Avial, appam and kadala curry… Kerala’s unique flavours are served in a satisfying way at Ente Keralam
I’d given up on real appams. The ones I grew up on made their appearance at every significant family breakfast. Laced with local toddy for fermentation, and made on cast iron pans, they would arrive at the table: spongy in the middle and crisply golden all around. But who wants to slave over a grinder and hot stove anymore? Kerala restaurants tend to make them in piles, and slap them on the plate when an order comes in. And even in homes these days, they’re pre-ordered from an efficient caterer, or come straight out of a packet.
Not at the newly opened Ente Keralam. It has an appam counter set right in the middle of the restaurant and has even brought in seasoned appam makers, ‘Chechis from Kottayam,’ to ensure authenticity. And that was the first clue. With Ente Keralam, restaurateur M. Mahadevan, the man behind Hot Breads and almost a dozen other city restaurants, is clearly aiming at creating a Kerala restaurant with a difference. For Ente Keralam thrives on the small details, and little luxuries.
Kerala restaurants have always done well in the city. After all, the food manages to be both familiar and faintly exotic at the same time. But in the slapdash of sizzling coconut oil, and hasty handfuls of curry leaves, the food tends to loose its subtle nuances. Not that anyone’s complaining, especially considering how reasonably priced they all are. But, often it’s as close to home food as idly Manchurian is to your mother’s idly-sambar.
Chef Regi Mathew oversees Ente Keralam like a doting uncle. And hailing from Kerala, he’s determined to ensure this restaurant is as authentic as possible. Fortunately for him, he has the luxury to be picky about ingredients and chefs. For, Ente Keralam is a fine-dining restaurant. A fact that is both its biggest advantage and drawback. It can afford to be snooty about ingredients and delve into challenging, meticulous cooking. But half the diners will still drop in and either gasp, “But, I can do this at home” (as no doubt my grandmother will), or sputter, “How in the world can they charge so much for Kerala food?” (As, again, my grandmother will.)
The reasoning is it’s because they take no shortcuts. Chef Regi spent six months on intensive research, chasing recipes, and discovering that the secret to great Kerala food lies not just in the ingredients, but also the technique. So, they brought out the heavy duty machinery: mud pots, stone grinders and the time-honoured cast iron pans for appams.
There is, of course, no perfect recipe. “I was given eight recipes for avial (a vegetable dish) alone,” says Chef Regi, “And you just can’t contradict the housewives. Each feels hers is authentic.” Their solution was to choose three towns famous of each cuisine: Thalassery for Mappila biriyani, Thrissur and Palakkad for vegetarian food and Kottayam for the beef fries and fish curries of the Syrian Christians.
The Kerala meal is overwhelming, in a satisfying kind of way: spicy ginger curry and coconut chutneys, buttermilk, sambar, rasam, a collection of bright vegetables that changes daily and hot payasam. They make a fabulous Malabar prawn, crisp outside and yielding inside. And the deep fried mussels are fearlessly spiced, if not absolutely beach shack-style. Then there are the classics: steamed tapioca, puttu (rice cakes), meen pattichathu (fish cooked in a mud pot with kokum), and kadala curry (black channa).
Some of the items, however, are definitely ambitiously priced. Dessert, for instance, features — to my disbelief — ‘paaniyum pazhavum.’ Now this is a regular, everyday ending to a Kerala meal masquerading as exotica. My grandmother, for instance, pours forest honey or paani (a condensed de-alcoholised syrup of toddy) over a bowl of sliced bananas post-lunch. With Ente Keralam pricing (Rs. 400 per head) this costs Rs. 95. I tell Chef Regi she’ll chase him across the room with her cast iron pan if she sees it, at which he nervously suggests we tell her it’s complimentary if I ever take her there for dinner. Wait till she hears he plans a Ritzy tea kadai next: complete with banana fritters, vadais and glasses of steaming chai.
Ente Keralam is at No 1, Kasturi estate, First Street, Poes Garden. Call 044- 42328585 for details.
The Reluctant Gourmet is no food connoisseur. But she’s learning, (and really working the treadmill). Food and wine snobs won’t find much fancy terminology here. (She can barely pronounce ‘Foie Gras’). But if you simply enjoy food and dining, and all the drama built around both, this weekly column could be your new best friend.