Ooru, a recently opened tribal restaurant, brings to the table tasty, interesting and curious fare of the Kurumar tribe of Wayanad

The décor is charming, the menu, intriguing and the prices, unbelievably nominal. A lot of thought has gone into the setting up of ‘Ooru’, a ‘tribal restaurant’ that was recently opened at the Kochin Food Mall.

A white board displays the day’s specials—Gandhakasala Ghee Rice, Mulamkutty Puttu, Kaattu Curry, Then Nellikka, Ragi Pakkavada, Kattu Soup …. Not likely to ring a bell unless you are a tribal food aficionado. The fare served is distinctly tribal, gleaned from the cuisine of the Kurumar tribe in Wayanad.

The restaurant was started by two 24-year-old engineers, Vishnu Venugopal and Samu Saseendran, who decided to do something more with their lives than just work with machines. “We started it on an experimental basis,” says Samu. “But in less than two weeks, the response we have got is fascinating. The specialty of the cuisine spread and we are surprised at the interest people have in tribal food.”

Vishnu hails from Wayanad and Samu from Cherthala. Wayanad was a constant source of inspiration for them. Once when they got together, the two friends happened to interact with a few members of the Kurumar tribe in Ambalavayal in interior Sultan Bathery. “We were fascinated by their way of life and how they stick to their roots,” says Samu. The idea to do something different soon became a dream of starting a restaurant. “We decided to introduce tribal food to the mainstream,” he adds.

Truly tribal

In that sense, Ooru brings the true tribal fare to the urban plate, uncorrupted and fresh. The food is not refrigerated and is cooked only after the order is placed. The restaurant has employed cooks Subramanian, Babu and Ranju, who belong to the Kurumar tribe. “They are a very close-knit group, extremely attached to their families. Initially, it was difficult to convince them to shift to a city. They were apprehensive mainly because they are not used to cooking on the stove. But, now they have mastered it,” says Samu. Vellan, who has popularised Wayanad’s tribal food through food melas throughout the State, is the chief chef.

Some of the specialities—‘Ooru puzhukku’, ‘Kattukaapi’ (coffee infused with herbs), ‘Karakondappam’ (a type of unniappam) and ‘Kattusoup’—have immense medicinal properties.

The ‘Kattusoup’, is made of diluted raw mango pulp blended with spices. Most of the ingredients are sourced from Wayanad. Only chicken, fish and tapioca are procured from Ernakulam. Ragi is a common factor in the tribal kitchen. Ragi puttu, ragi pakkavada and even ragi chicken fry are on the menu. The rice served at Ooru is the authentic Gandhakasala rice cultivated in Wayanad. Payasam made of ‘mulayari’ is a must try. It has no white sugar (only jaggery is used), hence, a perfect sweet solution for the calorie conscious.

Vishnu and Samu spent six to eight months with the Kurumars studying their culture and food habits. The name for the restaurant itself was taken from the traditional tribal ooru, which means a small community within the same tribe. One ooru would have about five to eight families with one head man (called the moopan). Each ooru has its own traditions, songs, foods and customs.

Simple yet tasty

Something as simple as the ‘kanji payar’ gets a whole new twist with a drop of ghee that is added. The upma is made of ‘chama’ rice, which has almost retreated from city cuisines. Dessert has a lip-smacking variety of payasams made of yam and pumpkin and rice. The ‘then nellikka’ (gooseberries in honey), is sure to be a culinary revelation for city folks. Small gooseberry preserved in ‘cheru then’ (honey) for about eight months, is a favourite tidbit in tribal homes.

The dishes are priced at Rs 20 to Rs 350.

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