A revolution knocks on the door – and it comes with a fork and knife. The world of food is more exciting than ever before. New restaurants are coming up offering novel cuisines or digging out old ones. Chefs are looking at unusual ingredients and dramatic ways of presenting food. Meanwhile, some wizened old experts continue to wield magic with their skewers and ladles in remote parts of the city. There is a world waiting to be discovered or re-embraced– new cooking styles, world food, sub-regional cuisine and tiny holes in the wall which produce the most delightful dishes. Here’s a guided tour.
I was invited to a sadya, as special Kerala meals are called, at a friend’s house some months ago -– and what a feast it was. Every time I think of the 19-course meal that I had, my mouth starts to water.
We ate on the floor, seated on rugs and sheets that had been folded up horizontally. On banana leaves placed in front us were a few thick vegetable dishes, papadam, pickles and a small banana. The rice came once we were seated, and then followed, one by one, a host of vegetable and lentil curries. The payasam – thickened and sweetened milk – came last. But the banana was what we ended the meal with.
The elaborate meal marked the festival of Onam. And I am reminded of it because Kerala’s Vishu festival is just round the corner. Vishu, on April 14, is also a day for feasting, though it may not be as elaborate as the Onam fare.
This is the time when people across the country mark their traditional New Year. If it is Vishu in Kerala, there is Bihu in Assam, Baisakhi in the north and Poila Boisakh in Bengal. And each of the festivals is marked with a feast.
I am fond of Kerala food, so I am looking forward to a happy Vishu meal. And what’s great is the fact that it is no longer difficult to find good Kerala food in Delhi restaurants.
There was a time when little was known of Kerala cuisine in the north. One of the first eateries that gave Dilliwallahs a taste of Kerala food – way back in the sixties -- was an eatery called NavKerala in Connaught Place. In the seventies and eighties, we had our fill of mutton fry in a tiny restaurant called Sreedharan’s in Gole Market. Then came the upmarket Coconut Grove, which introduced people outside Kerala to dishes such as aviyal and thoran, to say nothing of meen pappas and chicken stew with appam. Other Kerala restaurants emerged, but most of them closed with time.
In recent years, however, a few restaurants have been celebrating the multicultural cuisine of Kerala. One such restaurant, called Mahabelly, is run by three young men, Prem Kiran, Thomas Fenn and Zachariah Jacob. The restaurant serves all streams of Kerala cuisine – from Syrian Christian and Moplah food to traditional Nair fare and coastal cuisine.
The last time I was there, I tried out their aviyal in anticipation of Vishu, where the food served (in most houses) is vegetarian. Aviyal is a delightful mix of vegetables cooked in coconut milk.
The restaurant shared its Aviyal recipe with us, but you could also try out their pazha manga curry or ripe mango curry. For this, simmer peeled ripe mangoes in a heavy bottomed pot in thin coconut milk, with sliced shallots, some slit green chillies, chopped ginger, ground cumin seeds and salt. After 10 minutes or so, add some thick coconut milk to it. Remove from heat and set aside. In coconut oil, splutter mustard seeds and then add curry leaves and red chillies. Pour this over the mango curry and serve warm.
I love the non-vegetarian fare of Kerala, too. The traditional Vishu fare may be all vegetarian, but I salivate at the thought of digging into some Moplah biryani, mutton varathathu (spicy mutton), shaapu meen curry (red hot fish curry) and prawn mango curry.
To each his own, I say. Let the year open on a happy note – with some good food.
(Rahul Verma has been writing on food for over 25 years now. And, after all these years, he has come to the conclusion that the more he writes, the more there is left to be written)
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