It’s ten past nine in the morning. I’ve been in Thalassery for approximately three minutes, and I am already salivating over seafood snacks at the town’s chaotic New Bus Stand. The Shabna Tea Stall is humble and serves unimaginative instant coffee, but they also do ari-kadukka, or stuffed mussel, a favourite local snack that is best described as the marriage of shellfish and plump idli. Whole mussels are stuffed with rice paste and steamed. The resulting cake is pried out of each shell, fried with various powdered spices, and sold for ₹8 a piece.
What a miracle! I eat two. Then, three. All washed down with hot, sweet coffee. Although my fastidious palate begs for chilled beer to go with the snack, I tell my taste buds to shut up—9 a.m. is too early to get sloshed.
After checking in to a room with a balcony at the Paris Presidency, which is part of the famous Paris Restaurant founded in 1942, I discover that this classic establishment has branched into four prospering businesses over the years. They stand side by side in two alleys, off Logans Road, bang in the centre of Thalassery’s old town. Skipping the fancy “multy cousine” canteen, I track down the original eatery in a heritage building that used to house one of Kerala’s first newspaper printing presses. It is open all day, dishing out snacks, coffee, and meals at a leisurely pace.
Despite the name, there’s nothing French about the cuisine. I suspect it’s called Paris because of its proximity to the once-French colony of Mahé, just south of Thalassery. They don’t serve mussels, unfortunately, but a solicitous waiter recommends the light and fragrant Thalassery fish biryani (₹170) instead.
This might be the best biryani in the world, no exaggeration. Made using short-grained local rice, it tastes much like ghee rice, prepared dum-style (in a sealed container) and then mixed with delicate, white aikora or kingfish that has been cooked separately.
I end up eating lots of this particular fish, also known as the Indo-Pacific king mackerel here in Thalassery. Curried or fried, each time the result is magnificent.
But I’ve really come to eat mussels. And drink beer. Born and brought up in Scandinavia where mussels are eaten around the year—as a starter, in salads, soups, steamed or stewed, in pastas and on pizzas, yes, as practically everything but dessert—I’ve been dreaming of Thalassery for years, after a couple of Malayalis I met in a bar told me that the town is the mussel capital of India. I’d never heard any Indian rave so much about the delicious kallumakkai(Malayalam for mussels), as those two drinkers did, so I’d put the town on my must-go-to list.
Out of the 7,500 tonnes or so of green mussels harvested annually in north Kerala, Thalassery is one of the top three producers of the edible bivalves. Every day during the season, which lasts from September to June, pickers go out to the mussel beds on rickety catamarans, sometimes diving as deep as ten metres, to scrape mussels off rocks where they like to plant themselves. In fact, the Malayalam name for mussels literally means “fruit on the rock”.
A little past 1 p.m. I gallivant down to the beach in the hope of seeing mussels in their fresh, pre-cooked state. On the way I browse for pickles, condiments, and spices in a supermarket at Harbour City Mall, the only mall in sight. Although they stock seafood pickles, there are no pickled mussels available today. But pepper is a good thing to purchase here. In fact, in Europe, the classiest types of pepper are still branded “Tellicherry Black”, even though the town’s godowns look abandoned. Today, foreign buyers prefer to bypass these merchants and do business directly with planters in the hill districts. While at the mall, I visit the tiny Mambally’s Royal Biscuit Factory which claims to have invented the plum cake in its Indian avatar 135 years ago. The moist, flavourful cake ranks among the best I’ve ever eaten (₹150 for a half-kilo cake).
Thalassery’s Fish Market is right behind the mall and a handful of old men sell fresh mussels out of straw baskets in the alley leading down to it. Seeing those heaps of black-shelled treasures, priced from ₹140 per kg, I’m practically ready to relocate to Thalassery. Past the market, I spot the colonial pier, where spice ships once docked to load up on pepper. In the other direction is the historical British fort (entry free) that dates back to A.D. 1708 with a 19th-century lighthouse looking forlornly out to sea. Today the British have been replaced by courting couples, whispering sweet nothings to each other. But this was once a base for Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who introduced cricket to Kerala, playing against local dhobis on a pitch 200 metres north of the fort. Wellesley went on to fight wars against Tipu Sultan and later won the famous battle of Waterloo against Napoleon.
