Aboard the Houseboat
The week of Christmas and New Year’s Eve is peak season time in tourist destinations of Kerala. It is when the tourists from the world over arrive to take in the warm, humid weather and to relax in the backwaters of Kerala. Set amongst lush greenery the beaches and backwaters is and ideal getaway from the chilly winds and the cold, dark grey weather in most parts of the western world. The sun is bright, warm but not harsh. The scenery around is pleasant with abundance of soothing greenery. But most importantly the pampered hospitality is flattering and great value for money to say the least.
Spending a day aboard a Houseboat is one of must-do things in any tourists to-do list when visiting Kerala.
Alleppey’s scenic backwaters is one of the less commercial, but highly sought after tourist hotspots. More than a hundred houseboats are moored at the harbor in the backwaters and are getting ready for the tourist inflow over the weekend preceding Christmas.
I am introduced to Saju who owns a couple of houseboats. As a boy he grew up in the neighbourhood around these backwaters, doing small errands at the harbor. As Kerala’s tourism inflow picked up, young boys like Saju tried to pick up the business acumen required to cater to the tourists.
Not having used to the world-wide standards of the hospitality industry, the service was rustic and they were oblivious to the varying tastes, hygiene standards and customs of the tourists from other parts of the country and the world. This is when the big Hotel chains decided to set shop amidst the backwaters and started buying out land and dilapidated ,but exotic and beautiful, traditional houses from the locals to build the five star hotel properties.
Saju had set up a small shop that supplied diesel to the houseboats moored in the backwaters. He then meddled around with supplying fish and Toddy – the potent local brew to the tourists who spent the day in the houseboats. With the regulations of the houseboat business, the houseboats required a license plate from the local RTO (Road transport office).
Saju invested his money and built a houseboat for himself. As the demand grew he invested in a few more houseboats and began to employ other people to run them . In the initial days most of his enquiries came from the nearby five star hotel for a day aboard the houseboat for their guests. Then as competition increased his monopoly with the hotel chain ended and he began seeking customers from other sources.
In this day and age while other houseboat owners have to taken to charms of Google and the www, Saju still goes by the traditional word of mouth and fixes up his deals with the chain of middlemen for a commission. He has a steady stream of customers from his network handled through whatsapp.
With the expansion of business come labour issues. Strong labour unions formed with the backing of political parties including the communist party over the years has ensured fair wages and decent working conditions for the locals employed in the tourism industry. However with huge demand during the tourist season the supply of local labour falls short.
It is not very unusual to see migrants ,some legal and many illegal, from other parts of the country and the adjacent ones working behind the scenes in the unorganized sector in many parts of Kerala.
Bharat Das is the chef-at-residence aboard Saju’s houseboat. He comes from a place about 1000 miles away. driven by poverty and floods he had to migrate as a young boy to find work in big cities and towns. Bharat Das worked for some time in a street side hotel where he assisted the cook in the kitchen. Over there he put in long hours behind the scenes but learnth the basic tricks of his trade and the secret recipes that cater to popular taste. He learnt that recipe can vary depending upon where the people come from and their unique tastes. He learnt that Chinese food tasted different for the truck drivers, the urban middle class and the foreigners. What real Chinese food would taste like, he does not really know.
He was quick to pick up the nuances of recipes and tastes when he apprenticed at the road side hotel before he drifted along to a series of other places higher in the value chain as he honed his culinary skills.
Das learnt his tricks of the trade from many different places. His formal break from the rustic road side cuisine came when he moved on to work for a contractor at the mess of a military training institute. At the institute he learnt finesse and the art of presentation while serving food. His back door training at a three star hotel as the Chef’s errand boy taught him the nuances of international taste. He has no formal education to speak of and no degrees to his credit.
When he drifted along to the southern state of Kerala, he was by then a skilled and much sought after chef in the kitchens of the houseboat.
On any given day he would study his customer’s background before they arrived. They would have given the fixed order and chosen their menu during their reservation and before setting foot on the houseboat, because supplies in the houseboat that has once sailed the shore cannot be altered. And yet Das would keep a surprise in store for them in the form of an evening snack or a surprise recipe that came with the lunch.
If this was going to be an upper middle class family get-together in the houseboat, Das would know what recipe choices would prove exotic and would help his clients drool in the pampered gastronomic experience that they would make them come backfor more.
If it was one of those numerous corporate offsite or a get together of executives, which more often than not would be followed by an evening of booze and wild dance parties, his choices in the menu would be a little more cosmopolitan catering to the lowest common denominator of all the tastes from all over the the world.
When the clientele were a backpacking European gang he would know just how much spice to reduce or just how sweet the chocolate soufflé should be and how crisp the toasts and cookies should be that would be served with the evening tea.
When he dishes out the perfect fish and chips for the comfort food starved Brit aboard the houseboat, he knows that the tips at the end of the day would be generous to say the least. .
His sheer sense of instinctive hospitality finds expression in his recipes and that is what makes him a sought after ‘Chef’. Saju his employer is proud of his employee especially when he gets his customers who come to him by word of mouth. More often than not they have been recommended Saju’s houseboat just for the excellence of Das’s recipes and the exquisite culinary experience that Das offered their friends when they came along to spend a relaxing time aboard the houseboat.
Das, over the years has learnt to speak in Malayalam, the local language, but also a dozen other languages that include English and a little French.
He goes home to meet his folks when the south west monsoon fury hits the coast of Kerala every June and the Tourist inflow dries up for the next couple of months. This is also the time that the houseboats are anchored ashore.
Das uses his time well to hit homewards where his family is dependent on his income that he has saved up from the generous tips offered by the tourists to make ends meet more than the basic minimum wages that Saju pays him for his work in his Houseboat.