Xandari Riverscapes Houseboats

Leaving behind your memory and your pain, I am in Kerala. Here, now, all around, an all pervasive calm in spite of the muted hum of a Riverscapes motorboat. Smiles, helping hands with my luggage help me board.

It really is very beautiful. Kerala, in the time of the monsoon, green, green and wet. The backwaters of Aleppey beckon. We go past paddies below sea level, palm lined bunds, through alluring canals, past dark skinned children diving into the water with squeals of laughter and admonishing mothers to arrive at our destination this afternoon, a toddy shop euphemistically called R Block.

I am captivated by your doe eyes, your bee stung lips, I am touched by your compassion. All I ever wanted was to be a beach bum, you called me a drifter. And then one day, you smiled and flew out of the window. Toddy or ‘Kallu’ hardly intoxicates when it is fresh off the palm tree. There are three kinds of toddy served; ‘madhurakalllu’- sweet toddy tapped early in the morning and leaves behind a pleasant glow, ‘andhikallu’- toddy tapped in the evening that is mildly intoxicating and ‘muttankallu’- tapped the previous day and fermented, that can deliver the kick of a mule.

The merits of the food at R Block and hospitality on board a Riverscapes boat are both legendary. Plastic chairs are laid out around a stone table overlooking the water. The smiling proprietor, a portly, bald man in a chequered singlet, arrives with a bottle of sweet toddy and glass tumblers. The clouds overhead, part for a moment to reveal the sun. A skiff goes by, loaded with bananas, another draws up to the pier. The boatman leaps out with bunches of succulent shrimp and pearl spot fish. He poses for a photograph for a pair of tourists.

You say you never loved me, did your eyes then lie? There’s someone else you say. Ah! Yes, heartbreak can make a man hungry. I take a sip of the toddy, ambrosia. Hair flowing in the gentle breath of the Vembanad, you float out of the afternoon haze over the shimmering water into my bones, flowing in my blood, divine angel draped in calico.

A couple of sips of toddy and I lick my lips. Life is indeed looking up. Shortly the food arrives. A boat dislodges a group of people who settle down at a table nearby. A gentle breeze blows in from the sea. I have decided that I am going to sample a little of everything on the menu. The meal is composed of Rose Matta rice accompanied by pumpkin in curd, a coconut based gravy, delicately spiced and flavored with turmeric and cabbage fried with spices, a chutney with raw onions in curd and diced raw mango pickle. And then, in a procession devoid of ceremony the other delights of the kitchen arrive – sautéed beef, curried sardines, roasted prawns and turtle meat, fried crab, duck roast and frog legs. Plates are laid down with an attitude bordering on reverence.

The collective soul of a people is often to be found in the food of the land. I am a backwater gourmand and the meal a symphony for my senses. There is not a moment when the senses are still, titillation follows satiation follows titillation follows satiation. Textures follow succulence, spices leap at the palate, a mingling aroma a subtle accompaniment lulled momentarily by the sweet sap.

After what seems like an eternity, after a generous helping of ice cream with a couple of bottles of toddy in hand for the ride back, I leave ‘R Block’. This has been an unforgettable experience, feasting on the fascinating cuisine of the Kuttanad region amidst the spectacular beauty of the monsoon landscape.

A drifter’s task is never done, the feet were meant to move, to search for the next horizon. I depart from R Block with my genial host waving goodbye. I carry with me the heavy burden of hope. You are the mistress of illusions, maybe this is after all yet another damask web of dreams and tomorrow, at dawn, we will after all be one. The crew on board are solicitous…and the boats luxurious. Yet, your memory is all that I bear as I travel the next leg of my journey. Xandari Riverscapes, thank you for making this journey so memorable.

Mohan – The Paper Craftsman at Cardamom County. Mohan works with paper craft at Xandari Cardamom County in Thekkady. In addition to making paper bags for the Xandari group of hotels and resorts, Mohan teaches paper craft to children and adult guests who visit Cardamom County.

His eyes gleam and there is a visible joy on his face as Mohan’ss deft fingers fold and glue sheets of paper, tweak contours and shapes that magically turn into vividly coloured leaping frogs, stationery holders and pens, a swan poised to take flight, a boat afloat in the imagination. He belongs to one of the numerous tribes that live in and around the Periyar Tiger Reserve and feels the primal pulse of the forest and its denizens.

“I was born here, my home is a couple of kilometres away. My ancestors were born here as well. When I was a kid, elephants and leopards roamed at will in the area. Nevertheless when the Tiger Reserve was planned and its area mapped out, I was the chairman of an EDC and my duties involved sending reports of traditional farmers in the area who were going to surrender their lands to the wildlife reserve and were entitled to compensation. I started with that and then realised that the changes that were to happen would have far reaching consequences. I was trained by a forest officer in paper craft.

paper craft

Mohan speaks earnestly to anybody that will listen, about the need to avoid the use of plastics and shift to paper and organic biodegradable material. I appeal to everyone that I meet, please avoid using plastics as much as possible, otherwise we will not have an eco – system to live in. I have been working with Xandari Cardamom County for four years now. Our chairman and everyone here supports me. Children come here and sometimes their parents as well.
They appreciate what I do and listen to me when I spread the message of environmental protection. If you’re looking for a way to change and be responsible to the environment, I challenge you to go through an entire day striving to produce zero plastic waste.”

Affable and soft spoken, Executive Chef Rajesh at Xandari’s Cardamom County conducts a demonstration of how Fish Molee is cooked. Fish Molee is a curry that is, in the popular imagination, synonymous with the non- vegetarian cuisine of Kerala. Fried fish, mostly Seer, cooked in coconut milk, Fish Molee is essentially a mild stew.

A group of voluble American guests, watch as Rajesh’s hands move deftly over the table, dipping into the array of ingredients before him, spatula turning over frying onions, curry leaves, garlic and ginger. Gently handling slivers of pink Seer fish. The women in the audience ask questions, some taking notes. They are interested in the ingredients, the sources of food. Some step up to the table to watch.

Rajesh speaks softly, pacing his words with his actions, at times rapid, at times ponderous –“Wash the fish fillets thoroughly and then marinate with turmeric powder, powdered chillies and salt. And then, heat oil and fry the fish fillets until they turn light golden brown in colour. Now, add sliced green chilies and continue frying for a while before adding water, lemon juice, pepper powder and salt. Boil on a low flame adding coconut milk. Simmer until the gravy thickens. Add the fried fish fillets. Cook the mixture for a while on a gentle flame…… and…. ah! ladies……. here, you have Fish Molee.”

Rajesh chef Xandari cardamom county

Rajesh was born in Chennai, grew up and was educated in the city. He began working with a group of hotels there. “My turning point was working with Taj Flight Kitchen, that’s where I learnt my job working with Chef Satish Arora to start with.” Rajesh recollects, “Later, I worked in Vancouver, in a leading Indian restaurant named Salam Bombay. I have been with Cardamom County for six months now and I love what I do here.”

Orders for food arrive. Rajesh assumes his station at a counter, and like a conductor orchestrating a symphony, he directs his team. Exotic spices, meats and succulent vegetables are turned into delicious meals. The kitchen functions like clockwork. Wafting trails of fragrances titillate as the team of chefs conjure their culinary magic amid the murmur of muted conversations, the sounds of knives at work, of cutlery and plates being moved. Guests at the All Spice Restaurant will dine sumptuously tonight.