Relishing Kannur

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on July 13, 2018

Getting busy: Lunchtime at Odhen’s is a medley of sights, sounds and smells. Serpentine customer queues, the bustle of waiters and the fumes of coconut oil bursts. Photo: Zac O'Yeah

Apart from a mind-boggling variety of seafood, this coastal town in North Kerala fills you with generous helpings of history and culture

Google for grub in Kannur, a prosperous town in northern Kerala, and you’ll get many hits on a lunch-only canteen called Odhen’s, not to mention rapturous rants about the most unbelievably amazing fish meals. So considering that Kannur will soon get an airport and become the next great tourist hotspot of ‘God’s Own Country’ (and a gateway to northern Kerala), I decide to go and sample that internet-viral seafood. I happened to be visiting the coast so it was a short drive along the lush and seemingly endless Muzhappilangad Beach, also known as the drive-in beach since people like to take their cars onto it and race all the way up to the city limits.

I arrive in a town that, at first glance, looks like one big shopping mall. As it is too early for lunch, I start with a late breakfast at the renowned MRA Bakery (Station Road, next to Kannur junction), often suggested as the second-best option if one misses the legendary lunch at Odhen’s. Unlike Odhen’s, it is open from morning to evening and turns out to be a huge air-conditioned complex with a bakery and sweet shop taking up the ground floor, and a restaurant upstairs. So not exactly your standard neighbourhood cake shop.

Typically for morning meals in Kerala, there is mulakittath (₹130), a violently chilli-red but unexpectedly smooth fish curry served with appam (₹10), and the steamed tube-shaped rice flour puttu (₹13). I must stop myself from also ordering a bowl of avial, the distinctive coconut milk-drenched Kerala veggie stew, as I plan to demolish a lavish lunch just a few hours later. But I do gorge on their baklava — the best I’ve tasted outside Turkey (which is the home of baklava): Flaky buttery bite-sized pastries soaked in honey syrup and topped with shredded pistachios. I buy a boxful to carry home.


To rebuild my appetite, I take a rickshaw to Fort St Angelo (Kannur Kotta), situated about three km from the city centre by the Mappila Bay harbour with its Ayikkara fish market, which supplies fresh catch to restaurants and kitchens in town. The fort is a tranquil spot with manicured lawns, a museum that seems permanently shut, and cannon-studded red laterite walls facing the Arabian Sea. It is one of the oldest Portuguese-origin buildings of Kerala, established as a precolonial factory around 1500. But Vasco da Gama wasn’t happy with the trading deal the local Kolathiri Raja offered, so he fortified the site with a palisade and stationed some 200 soldiers here to terrorise the populace. Luckily, the Dutch captured the fort in 1663 and initiated cordial relationships with the kings, to whom they eventually sold it for the princely sum of ₹1 lakh excluding GST. But less than two decades later, the power-hungry Britons stole the fort and made it their chief military base in Kerala. The eclectic architecture blends Portuguese with British and Dutch elements — including an eye-grabbing skull-and-cross-bone decorated tombstone set in the wall, commemorating the Dutch commander’s wife Susanna, who died here in the 1700s, aged only 17-and-a-half years.

Afterwards, as soon as it opens, I check out the comparatively dull Arakkal Kettu Museum (₹20 entry fee) situated in a royal durbar hall by the fishing harbour, where, although there’s hardly anything worth seeing except photocopies of old documents, dusty daggers, vintage telephones and random furnishings, the walls are studded with stern signs saying “Do not touch the antics”. How I wish I had experienced some antics! Yet, once I start imagining the past, the thought is tantalising that the medieval Moroccan globetrotter Ibn Battutah — hero of all later travel writers — may, in 1340, have sat in one of the chairs displayed here, and perhaps used one of the antique telephones to phone home (like ET, you know), and enjoyed various Kerala-style stews while gossiping with the local king, who owned a fleet of ships that sailed to Oman and Yemen — “one of the most powerful sultans”, wrote Battutah in his travelogue. South of town, Battutah visited orchards crammed with coconut trees, pepper creepers, and “as for bananas, never have I seen any place in which they are more numerous”.

