.
You’ll love Ayisha Manzil, cooking with Faiza and Moosa taking a personal interest in forming your itinerary. The selection of things to do is endless. Allow for lounging by the pool and book four nights. You’ll be grateful they asked Lonely Planet to keep Tellicherry out of the guidebooks. The people who venture there really want a slice of authentic India. Needless to say, skip the overnight train and enjoy an all day ride to Tellicherry.
It’s well worth the trip.
Ayisha Manzil – Heritage Home
Court Road, Tellicherry, Kerala, India
Tel: 00 91 490 2341590
Mobile: 00 91 0 98470 02340