Namaste! Welcome to India. This journey begins in Chennai, formerly Madras and the first major settlement of the East India Company in 1639. While it is hot and busy, the city is considered to be orderly and efficient by Indian standards. Your adventure begins with a Welcome Meeting at 6pm. Please ask reception to confirm the time and place of your meeting. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information at this meeting so please ensure you have these for your leader. If you can't arrange a flight that will arrive in time, you may wish to arrive a day early so you're able to attend. Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu, a state recognized for its distinct and delicious cuisine. Characterized by the use of rice, legumes and lentils, the food of Tamil Nadu also has a number of regional variants, many of which you will taste during this Real Food Adventure. It is believed that the English word curry is derived from the Tamil word 'kari'. After the welcome meeting, get an introduction to the flavors of Tamil Nadu with a traditional meal served on a banana leaf. Accompanied by rice, the meal typically consists of sambar (a lentil-based vegetable stew), banana, beeda (a combination of betel leave and betel nut), and a glass of juice or lassi. The meal is finished with paayasam (a sweet pudding) for dessert.
This morning you will leave the city behind and drive along the scenic East Coast Road (approximately 2 hours) to the fishing town of Mamallapuram, home to sprawling, relaxed beaches. Visit the 8th-century Shore Temple and its mandapams (carved pillars) and watch locals pay their respects to the deity Shiva. Head to the shore to see the fishing fleet at work, and follow that up with a delicious home-cooked seafood lunch with a fisherman's family. In the afternoon continue by private transfer to Pondicherry (approximately 3 hours). The united territories of Pondicherry (now Pondicherry) are unmistakeably and charmingly French, complete with a Hotel de Ville, French consulate and police who wear red "kepis" hats and belts. The city is also a duty free zone, reputed for its quality leather and hand crafted paper products. You'll notice the French influence of the area extends to the European feel of the shopping. Take a walking tour to see local temples, the French Quarter and the spiritual community of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, one of the most affluent and most popular ashrams for tourists and ex-pats alike. The evening is free for your own exploration. Perhaps try out one of the city's French-infused restaurants.
Start your morning with coffee and French toast at a branch of the iconic Indian Coffee House, made famous by the book Life of Pi. You can find Indian Coffee Houses all over India (there are nearly 400 branches) and they have been run by cooperatives since the late 1950's. During the 1960s and 70s they became hangouts for literary and intellectual circles. After breakfast, join a local cook for a tour of Goubert market, learning about the building blocks of Tamil Nadu cuisine. Armed with your ingredients, take a cooking class to discover how these flavors combine to make some classic regional dishes. Learn to prepare the iconic sambar, as well as other 'Pondy' favourites: policha meen (fish baked in banana leaves), katirikaiy chutney (aubergine chutney) and erral urukaiy (prawn pickle). Spend the rest of the day at your leisure, perhaps visiting the Museum or Joan of Arc statue, trying a yoga class, relaxing on the beach, or admiring the Franco-Tamil architecture of the charming city centre.
Rise early for a long drive south to Kanadukathan (approximately 7 hours), famous for its unique architecture and salt trade. Along the way stop for a delicious vegetarian thali at one of many roadside dhabas. This is a selection of dishes that combine all six different flavors (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy) for a perfectly balanced meal. Arrive in Kandukathan by mid afternoon. Settle in at your accommodation, an impressive mansion built in 1902 by prosperous merchants who used construction materials, decorative items and furnishings imported from East Asian countries and Europe. Relax, go for a swim in the swimming pool, then get ready for a real treat – a masterclass in Chettinad cuisine. Chettinad cuisine is distinct to the Chettiars, a successful trading community who built a reputation for ‘eating like kings’. This regional cuisine in revered throughout India and is well regarded for its liberal use of spice, replacing chilli with pepper to impart a subtle heat to dishes. Chettinad cuisine also incorporates seafood, chicken and lamb, although Chettiars do not eat beef and pork. In the mansion kitchens, learn to prepare famous Chettinad dishes including the signature chicken drumstick curry accompanied by mint chutnie, and follow it with a sumptuous feast.
After breakfast, take a turn around the mystical city of Karaikudi. No visit is complete without a inspecting the famous architecture of the local houses. Then transfer to Madurai (approximately 2-3 hours), arriving by early afternoon. Crammed full of bazaars, temples, small industries, pilgrims, cycle-rickshaws, beggars and street markets, Madurai showcases southern India at its colorful and lively best. Madurai is Tamil Nadu's second largest town and ancient capital, with a recorded history that dates back to third-century BC. It has a fascinating story and your guide will help you understand it on a walking tour. The city is recognized as the centre of Dravidian culture, with its main attraction the famous Shree Meenaksh Temple in the heart of the old town. Its many gopurams (temple towers) are covered with profusions of multi-colored images of gods, goddesses, animals and mythical figures. You’ll visit the Sri Meenakshi Temple, which lies at the heart of the city. This ancient, still active temple is a labyrinth of lamp-lit corridors that lead to shrines where some mysterious and interesting rituals are performed. Madurai also has its own distinct food culture. Keep your eye out for egg parotta (parotta minced with eggs), paruthipal (a dish made of cottonseeds) and karidosai (dosa with mutton stuffing). The evening is free for your own exploration.
