“On a regular day, the main thoroughfare leading to the Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town, Mattancherry, is abuzz with spice merchants, antique dealers, tastemakers, and tourists scurrying between menorahs, mezuzahs, and other artefacts. Not today. Like many other tourist hotspots in the country, Fort Kochi is in a state of pandemic-induced stupor. At the far end of the Synagogue Lane, the Paradesi Synagogue patiently waits to welcome visitors once again to its altar. A stone’s throw from the synagogue sits a gorgeous, Dutch-style spice warehouse, now restored and transformed into a multi-room art gallery and café. A modest entrance flanked by a creaky flight of stairs belies the magnificence of the 400-year-old structure that once housed the rabbis of the synagogue before spice trade took off in Fort Kochi. Junaid Sulaiman, a third-generation spice trader and art enthusiast, runs Mocha Art Café (mochaartcafe.com) along with Chef Laila Mani. Between answering calls and overseeing restoration work at the café, Sulaiman shows me around the 372-square-metre space, featuring snug Dutch window booths, traditional red-oxide floors, exposed-brick walls, larger-than-life mason jars, antique-teak door frames, see-through roofs, and a memorabilia wall adorned with photographs of many illustrious diners, including Steven Spielberg. “Besides showcasing the works of local artists, we use this place to host storytelling sessions, art gatherings, photo exhibits, and open mic sessions. The most recent one was the International Photo Exhibit (IPE). These experiences are at the heart of Mocha’s young legacy,” Sulaiman elaborates as we stand in the airy gallery that was visited by Pulitzer Prize-winning, Vietnamese-American war photographer Nick Ut, best known for the Napalm Girl. Mocha Art Café is also one of the primary venues for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (kochimuzirisbiennale.org), a highly respected, international, contemporary-art exhibition. The menu here offers scrumptious, local breakfast items, Israeli shakshuka, and other classics.
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