From royal kitchen to pokkali farms

TNIE explores the culinary secrets of the Cochin Royal Family and the scenic beauty of Kadamakkudy
Backwaters in Kadamakkudy
Backwaters in KadamakkudyPhoto | Express

KOCHI: Having lived in Kochi for nearly three years, I like to think I know this city well. The warmth of its people, the richness inculture, and the way ‘numma Kochi’ opens its arms to embrace new faces. So when I got an invitation from HOGR, a food and travel discovery platform, to explore the city in a new way, I was intrigued.

For its ‘Xplore’ series, a curated food trail, HOGR promised a mix of both history and gastronomy, featuring the exquisite cuisine once enjoyed by the Cochin Royal Family, alongside a scenic journey to Kadamakkudy.

The expedition kicked off at Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple in Tripunithura. The rustic temple and the old gopurams speak of a proud bygone era. The rhythmic percussion from the temple grounds resonated with the town’s unique charm, where music and art have thrived since the days of royal patronage, continuing unabated to this day. Standing amidst the serene beauty of this 12th-century marvel, I was greeted by Balagopal Varma of the Cochin Royal Family, who led us on the trail ahead.

“The temple is widely believed to help those facing fertility issues. This is also one of the reasons why members of the Cochin Royal Family began settling around the temple by 1750. Back in the day, the family had a history of adoption,” informs Balagopal. 

Before the rise of the Cochin Royal Family, ancient Kerala was ruled by various families known as Swaroopams, and the temple is historically associated with the ‘Kuru Swaroopam.’ 

“The temple’s rise to prominence is after the patronage of Cochin Maharajas. Interestingly this is the only temple in South India where Lord Vishnu is seated, unlike the popular

Anantashayana posture,” he says. Most of the temple was destroyed in a fire in 1920, except for the western gopuram. The southern gopuram, once used exclusively by the royal family, has been closed since 1949. “It’s now a private space under the Valiyamma Thampuran Kovilam Trust, leading to the Amma Thampuran Kovil, the matriarchal palace, and is visited solely by family members for rituals and special prayers,” he adds.

Next to the eastern gopuram is the massive iron structure which is capable of holding up to 15 elephants. Another highlight is the L-shaped complex, home to the ‘thattu maalika,’ a special seating area for the royal family to watch the proceedings. Before leaving the temple, some of us stayed to pour sesame oil into the Valia Vilakku, a ritual rooted in the belief that Arjuna once crushed sesame seeds to light a lamp before the idol. Devotees revere the ever-shining Vilakku as the very lamp lit by Arjuna.

Tracing food 

Sesame not only holds an integral part in the temple, but the food trail also highlights the versatility of these seeds. Sesame is a core ingredient for one of the tastiest side dishes served only in the royal family — ellu curry. And our next stop is the Kalikotta Palace to savour a royal spread featuring ellu curry, Tulu-style sweet sambar, and vibrant aviyal.

The Dutch-style palace was not just the residence of Maharajas, it held durbars and hosted celebrations. The walls are adorned by portraits of former Maharajas. Each photo speaks how the rulers wanted to portray themselves — learned and progressive. The majority of the frames had elements of books, maps of Cochin Harbour, etc. 

“Cochin was one of the 500 princely states and the only one with an international harbour. The state’s emphasis on education, healthcare, and amenities made it more progressive,” explains Balagopal.

The royal cuisine is simple, seasonal, and vegetarian, influenced primarily by the Namboothiri, Tamil Brahmin, and Tulu Brahmin communities — the latter having the most significant impact. Members of these communities played a crucial role in the royal kitchen.

“The influence from various communities is reflected in various ways. The sambar served is on the sweeter side mainly because jaggery is added, ellu curry is also a Tulu variety. The Namboothiri influence has to be the presence of kaalan, olan, erissery, and pulissery. Aviyal and sambar are influenced by Tamil Brahmins,” he says.

According to him, sadhya is a regular part of the royal family’s diet. Protocol dictates that for a maharaja, the meal must be served in front of a lit lamp with four accompanying dishes, regardless of whether he eats them.

For the day’s feast, the ellu curry is prepared by Chef Uday Varma, whose father used to work in the royal kitchen. The table in the hall has neatly chopped vegetables, masalas, and bronze utensils. It’s the chef’s domain.

He prepares every dish meticulously in front of the visitors. Making the ellu curry is a long process. Chopped yam, bitter gourd, tamarind water, rock salt, chilli powder, turmeric, jaggery, curry leaves, green chilli, coconut oil, coriander, yellow gram, urad dal, shredded coconut and white sesame powder — the list is long. “This dish is unique to the royal family. It is not popular in other parts of the state or even regions. Sometimes it’s served outside the family for special occasions,” says the chef. 

Afterwards, we made our way to Kadamakkudy. 

Kochi’s own backwaters

With our guide Vishal Koshy, who is the executive director of Nihara Resort and Spa, our first activity at this quaint, picturesque village is a cruise ride. As predicted, rain accompanied us on this to Pizhala and Valiya Kadamakkudy Island. The cool breeze and the rhythmic pitter-patter of raindrops enhanced the scenic backdrop.

At Pizhala, we visited a popular tea shop, a local hub for the elderly. Waiting for us was Ousu Chettan, a 90-year-old regular with a charming smile. Once, he was the main boatman of the area. Before nightfall, we cruised to Valiya Kadamakkudy, known for its Pokkali farms. “Pokkali rice is rich in antioxidants, fibre and protein. It received a Geographical Indication tag in 2008. However, the farming area has shrunk from 26,000 hectares to 2,500 in the past 25 years,” explains K A Thomas, a 2012 Plant Genome Saviour Community Award recipient.

The residents bid us adieu by offering fresh coconut water. However, it wouldn’t be right to leave Kadamakkudy without tasting freshly tapped toddy. As the boat started, toddy was opened for an excited team of tired travellers. The trip ended with another hearty meal, featuring Kadamakkudy’s own Pokkali rice and fish varieties. With heavy rain as our backdrop, the feast ended with a glass of steaming hot lime tea.

The writer was invited by HOGR 

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