Kerala: Knocked Out By Muhammad Ali

India, street food, Kerala, fish

A couple of years ago, my parents and I traveled through Kerala, the spice capital of India. On our last day in Kochi, my father and I decided to veer off the recommended list of restaurants to explore the harbor at Fort Kochi. I had recently read about the beautiful Chinese fishing nets that lined the sea-front and all I could think about was – where there are fishing nets, there are fish. And – I was right.

There was shack after shack of some of the freshest seafood for sale right near food carts where we could have it all cooked. As my father and I weaved in and out of the shacks, sharing our ritual of feeling the fish for firmness, smelling the shrimp for freshness, and lifting the crabs for weight, I realized that I had inherited his sheer joy of just being around seafood. Soon, armed with a large crab, a pound of shrimp and two pieces of my favorite fish, pompfret, we were determined to eat like the locals.

India, Kerala, Chinese, fishing nets

Jamal, one of the young fisherman insisted we eat at his boss’ food cart – “he is the best, he has been here the longest, he is everyone’s favorite, and his name is Muhammad Ali.” He threw in an extra grin when he said his name. At first, weary that he would lead us astray to a tourist trap, I hesitated but his cheerful and playful instance won us over. And, with a name like Muhammad Ali, my growling stomach and I couldn’t resist.

India, Kerala, fish, street food, food cart

He excitedly led us across the street to a red and blue food cart decorated with Pepsi cans and old photographs where he introduced us to Muhammad Ali. As I asked Ali a few questions about his cart, I could tell he was not as generous as Jamal with his smiles and had a confident “take it or leave it” aura about him, which made me want to “take it” even more.

India, Kerala, fish, street food, food cart

Jamal cleaned the seafood under the shade of a bright blue tarp and I watched Ali skillfully cook with furrowed brows. As I asked him a few more questions, I began to see that, under the non-smiling persona was a man who took a lot of pride in his food, his cart and his country. A fisherman himself, Ali had decided many years ago to expand his business to make more money and do something he really enjoyed – cooking his family favorites. I asked if he would cook our seafood the way he would want to eat it and, with no hesitation or questions, he proceeded.

India, Kerala, crab, street food, cart

He began by boiling the crab in water seasoned with black pepper, the spice Kerala is most famous for. According to Ali, the heat of the pepper was a perfect match to the sweetness of the crab.

India, Kerala, fried fish, street food, cart

Next, he coated one of the pieces of fish with a special Kerala spice mix of ginger, red chili powder, turmeric, black pepper and fried it in a cast iron skillet. As the spices sizzled in the oil and their aromas intensified, I understood why fried fish is such a quintessential part of Kerala cuisine. Next, he marinated the other piece of fish in a simple but potent garlic paste and placed it on a hot tawa, an iron griddle, with vegetable oil.

India, Kerala, shrimp, street food, garlic shrimp

He then hand-packed each deveined shrimp with a coarse paste of garlic, turmeric, vinegar and oil, and placed them on the griddle right next to the fish. I was so excited to see him cook the shrimp with their shells and heads on. Apart from lending a roasted flavor to the shrimp, the shells stop them from burning, keeping them extra juicy and locking in all their incredible flavor. And, if you haven’t eaten a shrimp head… you are definitely missing out!

India, Kerala, fish, shrimp, street food, food cart

India, Kerala, fish, street food, food cart

India, Kerala, fish, crab, street food, cart

He served all of the above with white rice and thin slices of lemon. Dad and I sat at plastic tables right next to Ali’s cart on a makeshift pavement by the road. The passing cars, bicycles and scooters dissolved away as I rolled up my sleeves, shunning any silverware, and joined him in breaking apart peppery crab shells, peeling spicy garlicky shrimp and pinching pieces of crispy succulent fish as we devoured one of the best meals I have ever had.

If you find yourself in Fort Kochi, make sure to look for Muhammad Ali and Jamal. Next time you’re on vacation, make sure to veer off that recommended path.

And, remember to send me a postcard or write to me! I’d love to hear your stories of delicious morsels and food carts that you’ve stumbled across during your travels.



  1. Hannah says

    I LOVE THIS. Another brilliant post, Anj. Each time I read your stories and see your photos, I’m transported. I feel like I’m there experiencing it right along with you and your pop… I can almost TASTE the divine seafood and smell the incredible spices! Makes me want to go to Kerala right this minute… :)

    • says

      Thank you for reading, Hannah! You/we must go to Kerala. It really is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. And, the food’s pretty good too. (I mean – AMAZING!)

  2. Tori says

    What a great story and gorgeous photos – literally made my mouth water! I am reminded of some extraordinary fresh seafood my family enjoyed while living in Asia. There is nothing better than picking out your own fresh seafood, having it cooked to order in front of you and then eating at a little plastic table and chairs. Thank you for a lovely story and for evoking some happy memories.

    • says

      Thank you, Tori! I’m so happy to hear that this story resonated with you. Would love to know where in Asia you lived and about any hidden morsels that you would recommend.

  3. neena says

    Fantastic article ! Love the pictures – tempting for a ‘shakhahari ‘ (veg) like me! Its great what the guys enjoy and do in their own simple style -the unsung chefs of fort Kochi .Need to go back to Kerala!

    • says

      Thank you, Maa… for your kind words and for being the reason I want to keep cooking. I love “unsung chefs of Fort Kochi”! We must go back soon. I love you.

  4. Judy says

    As usual, your post has inspired me to upgrade dinner tonight. I can’t get the sight of that seafood out of my head!

  5. says

    What a wonderful photo journal food description. You brought passion and love for a food transport experience. Its also how you feel and how you brought positive feelings into a mouth watering experience. Yes I want to be there even though I do not eat seafood. Thanks

    • says

      Thank you for your wonderful words! Stay tuned for some non-seafood travels and recipes. And, I can’t wait to take a class with you.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>