Catch of Calicut

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on March 22, 2019

Waterfront: The area along the beach, where new eateries pop up every other day, is the most interesting part of Kozhikode town   -  IMAGES: ZAC O’YEAH

History is the master chef of this coastal town that lives to eat

You know you’re in Kerala when you step off the train, walk to the nearest shack and are served a sublime fish curry — for breakfast. This shack has no name that I can make out, the owner speaks only Malayalam, but what grub! Next, I order fried fish with the scent of coconut oil, vegetable curry and six appams: A perfect start to a traveller’s day, and one which immediately makes me forget the long train ride from Bengaluru to Kozhikode, especially when the owner says I owe him merely ₹118 for my meal.

Before my arrival, this erstwhile capital of Kerala attracted many historical visitors such as Ibn Battuta from North Africa in the 1340s. Zheng He’s fleet came from China in 1406 (and they apparently set up a Chinatown, which is now long gone, although the noodle-like idiyappam might be a lingering memory of that period). European sailor Vasco da Gama dropped by in 1498 to kick off the colonial era. Furthermore, my favourite novelist Somerset Maugham spent some time here in the 1930s.

Cakes and ale by the beach: Novelist Somerset Maugham had stayed at the Beach Hotel in the 1930s

With such pedigree, it’s not surprising if the town’s dotted with extraordinary experiences. I find a Sweet Meat Street where dry fruit halwa has been on sale for 600 years (though in the candy category I prefer the chunky banana chips coated with jaggery and pepper), and a Silk Street, which is more or less the city’s official food street, lined as it is with enticing eateries. And, finally, I come to Big Bazaar, which turns out not to be a supermarket chain but a narrow, winding road where truckloads of spices are being unloaded into impossibly tiny shops. Everywhere I go a melange of piquant scents hangs in the air; not for nothing is Kozhikode known as the City of Spices!

Spice country: The Big Bazaar is a winding road where enormous trucks supply spices to tiny shops


The most interesting part of town is the beach area, where I stay at the Beach Hotel, which was called the British Club in 1890 (the Brits set up base in town in the 1600s). I had asked to be put in the suite where Maugham worked on his classic novel The Razor’s Edge in 1938, but the employees did not seem to be sure who Maugham was. In any case, the 800-sq-ft suite is as big as my home in Bengaluru. I consider staying on permanently in the suite.

Unfortunately, no restaurant in town is old enough to have been around in Maugham’s days, an age when Kozhikode was still called Calicut, though the French Bakery (on Kooriyal Lane) from 1932 was apparently a hangout of the colonials. Not that it retains its original character — it looks like any canteen and does bakes, snacks and Kerala dishes. But whatever they serve — including time-tested favourites such as fish fry — would approximate what Maugham sampled of Indian food during his sojourn. It’s also fairly likely that he went to the 16th century Matri Dei Cathedral, which is around the corner and one of India’s oldest churches. I buy a slice of coffee cake (₹35) with the word Coffee piped onto it in cream and wonder if it was the food that Maugham ate that made him — for the rest of his life — dream of returning to India to write a novel set in the country. But “the shadow of Kipling lurking over the country” inhibited him, he told EM Forster in a letter. Except for diary entries in his A Writer’s Notebook (1949), Maugham didn’t write much about his trip. As far as I understand, he also stayed at colonial clubs in Bombay and Calcutta, met Jawaharlal Nehru, admired the Taj Mahal, visited Mysore without finding RK Narayan (who, at that time, was still unknown in India but Maugham was a bit of a fan) and the Trivandrum Library (where he was happy to see that they had his novels), and celebrated his 65th birthday in Madurai.



In any case, I spend a week eating my way through the town’s many menus, imagining what Maugham may have tasted of local food. Although my focus is on homegrown cuisines, I also pop into quaint shed-like toddy shops where the city’s drunks wait out the hot day. One uncle I chat with turns out to be a Malayalam writer who calls himself “God’s own poet” and he makes me read through his collected works in English translation while we sip our toddies. Is he perhaps Maugham’s reincarnation?