There are lots of other curiosities to check out in Thalassery such as Overbury’s Folly, a seaside park also overtaken by local lovers, or the unusual wooden mosque of Odathil Palli. Standing in what used to be a Dutch sugarcane garden, the mosque, whose watchman claims it is over 2,000 years old, has no minaret. There’s also a bungalow where Nobel Prize-winning author Herman Hesse’s maternal grandfather, the linguist Hermann Gundert, lived (and Hesse’s mother was actually born here). And an endless drive-in beach at Muzhappilangad, 10 km north of town, which is littered with beautiful mussel shells. But I’m a man on a mission, here for the mussels I can eat.
Recalling the two drunks who, in a manner of speaking, sent me here, I hop over to Mahé, a short rickshaw ride away. A nine square-kilometre enclave of the Union Territory of Pondicherry, Mahé was once known as the “Paris of Malabar” and still remains separate from Kerala. It is therefore not subject to the stringent liquor laws in place in Kerala. In Mahé, in fact, there’s a bar every twenty steps along the main roads. At the first one after the bridge, promisingly named Foreign Liquor Palace, I plonk myself down for some cans of Tennent’s Strong and “Muscle Roast” (₹70). The mussels are fried with loads of spice, onions, green chilli and exactly seven curry leaves, somewhat overpowering the seafood flavour.
Local drunks accost me with their good-humoured banter, speaking in a slurry mix of Malayalam and another language which might be English, occasionally tinged with aggression. Moments after this first sign of alcohol-induced belligerence, another drunkard stomps over and says, “Sorry.” I reply, “Okay.” He asks, “No problem?” I reply, “No problem.” Then he says, “Nice to have met you.” That’s French manners for you.
As I sit in the bar and watch the sun slowly set over the Mayyazhi River estuary (humorously referred to as the English Channel), it occurs to me that mussels are an acquired taste. In Belgium and Denmark, they’re almost a national food and eaten with a minimum of spice. But one can understand that they’re not too popular in most of India, given how quickly shellfish spoils in the heat.
Here in Kerala, mussels seem to be more an overspiced bar snack rather than something you find on restaurant menus. Considering how those great mussel-eating countries Belgium and Denmark are also great beer countries, perhaps that’s no surprise.
But I haven’t quite had my fill yet, and spend the next few days hunting for more mussels in Thalassery. I try the Rara Avis on Logans Road, one of the most popular restaurants in town, recommended to me by a fisherman, but the sad truth is that although they make fabulous creamy fish moilee made with aikora (₹210) and soft appams, their kallumakkai dry fry (₹200) is fried to death.
I snack on ari-kadukka off pushcarts and from bakeries. Then I find the Jubilee Hotel (opposite the Old Bus Stand and formerly known as Surya Restaurant) that celebrates “The traditional Malabari foods” and rejects the use of MSG and food colouring. The prawns shallow-fried in coconut oil (₹200) are perfectly executed, but the mussel biryani (₹220) is made with sadly departed shreds of overkilled shellfish.
Things improve at Hotel Adithya Non-Veg Diet, which is a steaming joint located opposite the fort entrance. There is actually a photograph of fried mussels on the wall, but after I’ve explained that I’m not interested in anything deep-fried, they cook up a very tasty dish of mussels in spicy gravy (₹180) and also the very best avial I’ve tasted, all mopped up with flaky parathas. I ask the waiter, “What do you call this lovely dish?”
He beams at me and says, “We call it: Ma-Sa-La.”
According to online sources, Mosons Pickle Factory, some distance northeast of town, produces mussels pickled with dates under its Beevi’s brand. My rickshaw takes me past the Kannur University campus and student hangouts, to the sleepy Palayad Industrial Estate, and we drive in circles until I finally catch the strong smell of vinegar and spice wafting through the coconut trees. It turns out that Mosons doesn’t officially receive visitors, and there is no such thing as a guided pickle tasting tour, but I buy a bagful of pickled mussels, squid, and prawns at wholesale rates. The stickers on the jars say “Spicy” and a sampling almost blows my nose off.
