Kochi’s boutique cafes go beyond the traditional meal to offer artisanal experiences that reflect the port city’s varied expressions. Our contributor takes stock of the offerings, from artist residencies to couverture masterclasses and upmarket design stores. By Shikha Pushpan
On a regular day, the main thoroughfare leading to the Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town, Mattancherry, is abuzz with spice merchants, antique dealers, tastemakers, and tourists scurrying between menorahs, mezuzahs, and other artefacts. Not today. Like many other tourist hotspots in the country, Fort Kochi is in a state of pandemic-induced stupor. At the far end of the Synagogue Lane, the Paradesi Synagogue patiently waits to welcome visitors once again to its altar. A stone’s throw away from the synagogue sits a gorgeous Dutch-style spice warehouse now restored and transformed into a multi-room art gallery and cafe. A modest entrance flanked by a creaky flight of stairs belies the magnificence of the 400-yearold structure that once housed the rabbis of the synagogue before spice trade took off in Fort Kochi.
Junaid Sulaiman, a third-generation spice trader and art enthusiast, runs Mocha Art Cafe along with Chef Laila Mani. Between answering calls and overseeing restoration work at the cafe, Sulaiman shows me around the 372-square-metre space featuring snug Dutch window booths, traditional red-oxide floors, exposed brick walls, larger-than-life mason jars, antique teak door frames, see-through roofs, and a memorabilia wall adorned with photographs of many illustrious diners, including Steven Spielberg. “Besides showcasing the works of local artists, we use this place to host storytelling sessions, art gatherings, photo exhibits, and open mic sessions. The most recent one was the International Photo Exhibit (IPE). These experiences are at the heart of Mocha’s young legacy,” Sulaiman elaborates as we stand in the airy gallery that was visited by Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese-American war photographer Nick Ut, best known for The Napalm Girl. Mocha Art Cafe is also one of the primary venues for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Here, the menu features scrumptious local breakfast items, Israeli shakshuka, and other classics.
In another part of Fort Kochi, New Zealander Bree Mcilroy—chef and yoga instructor—is stirring up the meat-loving Malayalee palate with a rich plant-based menu at Loving Earth Yoga Cafe. Here, vegan enthusiasts meet yoga practitioners in a refreshing space tucked away in a quiet corner on Vadathazha Lane. The fuss-free interiors complement the colourful vegan preparations served in wooden plates and bowls. Creamy cashew cheese replaces parmesan, the beef patty is substituted by minced soya, and ice-creams become gluten-free ‘nice creams’ (a form of smoothie bowl)! Mcilroy’s brainchild is Kochi’s only all-vegan cafe and a frontrunner in the city’s small yet flourishing plant-based culinary scene. Its all-women kitchen serves up a delicious Sunday brunch and vegan breakfast spreads featuring Buddha bowls, smoothies, bruschetta, and mezze platters. When she’s not in the kitchen, Mcilroy teaches yoga in a charming studio upstairs with her pretty cats (who are up for adoption). The studio is an integral part of the ‘Loving Earth’ experience and is open to diners as well as other visitors for daily/weekly/monthly classes, besides online sessions (in the wake of COVID-19).
Cadbury’s exit from Kerala’s sprawling cocoa estates about two decades ago (when global cocoa price crashed) paved the way for a bean-to-bar movement, giving rise to a new breed of chocolatiers specialising in single-origin chocolates. Retired Navy Commander C T Kuruvilla of Cocoacraft Cafe & Chocolate Factory was among the first few to grab the opportunity and craft distinct flavour profiles of couverture chocolate from homegrown forastero cocoa. Twenty years later, the Navy veteran continues to inspire young chocolatiers through an experiential masterclass at the Cocoacraft Cafe in Kochi.
“Couverture chocolate is much superior in terms of flavour and texture when compared to the regular chocolate bar or compound chocolate used for baking. It is glossier in appearance, melts readily in the mouth, and has a snap. The more cocoa butter the chocolate contains, the more fluid it is when melted, which is why it is preferred for tempering and enrobing truffles, bonbons, and other premium candies. While the dark chocolate couverture must contain not less than 35 per cent total dry cocoa solids, the milk variety must contain at least 25 per cent dry cocoa solids to be classified as couverture chocolate,” Kuruvilla explains as he carefully brings down the temperature of melted dark chocolate to a precise 34°C before adding in cocoa butter crystals to produce Cocoacraft’s signature 52 per cent dark couverture chocolate. “A point up or down on the scale gives the chocolate a fat bloom and a dull greyish texture, and kills the hard snap.”
Another sinfully indulgent preparation is the couverture babka served at French Toast in the glamorous neighbourhood of Panampilly Nagar. A zero-waste establishment, French Toast is the modern cafe locals visit for their version of a Parisian breakfast. Imagine sitting by the window in a delightful all-white cafe, sipping a strong espresso and biting into the most delectable croissant. Sounds lovely? Wait for Chef Shruti Nayar’s olive sourdough baguette or cinnamon walnut loaf to complete the picture! The place is every bread-lover’s dream and serves the most decadent brioche French toast and pancakes. Those visiting in early 2021 can enrol for a babka masterclass with Chef Nayar and get an insight into the intricate preparation of this part bread, part cake Jewish delicacy.
When the Kochi-Muziris Biennale comes around in November 2021, the cobbled streets of Fort Kochi will once again be decked up with art installations and open exhibitions. At the heart of these artistic developments will be the Pepper House Cafe on Calvathy Road. A 1,486-square-metre waterfront complex, the heritage space comprises two Dutchstyle dockside warehouses separated by a rectangular grassy courtyard. These two-storey warehouses have been transformed to accommodate an open-air cafe, an upmarket design store, and an art-history library. The complex’s structure depicts the functioning of a traditional warehouse.
It stretches along the Vembanad Lake on the eastern side where traders once arrived with their goods on kettuvallam (houseboats). These goods were then sorted and packed in the central courtyard before being sent off to the main bazaar through the western gate. The complex serves as the primary venue for the Biennale and hosts artist residency programmes for local and international artists from varied disciplines. The programme offers artists an inspiring studio space overlooking the harbour, a visual arts library and laboratory, and an arena for dialogue with local artists. At the outdoor cafe, bench-style tables overlooking the courtyard set the mood for a laid-back lunch featuring quick bites of Kerala staples along with kombucha.
Kochi has long been a stop-and-go destination for visitors seeking solace in the hill stations of Munnar and Wayanad. These boutique cafes, however, are turning the tide for the city and drawing the attention of art and travel enthusiasts arriving at its alluring shores.
All major airlines run direct flights between Kochi and Indian metros. Fort Kochi is an hour’s drive from the Kochi International Airport. It is also accessible through ferries from Ernakulam via Willingdon Island.
The Malabar House is a charming boutique hotel set in the heart of Fort Kochi, overlooking the backwaters and the iconic parade grounds. Starts from INR 22,000.