One of the places in Kerala I spent a few days in last year was Thekkady, best known for its wildlife reserve and spices. And the sleepy little town was way cooler than I could have ever anticipated.
I didn't bother with the morning safaris or trying to spot a tiger (none of the locals I spoke to had ever managed to see one), instead I started my days at Thekkady Cafe which does a fantastic chicken roast that I mopped up with fresh appams. Then I wandered the spice shops, where one can buy cinnamon bark as big as furniture or packets of spice mixes to take home. I bought heady masalas for curries, delicious coarse podi for dipping idlis into, and freshly ground cocoa. Ever intoxicated by the scent of hot coconut oil, I scored myself a big bag of salted yellow banana chips straight off the fryer every chance I got.
Vegetarians can always find meals in Kerala - sadya thalis with unlimited servings of rice, dal, yogurt, and vegetable dishes plus payasam for dessert served on banana leaves. I loved dining with the locals at Cafe Althaf, a tiny no-frills, no-menu canteen that doles out the cheapest and best fried chicken, beef curry and flaky golden parottas.
One evening, I signed up a cooking lesson at Bar-b-que. Since it was out of season in Kumily, it was a private class and nothing could have prepared me for how kitsch the setting would be or how marvellous it was. Sheril is an autorickshaw driver who will pick you up from your hotel, and along with his meddling but delightful family will teach you to grind spices, extract coconut flesh, and cook fragrant meat curries, savoury potato chips, okra and bean dishes using ingredients from his own backyard. He's been written about in the NYTimes. I was the first person to show him the article and let's just say the Sukumarans now have a new family member (me).
But the most favourite finds of all were the design stores. Call it luck but I will often stumble upon wonderful things on my travels without a map or itinerary but even I was thrown by a gallery and store as thoughtfully curated and beautifully decorated as Red Frog. If you've been to Thekkady, you'd know how out of place a minimalist, contemporary store might be. Inside I found old and new books, elegant clothing made from natural fibres, prettily packaged spices that are certified organic, plus gorgeous antiques and local handicrafts.
A day later, after breakfast at Wildernest, an extremely cute B&B, I walked past a moss laden building that housed via kerala an adorable typography and design focused store. It sold loopy Malayalam letterforms, reversible tote bags and aptly, jungle themed playing cards, postcards and toys.