The day we spent touring Kozhikode’s food scene with our local tour guide Bibin Baby is vivid in our minds because everything about it was vibrant. That is, except for the man himself.
Bibin Baby was chill. He has a quiet confidence that allows him to be your “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage.” He knows where to take his guests and can provide in-depth discussions of local customs. His connections with local vendors are genuine and he understands what is special about, what differentiates, Kozhikode.
In the neighbourhood
We started the day with rich South Indian coffee at a shop adjacent to the famous Paragon Restaurant. We learned about the importance of fish in the diet of the locals and how this restaurant had been in business since 1931 thanks to the excellence of their recipes and standards.
Bibin Baby started us here on purpose. But in the end, it wasn’t to go to the Paragon as we thought. It was to share an even more beautiful – but far more humble – story of success.
We were actually in this neighbourhood to learn about the the Kumari Banana Chip stall across the street. Still, when the chip stall opened, we didn’t rush across the street.
Instead, we watched the team slowly open and organize. And, just as slowly, Bibin Baby began to share their story. Eventually we crossed the street and just watched the workers from a ways off. Suddenly, we were invited to join in. All thanks to a few polite words of greeting and an immense amount of respect from our guide. Also thanks to him, we got the full story of the father and son owners (which we’ll share in a future post).
We stayed there to observe the whole process. We had to wait for the fruits of the worker’s labours. Then, after stuffing ourselves with the hot-from-the-fryer banana chips we walked a little further down the street to another iconic Kozhikode food and seller – that of the Sarbath.
Sarbth is something we’d never seen or heard of before. Bibin Baby quietly asked the vendor our questions. We were dying to try the delicious looking results of his efforts but due to our unaccustomed tummies, and the food prep standards, we dared not. We enlisted Bibin Baby to try it for us and oh, how we salivated. It looked so good and when we left, there was such a line-up the owner of the stall could barely keep up!
Off to the market
Next we popped into Bibin Baby’s SUV and drove to the central vegetable markets. It can be intimidating to enter a place as foreigners – where foreigners seldom go. But with smiles and genuine interest, before long, with Bibin Baby’s help as interpreter, we’d made friends. We even had the proud dhouti-clad men posing and asking to have their photos taken. Cell phones and mutual portraits and selfies were really the only things that kept us from feeling like we’d travelled back in time about 500 years. We thought the setting, the produce, and the buying and selling were all pretty much the same as they would have been then.
Bananas, bananas and more bananas were dominant. But, no matter what the produce, the freshness and quality were again – vibrant. If we had to distill Kozhikode into a word, vibrant would be a pretty good one.
Sweet Meat Street
By high noon, we’d made our way to one of the more famous areas of town for food lovers – Sweet Meat Street. Here the product everyone comes for are the many flavours of Halva. Bright oranges, greens and reds represent bright flavours like guava, mango and pineapple. There were all the colours of the rainbow and as many flavours as there are fruits and nuts.
Needing a little pick me up we stopped in a shady spot for a chai. The theatrics of the wallah as he boiled, stirred, strained and cooled our chai made us enjoy each fennel-laced sip even more – if that’s possible.
Happily, when we made it to the Wholesale Spice Market at Big Bazaar Road, the sun had swung round and we were mostly in the shade. We watched strong men lift massive bags from the back of piled high trucks. Following Bibin Baby’s lead, we peaked in shops to see their specialty. Men sat at desks with pencils, pads of paper and calculators at their side. With their cell phones in hand, they were ready and waiting to take orders. Bowls with samples of spices and rices, grains and nuts covered small counters. Jaggery in various grades of quality sat in small pyramids.
Things were much more quiet and orderly at this market than our early morning fish auction visit with chef Babu. And unlike the crowds and congestion of great markets like Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi, it was relaxing and calm. Maybe it is the city? Maybe it’s Bibin Baby’s effect on the world?
Bibin Baby is first and foremost, a naturalist. These city tours are not his primary love. Pauli-Ann and I found ourselves wondering, if he’s this easy going and gentle in the midst of a city, what would he be like trekking through a jungle? We think he’d be stealth! And now, returning to trek with Bibin Baby and learn more about the local flora and fauna of the nearby Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is high on our bucket list.