Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A whiff of Malabar magic

In a moment of epiphany, I realized that every time I dined at Ente Keralam, a Kerala specialty restaurant, it always rained. Or, maybe I always went there during the monsoons. But, in the midst of an extremely hot and humid summer, the sun was blinding as I made my way into the cosy interiors of this restaurant.

The aroma of the sea was unmistakable, tinged with hints of coconut oil, as we entered Ente Keralam’s newest branch in Anna Nagar. The creamy walls adorned by antique artifacts transported us into God’s own country. Each table had a miniature Chinese fishing net, a symbol of traditional Kerala. Chef Babu Abdullah joined us as we admired the décor and regaled us with tales from the magical coasts of Malabar.

The welcome drink, tender coconut water with a liberal dose of mint was refreshing and as we waited for our orders, we munched on the chips, both sweet and salted, as conversation flowed seamlessly. The starters arrived in style, with the traditional vazhaipoo cutlet, steaming hot, crispy and spicy, leading the pack. Shaped as hearts, it was a perfect start to our meal, with its unique combination of spices and a hint of fennel. The Trivandrum chicken, deep brown and crunchy, bears the unmistakable traces of coconut oil which makes its presence felt on the palate with the subtle spices leaving a pleasant after taste. However, it was the karimeen pollichathu, where (as the pamphlet informed us) the fish is cooked in a shallow earthen pot rather than conventional cooking utensils to give an authentic taste, which captured our imagination. The sweet and sour tempering tickled the taste buds while the subtle flavor of the fish was still preserved. If there was ever a question of the best fish in the city, this would be it.

Chef Babu makes an occasional stop at our table, expending interesting trivia about the different preparations. We were enthralled when he explained that most of the recipes used in the restaurant were traditional household secrets, passed over from one generation to another over hundreds of years. It was a legacy and the unique flavors bore testimony to the fact. A special feature, indeed.

Kerala cuisine is incomplete without the quintessential appam, a specialty of the region. Fluffy in the center and crispy at the edges, it was perfection on a plate. Tucking into the heavenly vegetable stew, with coconut milk as the central ingredient with a mélange of vegetables and yet surprisingly light, we listened in polite attention as Chef Babu enumerated the myriad difficulties of sourcing authentic and fresh ingredients. The naadan chicken curry, a Syrian Christian special, was a typical affair with pieces of chicken and chunks of potato in delicious gravy. However, the traditional ullitheeyal, a tangy preparation with tamarind and mustard is a different experience altogether, taking our culinary expedition to the next level.

A vital element of any Indian cuisine, the omnipresent biryani has been tweaked according to the geography, with a hint of the region’s special touch. Be it the Hyderabadi dum biryani or the more peppery Dindigul biryani, it has managed to be unique yet absorb diverse flavors of each region. The Thalassery biryani is a representation of Kerala’s Moplah population. Mildly tempered and beautifully layered, this version of biryani uses a special type of rice called Kayama rice, which Chef Babu ensures us, is imported from Calicut. The Thalassery chicken biryani was subtle with the ginger and garlic flavors predominant, a far cry from its spicy counterparts. The biryani is served with sweet and sour date pickle and coconut chutney with vinegar to sharpen the palate and experience the mild flavors.

The dessert spread was a lavish affair with palada payasam, a rice preparation with milk and sugar enveloping us in a sugary high while the adapradhaman goes the quiet route with jaggery and coconut providing a distinct experience. But, the highlight of the meal was the tender coconut ice cream which was simply out of this world. No sweet attack or quirky frills – just good ol’ tender coconut and simply ethereal.

Chef Babu paints a vivid picture of Kerala and its culture, both gastronomic and otherwise. He enquired if we had ever been to God’s own country. When I shook my head in the negative, he just said, “You should!” And, for the moment, it was a (culinary) trip to Kerala and back, in all authenticity.

After such an elaborate meal, the Suleiman Tea is just what the doctor ordered. A black tea with a bevy of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, dried ginger, peppercorn, cloves, sugar syrup, mint leaf and lime juice, it left us with a warm glow. Purring contentedly, we stared out of the window. And lo, the sky was overcast, with clouds of deep gray enveloping the horizon. As we stepped out, we felt the first drops of a gentle summer drizzle.

And, it rained again.

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