Very few people outside Kochi have heard of Vella Kanthari. You won’t find it on a guide book, or on a list of must-eat places.
In fact, if you’re someone who is particular about your personal space and doesn’t like getting down and dirty with your food, this isn’t the place for you.
Vella Kanthari (“white chilli” in Malayalam), named after a local kanthari variety of chilli that turns white when ripe, is a simple, crowded, fuss-free restaurant that’s not easy to find. From the arterial Container Road only a bright red sign with the name in Malayalam and “Seafood Restaurant” in English is visible. A staircase leads down to a cluster of unconnected rooms and one-storey buildings on low-lying land, which grew haphazardly and organically as the restaurant became famous. Run by a brigade of women, at the helm is the smiling, petite but energetic Nipsy who guides diners to their seat, takes orders and ensures food is dished out quickly.
Try to get there early, it fills up very quickly and customers will not shy away from staring at you and guilt tripping you into finishing quickly. The menu features seafood predominantly though they do serve duck and beef. The food is laid out in a series of containers buffet style, but it is freshly cooked and replenished several times through service. The basic order is rice, pickles, papad and fish curry and you can order individual portions of mussels, karimeen, duck curry, shredded crab, vegetables and pay for each separately. The delicious fare is served on banana leaves. No two dishes taste, look, or feel the same; some are with dried fish, some are curries, some are pungent, others hot and sweet.
It’s the kind of place which once you discover, you can’t wait to return to, but want to keep as your personal secret.
Where: International Container Terminal Road, Near Ponnarimangalam Toll Plaza
Meal for two: Approximately Rs 400
Fathima’s Fast Food, is a bustling Muslim dhaba-style food stall in one of the by-lanes of Fort Kochi. There are a few tables, but it is a touch grungy and the crowd is mostly at the entrance next to the take-away section. The food is on display on large trays in a glass case, with idiyappams, appams and pathiri (thin rice flour pancakes)stacked in one corner; nothing is labelled but in most cases it is self-evident and the regulars know what they want. Everything is quite cheap, though servings are individual portions. I tried the squid fry, mussels fry and beef fry with sides of idiyappams lacy, appams and pathiri. However, be warned this is Moplah (northern Kerala Muslim) style food and is dreadfully pungent, except for some of the beef dishes. Also, there’s almost nothing for vegetarians.
Where: V Y Abdul Rehman Rd, Panayappilly
Meal for two: Approximately Rs 300
Shibu’s Puttu Kada requires resolve and some steeling of the heart. It’s a little out of Kochi, not easy to find and not easy to access. And yet by 8.30 p.m., half an hour before they open for business, a small crowd has gathered outside. The eatery—one large green room with a covered outdoor area—is at the end of a narrow lane, at the edge of a lagoon beside St. Mary’s Church. Puttu kada literally translates as the place for puttu, the log-shaped, rice-flour-and-grated-coconut steamed Kerala breakfast staple. The menu is limited, and along with the puttu you can choose from a variety of meat curries, or dry thick-ish roast like the duck egg roast.
Where: Boat Jetty Rd, Kumbalam
Meal for two: Approximately Rs 250
Pazham pori is a popular teatime snack in Kerala. It’s simply a long, thick slice of banana, coated in batter and deep-fried. At Sree Muruga Café in Poonithura they do something quite unusual. It’s the only restaurant in Kochi, and possibly Kerala, that serves pazham pori for breakfast along with beef curry. You’d be right in thinking this is a weird combination but what’s even weirder is that it actually works; the curry is spicy, fritters are sweet. It’s so popular that you have to get there very early in the morning, preferably before 7.30 a.m., to be able to sample this interesting dish before it is all over.
Where: Mini Bypass Tripunithura Rd, Poonithura
Meal for two: Approximately Rs 150
Antoine Lewis lives to eat and writes to live. As a journalist, he’s spent the last twenty years digging through culinary histories, sniffing out emerging food trends and eating his way through the world's best, and worst, restaurants.