5174 Miles for a Bowl of Soup
Angelica Campion’s mystical broth quest
Twenty years ago, I had a bowl of tomato and coriander soup in a hotel restaurant in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, South India. It’s my number one culinary experience. I lack my late father’s strange talent of remembering every single meal he ever had but I do have a mental list of my top ten (is that mental?). Number two is a prawn & spinach baked potato barbeque on a beach in Bali, number three, a crab sandwich in San Francisco – all good pretentious stuff. This December I went in search of this soup on a return visit to India – and to escape Christmas.
I did find the soup but also found Christmas, unfortunately.
We flew into Mumbai at night. Our 14 year old son’s first Indian daylight was the spectacular culture shock drive through the city to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (opened in 1903 and suffered a terrorist attack in 2008) for the ‘All you can eat’ High Tea.
No chance to avoid Christmas here, with decorations to rival the Savoy. We stuffed our faces (Spicy fish nuggets with mint sauce! Cucumber sandwiches made with puffy rice bread! Rose petal macaroons!) while looking out at the Gateway of India on the Arabian Sea. The whole thing went straight in at number 3, bumping the crab sandwich down into fourth place.
The next day we flew on to Kerala and took the half hour drive to Thiruvananthapuram in a tuk-tuk, at 30 miles an hour tops, to look for that bowl of soup. Husband and son, although doggedly patient and supportive of my rosy coloured broth expedition, warned me it may not end well.
We found the hotel with its traditionally dressed doorman – although the place had gone downhill a bit, there was the same restaurant serving the same lunch buffet.
“Do you have any tomato and coriander soup?”
We waited, for the most stressful bowl of soup in the whole of mankind.
You want me to say it was exactly the same. I want to tell you that it was. But it wasn’t. I only gave it 10 out of 10. The original was 12 out of 10. But then the best thing ever happened. The chef came up to our table. I didn’t try to explain my pathetic 20 year soup quest. HE GAVE ME THE RECIPE. I gave him a tip. He almost cried. I almost cried. I am crying now.
We go to Pothys, a kind of Sari World department store where I feel like a rabbit in headlights until we bump into Santa at the top of the escalator, greeting happy customers as they pass him. We recoil in horror. I nearly bring up my soup.
Halfway through our holiday, Hastings friends and their kids arrive, staying only 10 minutes away. A total but very welcome coincidence. Their hotel was doing a special Gala dinner on Christmas Eve. We book a table for all 7 of us. Turns out, ‘Gala Dinner’ means ‘the worst wedding you’ve ever attended but without any tables to eat at, with additional life-scarring Santas roaming the room’. Not to mention an Elvis impersonator forcing hotel guests onto the stage for competitions called Tallest Dad and Best Nail Varnish. When the ear-splitting dog whistles started we literally ran for the exit, leaving the kids behind as they were busy cutting helium balloons off all the chairs and inhaling them.
Unluckily for the hotel owner, we found him, and he was familiar with the words Trip Advisor. He gave us a table in the bar with
a never-ending tab. The last we saw of our precious friends was under that table.
There’s nothing more surreal than being in India at Christmas. The plinky-plonky versions of Xmas music, the frightening Santa masks everywhere, the Blue Peter decorations, Christmas trees and palm trees in the same photo with random mosques calling to prayer in the background, the sublime food, and the beauty.
One thing really stuck out. We saw fewer people living on the street than we do in Hastings or London. Think on that.
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