Spend the morning wandering the backstreets and bazaars of Madurai, with the city famous for its traditional cotton ‘Sungudi sarees’, paintings in the classic South Indian Thanjavur style, bronze items, handicrafts, and antiques. Pudhu Mandapam, in front of the east tower of the Meenakshi Amman temple, dates back almost 500 years and its elaborately pillared hall is filled with fascinating textile and craft stalls. Be sure to have a light lunch today because in the afternoon you’ll take a street food tour with a passionate local foodie. Your guide is a professional IT engineer, but his true passion is food and sharing the delicious flavors of Madurai with others. Travel the city from east to west, past markets and temples, and get the inside scoop on the best street food the city has to offer. You’ll have the opportunity to sample delicacies such as peppercorn semolina, lentils and hand-churned ice cream made with sarsaparilla and seaweed. Finish up at a famous masala dosa spot which is so popular it only opens for 4 hours a day!
Travel by public bus into the countryside along a winding road past rubber and pineapple plantations and thick jungle to the spice plantation town of Thekkady (approximately 5 hours). Thekkady is the gateway to Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve, perched high in the ranges of the Western Ghats. Thekkady proudly celebrates the food traditions of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and the town and its neighboring villages are highly regarded for their spice cultivation. Prepare for a fragrant tour of a spice plantation and discover some of the many varieties grown here, from ginger, cardamom and vanilla, to pepper, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.
This morning, venture into the acclaimed Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary for a guided nature walk. The sanctuary surrounds a picturesque lake, which was formed as result of a dam that was built in 1895. It ambles through the contours of the wooded hills, and is a permanent source of water for local wildlife. Wildlife encounters are never guaranteed, but if luck is on your side you may see some Indian elephants, deer, tigers or gaur - the world's largest species of buffalo. You are more likely to see Bonnet macaques who are often found near the entrance to the reserve, or the Malabar giant squirrel, a species native to India. In your free time, you can enjoy an optional ayurvedic massage or attend an exciting demonstration of Indian martial arts (kalaripayattu) at the Kadathanadan Kalari Centre. In the late afternoon, head out to the home of a former rickshaw driver turned passionate cook. The class will be conducted in an open courtyard with a small barbeque, where some of the cooking will take place. In this class you will also learn the secret to preparing porotta, a layered flatbread typical to parts of Southern India. Feast on your efforts over dinner.
Before departing Thekkady, stop and learn about the important staple crop of tea with a grower at a local plantation. Enjoy a hearty cup or two before embarking on your onward journey. Transfer by private vehicle to a homestay on the banks of the Kerala Backwaters (approximately 7 hours). Swaying palm trees, lush rice paddies, winding waterways, Ayurvedic massage and welcoming locals all await on this amazing Kerala Backwaters homestay. On arrival, join your hosts for a home-cooked lunch and pick up the trick to whipping up a pappadam from scratch. Explore the backwaters with a local guide – this is a great chance to meet and talk with the locals and learn about their lifestyles. In the early evening, the father of the family will demonstrate how to prepare some regional favourites, including thoran (a salad of finely chopped vegetables and spices) and payasam (a delicious, jaggery and coconut dessert). Sit down with you host family for dinner.
Notes: Accommodation is on a multishare basis and all the families live within a few hundred metres of each other, with at least one person in the family speaking a reasonable standard of English. Food is traditional Keralan home cooking.
Wake early and help prepare a traditional Keralan breakfast staple, appam (a type of pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk). After breakfast take a walk through the village and hop on a pole boat ride to explore the waterways. Return to land and farewell your hosts before transferring to Kochi (approximately 1 hour). Cochi, as it was formerly known, is spread over several islands and is a melting pot of Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and British influences. Take an orientation tour of the town on arrival, stopping by Fort Kochi. In your spare time a boat trip is the best way to tour the main sights, which include the oldest church in India and Vasco de Gama's final resting place. You can also explore the city by bike or take a ferry to Vypin Island and Munambam, the largest fishing harbour in Kochi. In the evening you can seek out the best coconut curry in town or perhaps witness a Kathakali dance performance, a classical, powerful, and dramatic dance style that combines symbolic storytelling with physical technique. It is one of the most vibrant and extraordinary theatre forms in the world, and requires incredible commitment and rigorous training physically, as well as incredible emotional sensitivity to properly express the nuances of expression required
After breakfast you’ll take in some of the city's most interesting sights. Visit the Dutch Palace (Mattancherry Palace), which was built in the 16th century by the Portuguese and later claimed by the Dutch in 1663. The Dutch improved upon the existing palace before presenting it to the rajas of Cochin. Interestingly Kochi is also home to a Jewish community that has roots going back as far as 1,000 AD, and you’ll see the Jewish synagogue in the city. Built in 1568, the Pardesi Synagogue is one of the oldest existing synagogues in India. Late in the afternoon, return to your accommodation, a traditional 1940's Kerala home located in the heart of Fort Kochi, and enjoy a final cooking class. Among the dishes you’ll learn to prepare will be a Keralan classic - fish curry. Sit down and enjoy a final feast with your new friends.
Your Real Food Adventure of South India ends this morning. There are no activities on your final day and you are free to leave at any time. If you wish to extend your stay, perhaps consider heading further south to relax on the beaches at Varkala.
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Mr. Madhu N Raj
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