I was due to arrive in Calicut (Kozhikode) early in the morning, en route to Wayanad’s thickly forested hills. I had only a couple of hours to spare. Anticipating a rumbling tummy when I got off the train, I asked a friend to recommend a place for breakfast, something near the railway station that would be open at 6 a.m. “Not near the station,” he texted back, “inside it.”
That was my introduction to Hotel Salkara on platform number one—and to the seaside city with breakfasts as bracing as its ocean breezes.
By 6.35 the next morning, my companion and I were ensconced at a Salkara corner table, our two small strolley bags standing flat against the wall so they wouldn’t get in the way of the waiters striding about at top speed. Salkara is run by the same people who own Paragon, an old Calicut institution known for its lush beef fry and Malabari biryani. Like its more famous sibling, Salkara’s decor is spotless, but functional, with rows of plastic chairs and tables on a gleaming tiled floor. This no-frills style, I soon discovered, was typical of Calicut’s eateries. The focus here is solely on the food. Within minutes of our arrival, we had steaming appams with two delicious accompaniments: a richly flavoured egg roast (hard-boiled eggs in a chunky onion-tomato gravy) and a subtle kadala curry, black Bengal gram cooked with onions, curry leaves, and shredded coconut. By 7 a.m., we were done—and only because we dawdled over our filter coffee.
Three days later, after the quiet of Wayanad’s forests, we were back in buzzing Calicut. And I couldn’t wait to have breakfast. We made our way to Paragon, expecting crowds, even a queue. But the branch we visited on Kannur Road was pleasantly relaxed. At the table next to ours, a middle-aged man was tearing methodically into a gigantic dosa. We gave in to greed, ordering both a ghee roast dosa and a plate of appams with mutton stew. The dosa was great, but breakfast at paragon really is all about appams. Crisp and lacy around the edges and soft in the middle, they looked like bowls because of the deep tawa they’re cooked on. The fluffy centres sopped up the silky mutton stew perfectly. We left promising to return for Paragon’s legendary biryani and mango fish curry.
Next morning, we abandoned the hotel’s complimentary buffet for the next stop on our Calicut breakfast pilgrimage. Though I like stuffed parathas and kachori-samosa-jalebi as much as the next person, all the force of my half-North Indian blood can’t make me eat them at 8 a.m. Good half-Bengali though I am, I can’t eat rice in the morning either. But once rice has been magically transformed into dosa and idli, appam and puttu (rice flour steamed with grated coconut) by the infinite Malayali genius, it feels like the perfect thing to eat at breakfast.
Pillai Snacks, on the busy Kallai Road, seemed like the ideal stop en route to the Tali temple. It was a long, narrow space crammed with tables and customers on their way to work. We began with idlis and kutti dosas, fluffy mini uthappams that seemed to be on everyone’s plates. Then we ate our way through a massive, milky-white mound of upma on a green banana leaf, had a vada each with thick, spicy coconut chutney, and rounded off our meal with a plate of pazham puzhungiyathu, steamed Kerala bananas steamed to golden perfection and sweetened with sugar.
Somehow we managed the 15-minute walk to the temple, but it was hard to summon up energy for anything with that breakfast sitting in my stomach. So I settled down in a shady corner and watched sari-clad women lead little girls in pavadais (long skirts) around the Shiva shrine and the courtyard.
Calicut has many culinary icons, but there are also surprises around the corner. On our way back from the Kadalundi Bird Sanctuary, we stopped at a little bakery for flaky, spicy egg puffs and ice-cold milkshakes. There was a luscious avocado (butterfruit) smoothie, but the real winner was the Sharjah shake, made with milk straight from the freezer, blended with banana, coffee powder, sugar, and Horlicks. The sugar rush continued on the walk along S.M. Street, where several shops sell the dense, rich Calicut black halwa.
On our final morning in the city, we took a long stroll on the beach, working up a voracious appetite. We considered returning to Paragon, but decided to try Sagar Hotel, another local icon, instead. Thinking we should end the trip the way it had begun, we ordered appams with kadala curry. But then we looked at what everyone else was eating: pungent gravy the colour of red earth. Wasn’t 8 a.m. a bit early for fish curry?
We got only one plate, and with it, a green gram curry and a plate of puttu. The gram was subtle and creamy without being heavy, but it was no match for the ayyakoora (kingfish) in a fiery-red curry redolent with the sourness of kudampuli (Malabar tamarind). If a breakfast like that doesn’t put a fire in your belly, nothing will. On my next trip to Calicut, I know where I’m starting.
Appeared in the August 2014 issue as “Morning Glory”.