Your guide to a small Kerala hotel
“Hello! I am THE guide here. The writer was just trying to be more smart than what he really is by giving you some big ‘Lonely Plant-like’ impression with the headline. Like he knows everything there is to Kerala – top five, bottom three, middle one, things to do, food to eat, etc. Even god doesn’t know what next in His own country. Just you are walking on the road and the only people you see are policemen and you know it’s a lightning strike. You are minding your own business and you see stones and slippers flying your way is when you understand that to be the principal of a law academy you need to be loved by students of all other academies in town. The only certainty of Kerala is its unpredictability. And we change our decisions faster than we fold up our lungi.
Now with the introductions in place, I will move on. Just the other day I ate my lunch at the Hilton behind the Trivandrum Secretariat, hosted by some very rich people. And dinner the same day was with some not-so rich people at a small hotel. The hotel was small not because of anything else but I was paying. It was not exactly a hole in a wall but more like a wall caved in and they fitted lights and placed furniture inside. My dinner experience was very different from my lunch experience and not just with regards to the fatness of the people who served me. From the moment I entered, finding a place to sit to placing my order and paying the bill – it was all very different. So being tourist season and all I decided to tell you all. You will not need this vast pool of information if you eat only in five star hotels. And you will say ‘what rubbish!’ if you always simply jump into the hotel playing the loudest music closest to the bus stop. But you will find all my information really useful if you like to eat in many places.
Like I do.
The vada pause
The vada – which is our own curry-version of the doughnut – is usually made early in the morning on an industry-scale which will remind you of French fries at McDonald’s. Through the rest of the day whatever is left over will find their way into plates of anything and everything you order – be it poori or dosa, upma or chapathi, that lone vada will be there trembling like a pioneering ranger who stumbled into alien territory. It is trembling because anything can strike him out here: the temperamental Keralite incensed at everything imposed on him could just flick it off the plate like toe jam, the ever-curious one could just poke it to see if it’s hot or maybe whether it moves, the incredulous one might just look at it and shake his head in a ‘nice try’ way. Usually it’s just a growl ‘Waiter!’ followed by a glance at the offending belly-button snack.
Waiters, after serving you that vada-embellished food, will hover around for an imperceptible second, imperceptible because on the outside he looks like he is suddenly worried about leaving the tap open in the kitchen or the ungainly chewing habits of the person on the table next to yours. He is actually waiting for you to return that vada. Later than a second and the window is shut leaving you alone with what some have come to anoint the desi appetiser. Well then, go on, take a bite, you might just like it. You shall definitely break an age-old cycle by doing that: fulfilling the vada’s birth purpose.
In Indonesia they send Pengamen to show appreciation.
The tear-throat chai order
That big machine you saw as you entered the hotel is not an upturned miniature steam engine, it’s the chai machine. It also makes coffee. And boils milk. It never runs out. But this is more than a magical canister. You can find the freshness of a hotel’s food by checking the amount of steam spewed from this one. If there is no steam it means old food inside. Ok, I am getting a bit carried away here. But I love to get into hotels where this one’s chugging steam like an angry Thomas. My sentiment is appreciated by most hoteliers considering many use it as a frontispiece too. Now therein lies the problem.
Orders for chai are placed mostly through nods or eyes widened and other unspoken methods as most of the time it is taken halfway through eating. And then it hits you. Right from where he is standing – usually bang next to your more powerful right eardrum – the waiter will scream out ‘CHAI’ to the steamroller operator out at the front. It will be too late for you to duck but you may choke heartily. I have seen some scramble beneath the table because they were going to order chai.
Those who learnt their lessons and broke a drum today place their chai orders on their way in.
Where to sit, how to pay the bill, etc.
These hotel dining halls are generally small and we have no qualms in diminishing them further by making separate sitting rooms for ladies and families. Even to avail facilities of the latter too ladies are a must. Gays please excuse, eh. We have found that the gents in the general-seating area will take forever to eat if there is a lady in their midst. This is bad for our business. The bills are usually delivered without consulting you, the payer, even as to whether you will be indulging your girth any more. Have a second coffee and you will muck up the pre-drawn bill. No tips are expected which is why we give you the bill while your hands are busy. Besides if you start tipping the waiters here, the manager will insist on becoming a waiter. Blame the pay scales. When you go for washing, you will find it immensely useful if you haven’t shaved for a couple of days – there usually is no soap.
And lastly, those newspaper cuttings on the counter are not important highlights of the day – pointless as Kerala is always ahead with the unexpected.
They are tissues to dry your hands.”