Taste of Bekal
Every place in the world has a “season” – a time of year when it truly comes into its own. In the small fishing town of Bekal, tucked away like a secret in the southern reaches of the Malabar coast, that season is the monsoon. As we take in the uninterrupted, rain-washed panorama of sea, beach and emerald coconut groves from the ramparts of the sprawling 17th century Bekal Fort (the very same one that turned in such a brilliant cameo as the rain-drenched, moss-covered backdrop to the cult tune “ Tu Hi Re ” in the Mani Ratnam classic Bombay), it is easy to see why.
Bekal Fort has been smartened up since its rough edged Bombay days. A few years ago, the well-meaning Archaeological Survey of India made the restoration and maintenance of Kerala’s best preserved fort its business laying out lawns, putting in an entry ticket booth, and installing dustbins around the popcorn and soft drink stalls inside. The move is not only bringing the tourists in despite the steady drizzle, several gaggles of visitors, most of them local, were exploring the fort that afternoon but is also exactly in keeping with Kerala Tourism’s ambitious plans for the hitherto under – promoted north.
In the past two years, two well-known hotel chains have responded to the tourism department’s invitation, and planted their flags seven kilometers north of the Bekal Fort, one on each side of the picturesque Kappil Beach backwaters. The first one on our itinerary is the nine month old Vivanta by Taj Bekal, now gearing up for its first international season.
It is raining hard as we sweep into the driveway of the Vivanta, past lovely but slightly incongruous stone. Garudas over whom the moss is already growing thick,and a giant, rather emaciated Ganesha. Both have been brought in from Bali in fact, the architecture of the whole resort is Bali inspired but stylish doses of local flavour also abound, none more ubiquitous and larger than-life than the resort’s signature design motif, the kettuvallam (Kerala rice – boat) roof, whose sinuous curves top rooms, covered walkways, and the entrance porch.
At 26 acres, the Vivanta by Taj Bekal is huge, so even its full complement of 71 rooms doesn’t take away from the feeling of endless space. The fact that one edge of the property skirts the backwaters all the way until they enter the Arabian Sea and continues to curve along Kappil Beach doesn’t hurt either. But given that Bekal is neither the most accessible destination in the world you have to first fly into Mangalore airport, and then take a two-hour car ride from there nor the best known, you wonder if 71 rooms may not be a bit ambitious. Apparently not, though, for the Vivanta was absolutely buzzing with large family groups the weekend we were there. None of them seemed to have taken advantage of the hotel’s pet-friendly policies yet, but there were plenty of children.
Aggressive marketing has certainly filled the Vivanta with enthusiastic guests, but it has forced the resort to compromise, in a sense, on one important aspect—food.In an attempt to satisfy the largest number of guests, the buffets at the all day restaurant, Latitude, the only one open so far feature only a couple of token Malayalee dishes. (Hot tip: executive chef Gopal Jayaraman will gladly toss up a karimeen pollichathu or a kozhi adachitathu for you if you ask nicely). In the Vivanta’s defence, it must be said that most people from outside the state are suspicious of Kerala’s cuisine, particularly because of the preponderance of coconut and coconut oil in it, and none but the most adventurous will willingly submit themselves to three days of local cuisine.
It is still something of a missed opportunity, though,both for the guests and for the hotel, because north Malabar cuisine, especially the meat-based cuisine of the Muslim Mappilas, is an entity into itself rich, fragrant, meat-based dishes low on heat and high on flavour, a unique marriage of local ingredients and the culinary traditions of Arab traders who returned to this coast over thousands of years, lured by the scent of Malabar pepper and the more exotic spices from further east. Funnily enough, pepper itself is almost absent in Mappila cuisine the story goes that the canny Mappilas (them selves descended from mixed Arab – Malayalee marriages) were too busy selling the precious “black gold” to waste it in their own kitchens.
Since the buffet wasn’t cutting it for us, we settled for several delicious alternatives from the à la carte menu –flaky Kerala parottas and lacy-edged appams with Kozhi Mappas – Chicken in a mild flavorful coconut milk gravy with a strong wallop of coriander seed, and a ridiculously good Chemmeen Kariveppila grilled juicy jumbo prawns rubbed with spices and coconut oil and rolled in coarsely-powdered sun-dried curry leaf. Now that we had discovered where the fun was, we spent the next couple of mealtimes cutting a swathe through a bunch of other dishes, including a few Mappila specific ones several kinds of pathiri (a rice-based bread that evolved in this region to satisfy both the Arab craving for bread at every meal and the Malayalee love of rice ), excellent atterachivarutharacha curry (lamb in a roasted coconut gravy), and a true blue Mappila biryani, which gets its distinctive taste from the Malabar kaima rice and the addition of a hint of fennel, a spice much favoured by the Mappilas.
We also request a full – course sadya (banana leaf meal featuring over 25 items) for lunch on our second day. It is served in the old-fashioned way out of steel four compartment utensils by waiters dressed in real mundus. In fact, the only thing not quite authentic about the sadya is that while a traditional one is completely vegetarian,this one includes fish and meat, to appease guests who need their daily fix.
