Naadan food is like a well loved memory for Chef Monian as he recreates nostalgic traditional flavours

Crisp stir-fired kallumekkai with mathi chuttathu and juicy njandu roast…it is a treat aboard the Malabar Travancore Express, the naadan food festival at Rasaleela (Renai Cochin) during weekends in November.

At the entrance to the restaurant there is a mock, kitsch thattukada complete with film posters and manned by bearers in check lungis and vests. The glass shelves have eats such as kumbilappam, ada and pazham nirachathu.

Biju Monian, executive chef, says it is part of creating an ambience. He guides us through the food festival. There are five categories plus an ‘extra’. The ‘shaap curry’ set is an extremely popular segment with combinations – kappa (tapioca) and puzhameen (freshwater fish) curry, idiyappam (stringhoppers) and nattu kozhy kurma (chicken curry), kallappam with irachi stew, kappa biriyani, appam with tharavu (duck) pappas and puttu with mutton potty are some of the combos.

Kayalum Kadalum (theeyil chuttathu – charcoal grilled) boasts of a variety of fish – freshwater and sea. You can choose your fish. There is karimeen (pearlspot), koonthal (squid), chaala or mathi (sardines), ayela (mackerel), konju (prawn) and avoli (pomfret). Malayali special has kallumekkai (mussels), chemmeen (prawn), njandu (crab) and kozhuva (anchovy).

Pachacurry Koottan has vegetarian fare such as cheera kootu, chakkakuru manga curry (a mango preparation), kadachakka varutharachathu, kachil puzhukku and many more. Madhura Palaharangal has sweets – kumbilappam, ela ada, undaputtu and pazham nirachathu.

Variety of food

The starters whet the appetite for more which is when idiyappam and nattu kozhy kurma and appam with tharavu pappas arrive. There is mappas and there is pappas. Mappas, chef Monian educates, tends to be seafood and pappas for meat.

“We have not used readymade spices, just whole spices which have been freshly roasted and ground. In fact we have used green pepper in the pappas which adds an extra punch to the dish,” he says.

The idiyappam and chicken kurma make a finger-licking-asking-for-more combination. Ditto appam and tharavu pappas. The mild sweetness of the appam offsets the flavour of the tharavu pappas’. The chicken is not broiler, the chef clarifies. And the mussels (kallumekkai) are brought in from Kozhikode. “The response was unprecedented. So we had to get more in the initial days of the festival,” says Achuthan Menon, general manager.

The familiarity of naadan food is comforting. Its flavours are like a well-loved memory, it’s like going home. For Monian it was easy. He just reminisced what his mother cooked when he was a kid in Kuttanad. “It wasn’t measured in grams and ounces. It was a dash of this, a pinch of that, a fistful of the other….and a delicious dish would be ready.”

Pachacurry Koottan is for the vegetarians and those craving naadan, not-usually-found vegetarian dishes. But clearly the stars are the non-vegetarian dishes. If you opt for something besides the shaap curry set you can team it with appam, erachi puttu, meen peeraputtu , cheeraputtu, idiyappam and Malabari mutton biriyani.

You can wrap up the proceedings with typical Kerala sweets from the Madhura Palaharangal section. That is not all, as you leave you get crisp, yellow jalebis as takeaway. The timings are from 7 p.m. onwards. The festival is a-la carte.