Kottayam: A significant transformation has taken place in the food culture of Kottayam which boasts of an excellent cuisine based in tradition. From small tea shops which sold tasty local snacks, the hotels and restaurants have become places which create 'food stories'. Now, the hotels are not mere places to eat, instead they have become hangouts for people. In the recent past, around 100 new hotels were opened in the district. However, it should also be noted that more than 60 eateries have pulled down their shutters as well.
The restaurants are not at all reluctant to experiment with their menus. From the continental tastes to the Chinese and Arabian, the menu has an international flavour to it. New flavours in tandoor items are the latest fad, while there are takers for dishes like alfaham, kuzhimanti, shawara and barbecue as well. Kebabs, tikka and schezwan dishes too are popular among the foodies in Kottayam. The traditional cuisine too isn't far behind as some of the eateries have gained immense popularity serving authentic Kerala cuisine. Chicken varutharachathu (chicken cooked in roasted coconut gravy), beef roast and the ever green combination of boiled tapioca and fish creates a riot of flavours in our taste buds.
Tom Thomas, owner of the Arcadia hotel, notes that people have become more health conscious and hence opt for fat free or less greasy food options. The Arabian dishes instantly became super hit in Kerala as people who worked as chefs and cooks in the Middle East returned after they lost jobs and introduced those flavours here. Quboos, the Arabic flat bread has now become as popular as chapathi or roti. Among the non vegetarian dishes, chicken dishes, due to its availability and flexibility, is most popular.
Variety and vividness in the menu is a significant factor which contributes to the success of a hotel or food business. Today, the humble dosa is available in a 100 different ways with variety of toppings or fillings. From the navratna kuruma to the kadai dishes and malai kofta, the cuisines from different parts of the country too are celebrated. Raveendran, the owner of the Aryaas Grand, says that even idli is available in a number of different flavours, textures and shapes.
Besides mouth-watering food, tastefully done interiors of the cafes and eateries too play a major role in drawing customers. Ordinary tables and chairs have given way to sofas on which people can sit back and relax. Lounges which can accommodate up to 10 persons are the latest additions as party culture became prominent here. There are even two-seater tables where two people can have a hearty conversation, face to face, while having some delicious food. The hotels are mostly set with traditional methods yet in modern patterns, says Thomas K George of Jibu and Thomas Architecture, which specialises in the interior designing of hotels.
Heavily lit dining halls have given way to mellowed and soft tones which helps to improve the ambience. The shapes and designs of the serving dishes and cutlery too have changed significantly. Instead of steel, bronze coated plates or dishes made with Chinese clay too are used to serve food. Unique designs in plates and cutlery make the food served on it look more attractive and appetizing.
1 meter tea
Drinks too are making their smashing presence felt with varied colours and flavours. Good old sulaimani, lime tea, masala chai and cardamom tea are still popular among the lovers of the popular beverage. The meter tea which is prepared from the samovar excites nostalgia. Coffee prepared by brewing freshly ground coffee beans is available in Kottayam. Innumerable varieties of shakes, faloodas and juices fill up the menus in the restaurants around the district. Besides attractive glasses and mason jars, the glasses in which tea were served in the small tea shops in the olden days are used to make the drink more attractive.
The tea maker which can instantly make 8 varieties of tea including with sugar, without or medium sweet is the reigning superstar in the modern kitchens of hotels and eateries. The kitchens have steel table-top counters which have multiple uses. Modern machinery is used to make batter, cook rice and even wash the dishes. There are specially trained builders and consultants to aid entrepreneurs who venture into hotel business. It would, however, cost lakhs of rupees to set up a modern, chic and stylish eatery. Meanwhile, customers throng at the hotel which serves delicious traditional dishes cooked on firewood stove.
The success of a hotel lies in the 'hands' of a talented chef or cook who knows his flavours well and possesses an incredible palette. A chef is hired for impressive wages which would go even above Rs 50,000. Most of the chefs heading the kitchens of leading restaurants have been working abroad or at different parts of the country. Besides the main chef, there would be many small cooks who help in the kitchen. Chinese chefs are hired at Chinese restaurants to serve authentic dishes, while North Indians, who are experts in cooking tandoor dishes, too are appointed in hotels.
'What's in a name?'
Gone are the days when the hotel or teashop was known by its owner's name. Now the eateries are christened with Malayalam names like kantari, pacha mulaku and pathyam which invoke curiosity among food lovers. Cafes with modern and chic names too are popular.
Most number of hotels in Kottayam is functioning between MC Road and Ettumanoor. There are also a couple of new ones coming up on the Changanassery and Ernakulam routes. Big hotels pay lakhs of rupees as tax to the government including the GST, while small hotel owners pay up to Rs 25,000. Depending upon these, the price of the food served at these hotels would vary. A hotel in Kumarakom apparently charges Rs 100 for a cup of tea.