Toddy rates are decent — ₹60 buys me half a litre, which is about a third of what I would pay for beer — so spending a day in a toddy shop is a rather feasible financial prospect.

The highlights for me are the humbler places such as an old art deco-style eatery called Deevar (near the south end of Sweet Meat Street), where the hand-written menu on a board offers all kinds of fish and meats — the quintessential Kerala diet. For ₹275 I get a meal cooked to perfection — kingfish steak and coconutty prawns, pronounced ‘frowns’ by the waiter.

When I ask locals where to eat, they all tell me to have the Mappila biryani with date chutney (hinting at the Arab links of yore) at Bombay Hotel (Court Road). The restaurant has nothing to do with Bombay — in 1949, when it was started, Bombay simply meant fancy, though nowadays it is one of the less-fancy eateries in the upscale beach area. It’s packed through the day and has no ambience whatsoever, but the snack counter is a snacker’s dream. My eyes zoom in on the chemmeen cake (₹28), which is a medium-spicy fish pie. It’s stunningly tasty.

Other people direct me to Zain’s (Convent Cross Road), very tucked away but a tad more stylish. With an illustrious history of three decades, it is a legend among seafood places. The prawn biryani and fried squid are on the greasy side — so my Digene pills come in handy — but at ₹475 I’d say I am getting fine value. Besides, Zain’s can be credited with kick-starting the beach area’s restaurant revolution, though it unfortunately got left behind when every other sea-facing heritage house was turned into a restaurant.

Calling card: Zain’s boasts an illustrious history of three decades and is a legend among seafood places


Kingsbay (Customs Street), down an alley towards the northern end of the beach, sits in a grand old-style building and has an eclectic menu of seafood from Kerala and the world. I try to order their signature prawn-stuffed crab cheese bake, but the crabs haven’t arrived yet. I ask what’s freshest and the maître calls out to the kitchen. It turns out that a consignment of mussels is just being offloaded, so I order a plate — a rich ghee roast seems to be in vogue — and succulent squids stuffed with spinach and cheese (total damage ₹800).

Fresh on the plate: Kingsbay is housed in a grand old-style building and has an eclectic menu of seafood from Kerala and the world


Ghee-roasted mussels at Kingsbay


Eventually, all foodies will find themselves at Paragon (Kannur Road), which opened in 1939 (so Maugham missed its opening by a year) and nowadays even has a branch in Dubai. This mini-empire with its hyperbolic slogan “Best seafood in India” and three dining halls (seating 240 eaters at a time), in a bizarre location under the Red Cross Road railway over-bridge, is always full of patrons hogging monstrous amounts of Mappila biryani. Their versatile seafood menu has everything that’s available in the market and I’m spoilt for choice. My order hits the table surprisingly fast considering its complexity — tawa-fried prawns in a red chilli masala, pan-fried mussels with caramelised onion, and kingfish in a creamy mango and coconut milk curry.


The beach area sees new places pop up faster than I can blink and I end up at an inauguration — a café-style place called Tellistory (south end of Silk Street) with the auspicious slogan: “Empty your mind, fill your belly”. It is run by five optimistic 25-year-old friends and stays open from breakfast and until as late as people like to eat. One of the dudes, Ajnas CP, says, “Normal families here eat even at 3am, so we plan to stay open 24 hours.” I suspected that this is a town that lives to eat, and he confirms my suspicion. Apart from milkshakes, iced teas, smoothies and mocktails, their kitchen offers western dishes such as lasagne and salads, and I order an exquisite steak burger (₹210), which is unbelievably juicy and served in a home-baked bun with spicy jalapeños, fries and a spoonful of an intriguing Mediterranean chickpea salad. Best burger in India?

It occurs to me that if this kind of place had been around at the time Maugham visited, he may never have left!


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on March 22, 2019

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