Lunch is an odd meal. Once upon a time, the primary fuelling of the day, then displaced as the development and growing affordability of interior lighting allowed the later, more fashionable dinner. (The history of dining is worthy of perusal; Reay Tannahill’s Food in History, written in 1973, is an excellent place to start).
Nowadays, for most of us, lunch is a mere pit-stop, a necessary top-up during a busy working day. Understandable, given the pressure on time in modern life, but a little sad that something that can contain so much pleasure has been relegated to a casual byplay in life.
I myself am a great luncher, given the opportunity – on a day off work (or, when reviewing, while actually working), it is easier to find a table, a lot more peaceful, and there is little to beat a leisurely luncheon. The lower levels of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase prevalent in the human body at noon also make it possible to be slightly giddy on just one glass of wine, which is economically preferable as well as vaguely healthier.
But what is one to do if you are free for just a brief period from the drudgery of the office? Walking to Cochin Marine, I passed the Pret a Manger chain, which was fairly full of customers, as one would expect for a well-marketed, familiar major brand. I don’t go because I can make a sandwich myself and they stopped doing their pleasant noodle salads in the late 1990s.
Then, a bit further up the hill, Tesco. Now, this is not the forum today for an analysis of the merits or evils of the supermarket concept as a whole, however, let us take a moment to consider the sandwiches sold within.
They start in Tesco at 85p for a cheese and onion sandwich. You cannot argue with the price point can you? Well, actually, yes – if one was impoverished, one could buy a loaf of bread and some fillings for the week for less than 85 pence a day. And the quality of the ingredients is low. They rise to the £3 ‘finest’ sub-brand offerings which contain named ingredients such as Long Clawson stilton. Ooh. But still, it’s made from spongy Chorleywood bread on a conveyor line somewhere else.
And it was made yesterday or at best last evening – if you are lucky – and sealed in a plastic box or plasticised paper bag to sweat a bit and develop a special aroma. We’ve all had the experience of sitting next to some goon on a train or a park bench who peels open a shop-bought egg mayo and released the intense sulphurous pong. The only thing that smells worse is the bins at the back of a dodgy fried chicken shop or the gaping halitosis of a pasty shop.
So how do you get a quick, nutritious lunch without stretching one’s finances too far? We’ve already covered a few places in Tunbridge Wells that suit, but I would suggest that most restaurants with a table free would be more than happy to serve just a starter or a single main, with a glass of pop – especially if you time it to sit down early or late in the session so that the more leisurely diners who have to be seated at one exactly are still accommodated. And there are a good few sharing plate joints where a few of you can get a dish each for less than a fiver, and if you have the wits to organise and call ahead, there is less time pressure.
Polemic over – I just wish the best for you, that you can eat well and fresh, served by people who mean it. And at Cochin Marine, named for the capital of Kerala, and for centuries one of the world’s great trading ports, you could indeed get in and out for very little while eating clean and healthily. Consider first the dosa – a crisp, lush pancake made from a batter of fermented rice and lentils, part stuffed with spiced potato and served with fresh coconut chutney and a sambar of vegetables and lentils. Delicious, satisfying, with a full complement of food groups and vitamins. Just £3.95 and ready in moments. I’ve eaten a lot of these since first encountering one in Suruchi in Islington in 1990 and the one served at Cochin Marine is exemplary – far nicer than a pre-packed sandwich.
The classic is the best in my opinion, but you can vary it with fillings of paneer, onions, meat, seafood and mushrooms. The sambar even has the authentic piece of ‘drumstick’ – the vegetable correctly known as moringa –it’s supposed to be superb for your digestion, although I’ve rarely finished a whole one, but it simply has to be there.
Since I’m working, I pursue the menu further – skipping the delightful Keralan starters as even my gargantuan capacitywould struggle after a dosa – and try baby squid with pepper gravy for £8.10, sides of chicken 65, £4.15, and kathrika ularth for £3.15, washed down with a salt lassi for £1.99. The squid itself is excellent – small cephalopod heads stuffed with the trimmed tentacles like mini opalescent rugby balls – cooked gently to a succulent yet firm tenderness in a lightly spiced peppery sauce. You can have ‘curry’ without chicken or mutton, you see. It comes with some decent tomato rice and a rather weak salad of tomato and cucumber that would not have been greatly missed, and is definitely a normal sized person’s full meal.
Chicken 65 is a Keralan classic – originally a street food, whose name is attributed to a vast host of legends (invented in 1965, chicken is cut into 65 pieces, flavoured with 65 chillies, etc). It is a simple dish of deep-fried chicken with a minimal cornflour coating marinated previously in chilli and spices and then optionally tossed in a sauce or herbs and onions.
No two places do it the same – this one is mostly thigh meat, which is good as it is tastier, and has a glaze of tomatoey sauce and plenty of onions.
The kathrika ularth is a saute of aubergine chunks, with the bitterness cooked out, with chilli, ginger, turmeric and more tomato and jolly good it was, too.
I finished up with a pot of ordinary tea and watched the world go by for a bit. My bill was £23.09, for enough to feed a small family. The restaurant is small, wood-panelled with a smattering of ethnically appropriate art and staffed by some of the friendliest people.
There is a bit of plinky elevator music, something I personally dislike, although it seems to be what most people expect, but it was innocuous and I forgot it was there.
You can do a lot worse than this for lunch – the food is the real thing. I commend to you also the idli in all its forms, the beef 11, the uzhunnu vada and all the seafood and vegetable dishes. But do go and have a dosa.
49 Grosvenor Road , Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 2AY | 01892 616742