Kerala’s Newest Art Café in Kochi has a 300-Year-Old Story to Tell

Photo of Aditi Mukherjee
10 November 2017

The port-city of Kochi (Cochin) is filled with many Dutch and Portuguese buildings to remind us of their invasion and settlement. The centuries old, important spice trading city has a long list of hangout joints, but a new café in the Jew Town area has created quite a buzz, not just for the food it offers, but for the heartwarming memories it holds. Mocha Art Café in Kochi has a 300-year-old story to tell.

As you walk past the attention seeking vendors trying to lure you into their shops on Synagogue Lane in Mattancherry, Kochi you get a clear view of the Jewish Synagogue, one that’s not only the oldest in India, but among all the 52 Commonwealth nations. The Synagogue is hardly functional today, but in its hay-day the Rabbis working in the Jewish house of worship used to live in a Dutch building right next door. In about 1915 the building was bought by a spice trader named Abdul Karim Mohammad who turned it into a warehouse as his business grew.

The Jewish Synagogue popularly known as ‘paradesi synagogue’ in Kochi | © Aditi Mukherjee
A view of the Synagogue Lane flanked by shops on both sides | © Aditi Mukherjee

Forward this story on to 2017. Abdul Karim Mohammad’s grandson, Mr. Junaid Sulaiman, a self-made businessman himself and lawyer by qualification, finally paid heed to a friend’s suggestion about turning the warehouse into a café. It had been disused for years and Junaid had not thought anything of the building before. But, with well-established businesses running smooth, Junaid’s search for something exciting began his pursuit to make a café where people could relax and enjoy their time. Thus, he began restoring the 300-year-old structure bit by bit.

Junaid Sulaiman is passionate about the cafe he has painstakingly built | © Mohit Modi

One of the first decisions was to preserve the structure’s original form. The long Dutch style windows with seats emerging from the lower end of the wooden frame remain just as they used to be. Red oxide floors and wood carved pillars give glimpses of the original structure. Untouched brick walls also add quite a rustic charm to the décor. Junaid wanted to incorporate plants in the interior design and placed about 2000 of them in an impressive vertical garden that thrive in the sunlight that pours in through the part-transparent roof. A passion-driven man, Junaid meticulously explains how he assembled all the lights and fittings himself. “I got these lamp shades from Rajasthan,” he says, pointing to the light installation fitted in the ceiling. A wheat grounding mill gave him the idea to suspend lights over tables with lever and rope.

The Dutch style windows in full glory | © Mohit Modi
Red oxide floors and the vertical garden in a beautiful contrast | © Mohit Modi

The café’s walls are an exhibit space for renowned young painter Sara Hussain. Her paintings are displayed throughout the place. The café is quite big even though Junaid has only used half the warehouse so far. Mocha Art Café offers a variety of cuisine and the main chef is a 55-year-old woman called Laila Mani who knows more about European cuisine and food presentation than anyone in Kochi. Her delicious handmade chocolate sauce generously poured over the freshly baked chocolate cake is all the proof you’ll need. Junaid made sure there is something for anyone who comes in – a sole traveler looking for a place to read with a cup of coffee or a family looking for a hearty meal.

Sara Hussain’s art is displayed throughout the cafe | © Mohit Modi
55-year-old Laila Mani in full swing in Mocha At Cafe’s kitchen | © Mohit Modi

The cafe offers a ‘staff lunch’, a plate of several dishes and rice that is typically Kerala food. The spices are not dimmed even a bit to suit the foreign palette, so sample it at your own risk. The best part about Mocha Art Café, though, is the warmth you receive from Junaid. An enthusiastic and curious man, he loves listening to stories and is always ready to share some fascinating tales from his life if you’re interested.

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