But it is the rooms at the Vivanta by Taj Bekal that are easily its most delightful and luxurious aspect. Apart from the basic rooms which are nice enough, with their own balconies, a daybed swing, and backwater views, every other room has its own private courtyard with a daybed swing in lovely curtained alcove. The courtyards get bigger as the rooms slide up the price scale, and go on to include alfresco bathtubs and lap-of-nature showers,sea-facing deck loungers, and private plunge pools. The beautiful and vast Jiva Spa, located in its own nook of the property, helps bump up the hedonistic quotient.
The second Bekal resort on our checklist is the older one The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal opened as far back as December 2010. The two resorts make for an interesting study in contrasts for one thing, within the same area of 26 acres, The Lalit accommodates just 37 rooms, including a spectacular Presidential Villa. And while the resort’s architecture is also Bali – inspired in parts, there is enough authentic Kerala in it to never let you lose sight of where have travelled to.
Here, the accent is entirely on exclusivity very few guests, extremely personalized service. In fact, you even get your own Holiday Host from the word go, whose full time responsibility you become for the duration of your stay. The Lalit’s rooms don’t have courtyards, but they are luxurious too staples include in-room Jacuzzis and, given that all rooms are set along the backwaters or around man – made lagoons, great views. Scattered across the property are gazebos inspired by Kerala homes, where you can choose to sit around, have a private meal served to you, or take a private yoga class. The exclusivity even extends to banquets never more than 120 guests in all.
The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal which takes its spa status very seriously, is also big on “local”. Where the Taj’s Jiva Spa is international and cosmopolitan in terms of its palette of offerings, the Lalit’s Rejuve is rooted in traditional Ayurveda — a flourishing medicinal herb garden is an important part of the landscape, and authentic Ayurvedic treatments are administered in beautiful treatment rooms cleverly designed to bring the outside in, without any loss of privacy.
But where the two resorts depart most from each other is in relation to the food they off er their guests. Simply put, there are no buff ets at The Lalit’s all day dining restaurant, Nombili. Instead, there is an eclectic á lacarte menu in which local-traditional and international contemporary fuse deliciously and with great panache. These are dishes imagined into existence by executive chef Biju Krishnan, who is not only passionate about his craft but is fanatic about the food philosophy of the resort fresh, healthy, light, beautifully presented spa cuisine that is far from boring, fashioned out of mostly local ingredients, some of which come right off the resort’s“edible landscape”.
Sample these menu picks for inventiveness curried polenta with baby onion theeyal and salsa fresca, rasamre defined with braised onion and fish ravioli, pesto soaked string hoppers with gruyère cheese bites, tender coconut pannacotta. The raw food section features such lovelies as fresh avocado guacamole on sweet pepper, vegetable lasagne with tangy chutney and fresh yoghurt, and discs of apple and fi g with rock salt.
We opted to put aside the menu and watch the chef cook up a dinner for us instead carrot and cumin soupwith ragi (black millet) ravioli, tricolour puttu, vegetable mappas with njavara rice, and an absolutely sensational Malabar fish curry. We rounded it off with a stylishly presented dessert parippu (lentil) payasam served alongside a tower of papad slivers on which half a pealed banana of the tiniest variety perched precariously.It seemed a strange combination, but we went ahead and did what we were told pour the payasam over the papad tower, mash the banana into it, and eat it with your fingers. I would travel back to Bekal just to eat it again.
Granted, some of the items don’t work as well as the others, and yes, this menu could be intimidating to some,so there is also a full Indian menu—where gosht roganjoshrubs shoulders with ajwaini paneer tikka.
“After three – four days, everyone needs their comfort food,” shrugs Krishnan. “But I must tell you a secret my brief is to ensure that every guest tries Kerala food at least once during his stay. The way we cook it here will dismiss all their preconceived notions about our food and hopefully lead them to experiment with it even after they go back home.” Which isn’t that difficult an agenda for him to push,given that he personally sits down with every guest who checks in to figure out his food preferences, before he gets down to preparing a customized menu for him.
One good way in which the Vivanta and The Lalit are similar, though, is in the choices they provide to guests to spare them the tedium of eating in the same restaurant throughout their stay. Between the two, you can take your pick from a private lunch or dinner at a riverside or lagoon side tent or gazebo, on a floating pontoon in the middle of the river, on a traditional Kerala houseboat, in a machan by the sea, or in your own courtyard.
Even as this article goes to press, other hotel chains are making their moves on beautiful Bekal, but you don’t have to sit around waiting for that to happen. With these two fabulous, and quite distinctive, resorts already in place, all that’s left for you to do now is to pick one or both and go.
Bekal is a seaside town in Kerala’s northernmost district, Kasargod, about 75 kilometers from Mangalore in Karnataka. The best way is to fly into Mangalore and take a cab from there, or have the hotel pick you up.
Best time to visit : October to February