It smelt good. A tiny candle flickered beneath, lifting aromas off the curry and into my face – coconut, mustard seeds, curry leaves, cumin, white pepper and some other spices, maybe cardamom, fenugreek and coriander. The chef refused to tell me what was in it, resting smugly in the kitchen like Colonel Sanders and protecting his 11 secret herbs and spices.
“Leo’s Vegetable Kadai” was all the menu read – the rest was a mystery. But that’s not what was holding me back. I didn’t really need to confirm what was in it, but what had been left out – namely those tiny bacteria that can completely mess up your holiday. It was day three in India, six days until Christmas, and my first meal out of the hotel.
My friends (let’s call them Lucrecia and Julerie) were already indulging, but I’m a bit delicate in the guts and was still talking myself into it. I made myself start with an onion kulcha – flakey stuffed bread that has been cooked at a million degrees, and has big bubbles all over it just like my favorite kind of pizza base. It has to be safe – not much could survive the tan door. It was soft and crunchy, buttery and salty, and the onions inside were dark brown and sweet – toasted to the point of disintegration. Finally I couldn’t handle it any more. The smells were too much, and that little bite of bread opened the floodgates. My appetite was freed and knew no bounds. The Vegetable Kadai tasted even better than it looked – rich creamy and served with steaming coconut rice. I couldn’t get enough of it. We ordered more – a potato and tomato dish and an okra marsala. Soon we were sitting back like three fat Buddhas, unable to do anything but utter sighs and watch the passing traffic and glorious sundown.
“Are you Leo?” I had asked
“Yes, yes, that’s me!” he replied, “But you can call me Bob”…Of course….“you are eating lunch today?” Lucrecia had eyed me and we uttered simultaneously,
“no, just beer. Maybe tomorrow,” we had by now realised that the easiest way to defend against the sales pitch is to defer the exchange.
“You must come back, this will be your finest establishment in Kovalam for eating dinner!” I love the way many Indians use English in the future tense, it makes me feel like they are all growing into something. “Ooh, yes, I have everything good for the ladies. I will give you the finest quality of the Lobster, the crabs, the mans…” Did he really say that?
“…The mans?” I asked. He raised his eyebrows several times and waggled his head a little but said nothing.
“Oh, no, no, no!” gasped Lucrecia, “We came here to get away from the mans!” Julerie and I sniggered into our beer – we had realized on our road trip with Delboy it is assumed that women over a certain age traveling without men in this area are after a little spicy Kerelan lovin’.
“Ah well….” he was a little downcast, “You will have my finest .” mmm, sounded tempting
Soon after we had looked over our frosty Kingfishers in coffee cups, and the fishermen hauled in their mammoth nets and crowds gathered to watch and help, mainly watch. Westerners paid for sun loungers and beach umbrellas and shared the shade with flea-bitten dogs that kept on sneaking under the loungers despite “shoo”s, faux hits and newspaper missiles. There’s a little more swell on this beach than our one over at the kempinski, and in the shade of the point kids jumped off rocks to join compatriots on surfboards in the glittering backwater and wait for a wave.
We met an Australian girl who had been staying in the strip and had eaten at Leo’s several times. She was not turning gray in front of us or conducting her half of the conversation from the toilet seat, so we figured Leo’s might be an OK bet. The decision was made.
Lights twinkled out at sea, but there’s no town between Kovolam and the coast of Somalia – just fishing boats by the hundreds, full of “the lobster, the crabs and the mans” I would imagine. The lighthouse would occasionally sweep the sea clean with it’s blinding light, only to reveal even more upon it’s passing.
People walked the strip in its bold flourescentness or retreated to the sand for a more gentle interlude, only to be quickly herded back to the boardwalk by the marauding canines that had taken ownership. It was solely the Stoners that were brave enough to stay on the beach – making sand angels, cuddling the dogs and smoking joints in relative private.
After our beers we bid Leo-Bob goodbye, promising to call in on his nephew who is “big bar captain” at a Palm Jumeirah hotel in . We hired a rickshaw for 50 rupees and a promise to the driver that Lucrecia would not sing. It struggled under the weight of three western housewives with belly-fulls of curry, sounding like a Hoover with a giant furball stuck in the pipe.
We re-entered five star paradise and decided our bravery should be rewarded with a digestif and a couple of rounds of 500. When we got the bill and it was three times the cost of our entire dinner and drinks at Leos, Lucrecia spluttered another death gargle and tried to bargain the bar captain down. He was not amused.