The early 80s was the time when chicken corners became popular in Trivandrum. The boom was pioneered by Taj Chicken Corner and Tushara Chicken Corner in Palayam. The format was amazingly simple. You go in; they serve you a plate of fried chicken (4 decent-sized pieces), a small bowl of curry with neck and stuff, some sliced onions, a pickle and unlimited number of wafer-thin chapattis. The chicken was delicious and spicy, unlike the stuff-dipped-in-batter peddled by multi-national chains, and was priced at Rs. 17 or 18 then, I think.
The first time I went there was with a cousin and a friend (all 10th std. students from St. Joseph’s HS), and none of us were aware of the abovementioned format. Once we sat down, we were given an idea of the system by the waiter, who then promptly served us the chicken pieces, etc. and we had a real go at the chapattis. The bill came and that was when we realized we were short of money. You see, we had this single Rs. 50/- note, which was good enough in those days for three people to eat chicken in most places, but fell slightly short at the chicken corner (reason why I think the price was 17 or 18).
We thought for some time, and then my friend had an idea. We knew the guy who was running a place called Chin Lung, the sole Chinese restaurant in Trivandrum at that time, down the road. My friend went there while we both waited, convinced the guy to lend him Rs. 10, and we all got away without washing dishes.
Chin Lung used to serve regular Indian Chinese fare – chop suey, fried rice, sweet corn chicken soup, etc. There used to be a Chin Lung in Brigade Road in Bangalore too (maybe it is still there), though apparently there was no connection between the two. Anyway, Chin Lung disappeared somewhere down the line and the city lost its only exclusive Chinese restaurant.
All these came back to me because of Taj and Chinese food. The Taj here is not the Taj Chicken Corner but the Vivanta by Taj Hotel at Thycaud, where they opened a new Chinese restaurant called "Chinapolis" recently. In the years since that Taj Chicken Corner-Chin Lung episode, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with authentic Chinese food and came to really enjoy it. So, when I heard of the new place, I immediately went there, despite being a bit apprehensive due to an earlier not-so-enjoyable experience at the Taj’s regular restaurant buffet.
We, my wife and I, were the only guests in the cavernous dining hall (another guest came in later, thus making it three). Chinese tea was served along with some pickled vegetables and for some reason, Korean kimchi. The menu had a decent look to it, though chicken dishes stood out. We ordered a dim sum, Shanghai pork ribs, mapo tofu (doufu) and a flat noodle dish. The dim sum was excellent, with big prawns in them. The only issue I had was with the pudina chutney they brought along with it. If an Indian person wants to try out Chinese food, let him/her eat it the way it should be had. Why do you have to offer pudina chutney? Next thing you know, the dim sum will have dal and coconut in it and guys will be eating it with sambar. I hope they don’t go down that slippery slope.
The ribs were succulent and I really yearned for a cold beer, but I didn’t go down that slippery slope as I had to drive home. Then the mapo tofu came. Looked pretty much the real deal, but upon tasting I realized something was missing. This is a very spicy dish but what they served was quite mild. I could, however, taste some Chinese pepper in there. So, I called the waiter and asked for some ground Chinese pepper. He didn’t have a clue, went in and came back and said they didn’t have it. Maybe they’re using some packaged sauce instead of freshly preparing the stuff, I thought. Anyway, it was reasonably good and we enjoyed it. The noodle dish could have been better.
A few guys came by while we were eating, asking about the food and the service, and we truthfully told them we were enjoying the lunch. Towards the end, a Chinese chef poked his head out a couple of times, looking at us gingerly, not sure whether to approach us or not. Eventually he came and as it turned out, he was the actual cook and that explained the authenticity. He talked in heavily-accented English and we told him everything was good, but the mapo tofu ought to have been spicier. He became animated and explained why he didn’t add too much “Szechwan” pepper (which I had earlier requested the waiter using the term Chinese pepper). This pepper gives a numbing feeling and apparently many guests didn’t like it. So, he just added a bit for the sake of keeping it real. He told me that the next time I should just sent the word in asking for more Szechwan pepper and he will make the real thing. And, that is what I will be doing; perhaps even ask him to conjure up a dan dan mian (not in the menu), if possible.
I wrote all this just to highlight how far Trivandrum has changed in the last 10 years or so. There is a place in Trivandrum now (other than my house) where you can eat mapo tofu! Unthinkable a few years ago. The city is slowly beginning to get a cosmopolitan feel to it, not least fuelled by the presence of the well-travelled techie crowd from the Technopark who have high disposable incomes. Besides this Chinese place, there are many multi-cuisine and other restaurants spread around the city. Café Mojo at Kuravankonam (good) and Curry Chatty near Mettukada (good food, poor service) for multi-cuisine fare, Casa Bianca at M.P. Appan Road for Italian (good, when the foreign owner is there), and Cherries and Berries opposite Cotton Hill School (waffles) come to mind. There is a Hyderabadi place near Technopark (Dakhani Degh) and various places selling North Indian food besides the much-hyped international chains selling their banal stuff.
There is a place called “Spring” in Nanthancode where you can buy almost any vegetable. They even have asparagus (very skinny ones for my liking), artichoke, daikon radish, lotus roots, pakchoy and small cucumbers in addition to fruits from around the world including persimmons. They also have packaged tofu, Canadian maple syrup, ajwa dates and other such exotic, expensive items. At the deli in Taj, you can buy baguettes, croissants and quiche. Supreme bakers sell reasonably good marshmallows. And, the other day I even saw Lee Kum Kee sauces at the Nilgiri’s store.
The social and cultural fronts have also become quite enriched. We have a couple of literary festivals – the Kovalam litfest and the Hay Festival - and a major international film festival, in addition to smaller cultural feasts organized by the foreign cultural centres of France, Germany and Russia.
Many local people are slowly waking up to these changes. Some time ago I happened to talk to the owner of one of the biggest gold jewellery shops in Trivandrum. The person asked me what I did for a living and I told him I used to be a techie, blah, blah and the conversation naturally veered to the topic of Technopark. He was under the impression that all IT-related development was happening in Cochin, and that there were only a few thousand people working at the Technopark here. I told him that as far as I have heard from friends, there are at least 30 to 35,000 people working there and he appeared dumbstruck. Mind you, he is one of the top businessmen in Trivandrum and one of the richest. So, there is a certain level of ignorance among the populace of the changes happening around them. I feel we are at the threshold of a great leap akin to what Bangalore witnessed at the beginning of the IT boom in the late 80s, early 90s. Whether we succeed in avoiding the infrastructural and other pitfalls of Bangalore will be the key to our city’s proper development. Let’s hope we make it.
You’ve come a long way, baby…
P.S. While singing the paeans of my lovely city, I can’t quite ignore the humongous elephant in the room. That is the garbage issue. This is a grievance common to most cities in India, but we were not one of them. There was a time when Trivandrum was the cleanest city in the country. There was time when we had proper garbage collection. There was a time when corporation guys used to go around spraying stuff to kill mosquitoes. There was a time when people swept the street in front of their house and carried their own shopping bags etc., etc. Let’s hope our retarded corporation rulers and the let’s-carve-up-the-real-estate State government find a solution to this issue pretty quickly. It’s been frikkin 10 months since they collected garbage and I have 6 sacks of plastic waste behind my house.