Photo courtesy: Altaf Hussain

Altaf Hussain: The Man Who Put Kodai on the Hummus Trail

‘The Israelis may not come this year, but they will definitely be back once the rules relax,’ says Altaf Hussain, hopefully. 

Altaf’s Cafe is the go-to destination for any foodie in Vattakanal, the quiet hamlet seven kilometres from Kodai’s town centre. Its owner, whom everyone calls by his first name, is always ready with a friendly smile, and the casual atmosphere of his restaurant creates a space for people from every walk of life. 

A young Altaf
A young Altaf (Photo courtesy: Altaf Hussain)

In 2004, a young Altaf travelled with the first group of Israeli backpackers to visit Kodaikanal, a journey that would lead to the hill station’s inclusion in the route popularly referred to as the ‘Hummus Trail’ (after the Middle Eastern dish made with chickpeas). The path also covers Goa, Hampi, Gokarna, Rishikesh, Varanasi, Pushkar, Almora, Kasol and, more recently, the Andaman Islands. India is a central feature on the travel map of Israeli backpackers, most of whom visit to unwind after completing mandatory military training for two to three years. 

Altaf was in his early 20s when he mastered the skill of preparing falafel rolls while working at an Israeli restaurant in Goa. He was born and raised in a village on the hills of Karnataka’s Shimoga district. No longer interested in school, he left home at the age of 11 for Mumbai, to explore the city in the mid-1990s. Toiling tirelessly for meagre wages from 5 am to 11 pm, Altaf cleaned and waited tables at restaurants. When the Konkan Railway started plying between Mumbai and Goa, he sold tea to passengers for a commission. 

After five years of working on the train, he moved to Goa to work at Nafiz, an eatery run by an Israeli. This is where he got his first taste of traditional Middle Eastern and Israeli food. ‘No Indian food was available there. All the staff members were served only Israeli food. I acquired a taste for Mediterranean cuisine then,’ says Altaf. He started helping out in the kitchen and learnt to prepare hummus, falafel and pita bread—his favourite. When the restaurant was short-staffed, he would pitch in to help, and his dishes were so liked by the Israeli staff and customers that he soon became a chef. 

Hummus at Altaf's Cafe
Hummus, one of the big draws at Altaf’s Cafe (Photo courtesy: Altaf Hussain)

Around this time, Altaf befriended a group of backpackers the same age as him. He would often travel by train with them to Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, setting up makeshift stalls there to prepare and sell falafel rolls (mainly for the Israelis). 

When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck the coastline, the families of these backpackers urged them to move from Goa, Gokarna and Hampi to the mountains for safety. So Altaf led a large group of them to Ooty. Generally, Israeli backpackers travel in groups of 15 to 20 and look for pocket-friendly places to stay for a month or two. It was hard to find accommodation—either there were not enough rooms for the whole group or the tariff was beyond their budget. Following the advice of a stranger there, they made their way to Kodaikanal instead. 

Altaf and friends
Altaf (pictured left) with friends
(Photo courtesy: Altaf Hussain)

Initially, even the guesthouses they rented along Observatory Road were too expensive. Billy, a German living in Vattakanal at the time, told the group about the area when they met at Pastry Corner. When the backpackers reached Vattakanal, there were only two tea shops. ‘We stayed in the house of a tea stall owner, Arasi, who had other rooms nearby to let out,’ says Altaf. There were only ten rooms available. However, the splendid view of the hills and low cost made up for other minor inconveniences. ‘I was surprised that such a place existed in south India. I had been to the Himalayas before, and Vattakanal reminded me of those mountains. Moreover, the sun rises earlier here than in Kodaikanal, so early mornings are not as cold as in town.’ The group found the spot convenient for a relaxing break.

 When the Israelis left for the next stops on the Hummus Trail, [Altaf] moved with them to Rishikesh and then to Gokarna, setting up his counter along the way

Word spread, and the next year more Israeli travellers arrived in Vattakanal. Far flung from the main town, the area offered privacy and freedom, with no internet connectivity or maddening crowds of tourists. For the next few years, from November to March, Altaf would set up a falafel sandwich counter for the backpackers, offering them a taste of home. When the Israelis left for the next stops on the Hummus Trail, he moved with them to Rishikesh and then to Gokarna, setting up his counter along the way. ‘Till 2010, I was dependent upon Israeli tourists for my business in Kodaikanal.’ He decided to settle down in Vattakanal, first opening a falafel counter, which would later become a restaurant, on 30 October 2011.

Patrons enjoying the good old days at Altaf’s (Photo courtesy: Altaf Hussain)

At first, because the Israelis were the main visitors to Vattakanal, business was slow once they left town. Then Indian tourists started trickling in. A few of them had already tasted Middle Eastern cuisine while visiting or living in Arab countries such as Dubai. For them, Altaf’s crunchy falafels and creamy hummus brought back those memories. Through word of mouth and online reviews, more customers started visiting the café. ‘Today almost 95 percent of my customers are Indian,’ says Altaf.

Everyone loves a morning at Altaf’s (Photo courtesy: Altaf Hussain)

The business was initially set up to cater to the Israelis. Even the menu had Hebrew on one side and English on the other. Altaf was also able to speak basic Hebrew. ‘I have lost touch with the language now, as my Israeli friends have dwindled over the years. Earlier, fewer of them spoke English. Now the crowd is younger than me and can speak English. So interacting with them in Hebrew has reduced.’ Making changes to the Hebrew menu was a challenge—during printing, mistakes frequently occurred—so he now uses only English. And, starting next year, he plans to serve seafood.

Serving foreign cuisine in a remote location among the hills has its challenges. Although most of the ingredients are available locally, Altaf sources some, such as pasta and Nutella, from a Bangalore-based wholesale dealer who imports them. ‘Usually I make tahini [a sesame paste] myself. Sometimes I buy it from Bangalore.’ He does not add garlic to his hummus, out of respect for his Jain customers.

Altaf’s Cafe in pre-pandemic days (Photo courtesy: Altaf Hussain)

The café was closed for seven months from March to September 2020. When it reopened, it drew a good crowd, mainly local. Then the tourists started coming in. However, Altaf had to downsize his team from 11 people to six due to the lost business from the lockdown. 

After a second two-month lockdown, during which Altaf had the café spruced up, the restaurant is open for outdoor seating and delivery. He has seen Vattakanal’s rapid growth from a small seasonal hamlet to a bustling area that is open throughout the year. ‘The locals living here are like family to me,’ he says. ‘It is everyone’s hard work that has made Vattakanal what it is today.’

Reena Raghavamoorthy

Reena Raghavamoorthy completed her post-graduate degree in media and communication. She has worked for B2B publications in Dubai, and currently works for The Potter's Shed in Kodaikanal. She lives in Attuvampatti.

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