My quest goes on. Rather than googling, I keep asking locals to show me their best mussels. But their recommendations remain hit-and-miss, until the very last day, just before I’m about to head back to the bus stand, when I chance upon the unassuming Hotel Gramasree on M.G. Road. A shopkeeper had suggested it and I’d walked past it several times without paying attention because it simply looks wrong: tube-lit, cramped, no heritage elements.
But it’s there that I finally get what I am looking for. On a saucer arrives a portion of some dozen tender mussels, marinated in a pungent chilly paste and then gently fried with onion (₹80), a dish as simple as it is luscious. It goes well with yet another fish biryani (₹180) and ice-cold soda water.
Although my knapsack is full of pickle jars, I hit a few bakeries to parcel ari-kadukka and chemeen unda (stuffed mussels and prawn-stuffed steamed rice balls) to carry a taste of Thalassery home with me. At the bus stand, a slightly sozzled man walks up to me, stares incredulously, as if he can’t believe my stupidity, and asks, “Are you leaving Kerala?”
I don’t know him from Jack O’Bedlam, but he acts like we’re old friends. Did I meet him in a Mahé bar? Not too sure, I say “I’m so sorry, but I am.” He smiles, waves sadly as he tightens his lungi which is on half mast, and says “Please come back soon again.”
Thalassery is a historic town located by the Arabian Sea in northern Kerala. Kochi (250 km/ 6.5 hr) and Calicut also known as Kozhikode (70 km/2 hr) are convenient travel hubs. To the south Thalassery borders on Mahé, part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry.
AIR Calicut/Kozhikode airport, 98 km/2.5 hr away, is the closest to Thalassery.
RAIL Trains between Mumbai/Goa and Thiruvananthapuram usually stop briefly at Thalassery Station.
ROAD There are interstate bus connections to places like Mysore.
Thalassery is a small town that’s easy to get around on foot. Autorickshaw rides are rarely more than ₹20. Rickshaws can also take you to Mahé (₹120) and Muzhappilangad Beach (₹150).
Winter (Nov-Jan) is cool, with temperatures dipping to 19°C (max 30°C). In summer (Mar-May), mercury rises up to 40°C. Monsoons (Jun to Sep) are very humid and fresh seafood is not as plentiful.
Thalassery has plenty of hotels.
BUDGET Paris Presidency has smallish doubles from ₹1,200 but also cheaper rooms in the old wing, known as Paris Lodging House, starting at ₹350 (www.parispresidency.com).
MID-RANGE The seaside Victoria Hotel is next to Centenary Park, just under a kilometre north of the centre; the hotel has one of the few bars in town and the view over the Arabian Sea is stunning. Go for a sunset drink even if you’re not staying there (0490-2322797; doubles from ₹1,500).
COMFORT If you like to splurge, there is no place like Ayisha Manzil on Court Road. Expect huge old rooms with antique furniture and strangely large bathrooms in an old English bungalow. Owned and run by Mr. and Mrs. Moosa as a homestay, it is also known for cooking classes for authentic North Kerala Muslim cuisine (www.ayishamanzil.com; doubles ₹13,500 including meals).
Paris Hotel in Paris Lane is a must. Their fish biryani (₹170) is great as is the sublime fish curry and flaky paratha. The fancier adjacent sister restaurant Paris has a more varied menu featuring Kerala, Goan, and Chinese food.
Popular shopping hotspot Logans Road has several restaurants including Zaika and Rara Avis while M.G. Road has smaller eateries such as Gramasree and the all-day Indian Coffee House. Ari-kadukka (stuffed mussels) are sold at tea stalls and bakeries. Both Malabar Cool Bar and Jayabharathi Bakery on M.G. Road sell the snack and serve chemeen unda, steamed rice balls stuffed with prawns.
Hermann Gundert’s bungalow The grandfather of the great German novelist Hermann Hesse lived at Illikunnu, north of Thalassery, while he compiled the first modern dictionary of the Malayalam language. The bungalow is charming but there isn’t much to see.
The Anjarakandy Spice Plantations (15 km from Thalaserry), established by the British East India Company, has 500 acres of coffee, cinnamon, and pepper.
In Mahé, 6 km from Thalaserry, visit the old St. Theresa’s shrine and have a meal at one of the town’s many bars. If you’re looking for something sober, try Azadhi’s Walkway Foodpark.
Appeared in the July 2015 issue as “Confessions of a Mussel Maniac”.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).