Eating out Zaitoon's Middle Eastern fare is a crowd-pleaser all right, thanks to all the Arabic spices and cooks from Dubai
Houses the colour of rose milk aren't their only legacy. Sure, Kerala's ‘Gulf-money' livened up the State's elegant teak-and-tile architecture with their flashy new houses coloured like sundaes (with a pista room here and a strawberry room there).
However,the diaspora's most enduring contribution didn't arrive sandwiched between Tang packets, Levis and extra shiny gold bangles. As cooks and entrepreneurs returned home, to red-fish curry and spongy toddy-laced appams, they found original ways to display their newly-honed skills. That's how Kerala-Arabic cuisine began. An intelligent combination of fast food and traditional flavours, laced with just enough exotica to keep things interesting.
The chunky Sharjah milkshake, for instance, a combination of ripe bananas, frozen milk, sugar, cardamom and — the surprise element — a generous scoop of Boost. For a change of scenery — and geography — there's the sweet Saudi, blended with dates. Then, of course, the shawarmas, drippy with grilled meat, crisp cucumber and cool lashings of garlicky sauce. Wrapped neatly in warm pita bread.
With it's clever mix of textures, temperatures and flavours it's an ideal street food — quick, cheap, neat. And, unfailingly delicious. Chennai's got a string of Middle-East-meet-Kerala-inspired restaurants, all basic, busy and bustling. Zaitoon, the latest addition to this string, makes a spirited attempt to posh-up the genre. Hence, its glossy interiors, cleverly divided into sections with glass and breathing space marked with gleaming pebbles, which give the illusion of space, even when the restaurant is packed.
Nevertheless, this is the kind of place that draws crowds who talk loudly, laugh raucously and eat wholeheartedly. More efficient than elegant. So, don't bother mincing around or working your British tea party act. Zaitoon wants to be a crowd pleaser; hence its menu resonates with old favourites — from Sichuan to sizzlers. The menu lists everything from Arabic to Mexican, Indian to Chinese with fillets and fries tucked in for good measure.
However, we're focussed on their Arabian food, possibly one of the widest selections in the city. (That said, remember there isn't much competition since most Middle Eastern places are content with interspersing shawarmas and kabsa between puttu and kadla.) Unfortunately, the waiters are exasperatingly obtuse.
Our man clams up like he's a member of the secret service, when we ask for help with deciphering the menu. “So, what's Al-faham dijaj?” we smile. He looks shifty and whispers “Arabic.” “Yes, but what spices?” He wipes his brow and hisses: “Arabic spices.” “What are they?” He rolls his eyes and snaps. “They're Arabic.” We decide to take a scientific approach.
So, I close my eyes and point at random things on the menu. Our meal begins with skilfully barbequed pepper chicken, succulent inside, and perfectly charred outside. It's accompanied by two bowls brimming with that signature garlicky mayonnaise, the Arabic-Malayalee answer to ketchup. Go slow, though, its got artery-clogger written all over. We also try the riyesh, mutton ribs that are voluptuously tangy, if a little tough.
Gnawing ribs, however, seems a little too “Silence of The Lambs” for my taste. So, we switch to the kozhi rubian, basmati rice in various shades of gold, delicately flavoured with saffron. (“And, Arabian spice” our culinary-whiz of a waiter points out.) It's topped by exactly six prawns. None of whom has much of a personality.
Thanks to the random finger pointing, it's accompanied by a dal tadka, which surprisingly turns out to be one of the highlights of the meal. It's a simple amalgamation of distinct flavours, fresh coriander, plump tomatoes and mushy yellow dal. Zaitoon might not get everything right, but it's got a strong backbone, which will see it through. They work with a few cooks from Dubai, ensuring that the Middle Eastern food doesn't drown in desi masala. And, lest we forget, they also have the advantage of their super secret marinade. “Arabic spice, madam. Arabic.”
(Zaitoon is at No 1, Vantage Plaza, L.B. Road, Adyar. Call 24527778 / 79 for details.)