Finally, and drooling at the thought of the royal treats Battutah savoured here, it is time to head to Odhen’s, named after renowned restaurateur Othenan, whose sons nowadays run the place, which is counter-intuitively pronounced ‘Onden’ locally. In fact, the lunch home is so iconic that the entire road it sits in is known as Onden Road. Whatever one does, one is advised not to reach any later than 12.15 pm as the food will invariably run out (they stay open only until 3.30 pm; Sundays closed). Besides, latecomers may end up queuing endlessly in the sweltering heat. But at 12 noon there are still empty tables and I quickly grab a stool. All around me, men and women wait in expectant silence, facing the kitchen, from where a thick fume of coconut oil bursts into the dining hall. The atmosphere is that of a temple moments before the theyyam dancer takes the stage.

As if on cue, the first waiter starts doing the rounds handing out banana leaves to eat on. In his footsteps comes the rice man with a cauldron of “boil rice”, the typically plump reddish grain that is preferred in Kerala, dishing out a huge scoop on each leaf in a choreographed manner and the patrons carry on the ceremonial routine by patting the rice down into a circular disc.

Midday manna: The thali at Odhen’s — steamed rice, sambar, avial and poriyal — with a helping of aikora (kingfish fillet). Photo: Zac O’Yeah


This is followed by the meals-man, who apportions the set lunch of a milder Kerala variety of the sambar, the dry vegetable poriyal, plus ladles of sardine curry, cucumber-curd pachadi (a lightly cooked version of raita) and pickles (₹45). Finally comes the senior waiter, with a tray sumptuously weighed down by seafood of the day — I ask for kallumakkai (mussels) or meen mutta (fish roe), items I’ve been looking forward to, but today they aren’t cooking either. Instead I go for their signature kingfish fillet (aikora), squid masala fry (koonthal), and prawns (chemmeen) shallow fried with a crumbly and peppery coating (each dish cost ₹100). The rich coconut oil lends the meal a distinctively sweetish note, reminiscent of hair oil perhaps, which may be an acquired taste but I do find it irresistible. The meal is accompanied by a tumbler of hot kanji vellam, watery rice gruel, had like a stomach-calming soup on the side. By the time I go wash my hands, another fellow is already staking claim to my seat.


After an out-of-this-world lunch such as this, a gourmand needs a beer. I hail yet another rickshaw (this town is very spread out and nothing seems to be within walking distance), which takes me to the government-run KTDC Beer Parlour in a leafy back lane near Caltex Junction, where I sample the crisp and refreshing British Empire Extra Strong Ultra Premium Beer (₹190). This one has not sailed anywhere near the English coast but is brewed in Mosivakkam, a minuscule village 500 km from here. There’s no hard liquor on sale, so the other patrons mix their strong beers with 180-ml bottles of Goan port into a lethal-looking shandy. The concoction makes them sozzled and jolly. Since I avoid mixing, the beer doesn’t zonk me out despite the humid heat, but rather energises me enough for a round of handloom shopping. Kannur is famous for its calico-weaving traditions.

I also find out that the ritual temple dancing season is over and one can’t watch any theyyam live — unlike kathakali, it has no ‘tourist versions’ and so the time to visit would be winter or early spring, when theyyam is performed daily in temples. Nevertheless, in the afternoon I end my city tour at the Kerala Folklore Academy museum (₹20 entry) in Chirakkal, in a palace five km north of town, just off the National Highway-17. There the ostentatiously tasselled fish-curry-red dance costumes with their impossibly huge headgears are on display, worn by life-sized mannequins made-up with full red warpaint, along with various props and paraphernalia. A short documentary film lets me glimpse the dramatic art as it is performed — accompanied by wild drumming, mad running and scary fire stunts. This, god bless me, pairs well with the full-day foodie excitement.

Zac O'Yeah


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on July 13, 2018

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