(or, Fishing for Mallu Food at I. N. A. Market)
Vinayan and I have come a long way. About a decade ago, when our department acquired its first few computers and pretended to call the room they were dumped in a “lab”, I was an eager little graduate student there. I would go to him for assistance, entering his room with a hesitant “Sir?”. A friendly smile would instantly wreath Vinayan’s face, and soon I was saying the “Sir” without really meaning it. Now I teach students in the same computer lab, and Vinayan always meets me with a “Good Morning, Sir!”. But I’m happy in the knowledge that he too, never means the “Sir”.
Over the years, we’ve acquired many grey hairs, been through much sadness and joy, but with one thing or another, we’d never ended up going out together for a meal. That lacuna had been bothering me lately, so last week I used the pretext of this blog to ask Vinayan if he’d take me to a good mallu place in town.
In no time, a plan had formed to go to one of his favourite haunts, a joint in the I.N.A. market near AIIMS. Post demolitions, this is one of only three mallu restaurants that survive in that market. The first and biggest one, something on the lines of Malabar Food Plaza, seemed a little deserted — always a bad sign. Another one, a little stall on the side of the Plaza apparently dishes out a mean Crab Fry. Unfortunately, the place hadn’t yet got into gear when we arrived at about 7:15pm, so we passed on to the third — and Vinayan’s favourite — restaurant.
This one, which deigns to post a signboard only in Malayam, is called Kerala Hotel. For those Malayalam-handicapped like me, it is worth noting that it is located behind the Malabar Food Plaza, and next to the large English-marked Krishna Bag Depot. As you enter the shop, you would be excused for believing that the two tables in front of you are all that it has. But look carefully, and an opening towards the side leads into a cavernous room, with another dozen or so tables laid out, choc-a-bloc with Mallus of all descriptions gorging on their daily appam.
Thankfully, the menus posted on the walls are in English — though predictably, the beef dishes are jotted down only in Malayalam, to keep the more barbarous North Indian feathers unruffled. Of course, given Delhi’s laws, we can safely assume that the “beef” is in fact buffalo meat. Vinayan and I decided to order a beef fry, kari-meen fry and ayla. Kari-meen (literally, “black fish”) is Pearl Spot, a popular delicacy in Kerala. I imagine what arrived on our plate suffered from Delhi’s distance from the sea, because while the spices were good, the fish itself was not as soft as one would expect. The beef was tasty, though a little chewy. Of the three, it was the ayla which took the honours. Ayla is simply the Malayalam word for mackerel, and it was served to us in crumbly morsels lightly fried with pieces of garlic. These we had with several servings of appam and porotta (the latter being the mallu take on paranthas). Both were excellent, and once we were finished with the dishes we were still ordering more of the porottas to help mop up the complimentary bowls of fish curry.
But we were not done yet. Oh no, sir!
The next course was mutton biriyani (sic). Vinayan tells me the mallu style of preparing biryani is quite different from what we’re used to. Essentially, the meat with its curry is prepared entirely separately from the rice. At the time of serving, the meat curry is ladled onto the plate first, and then the rice is piled on top of it. This leaves their mixing to the consumer, according to his own taste. And of course, the curry itself is very different, with ample use of black peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, kari patta, and a sweet tinge imparted by the presence of cashews both solid and in the paste.
The mutton biriyani turned out to be the best dish we had that evening. Snooty Hyderabadis might scoff at the idea of calling such a preparation a biryani in the first place, but I have no cause to quibble — call it by any name, it’s still delicious!
There’s one other item on the menu that Vinayan tells me is delectable. This is kappa, i.e. tapioca, which is largely absent in North Indian food, but has been a staple in Malayali diet. Though it is a dish unto itself, the restaurant also serves kappa biriyani for the vegetarians who stumble into their den. Both dishes had run out by the time we went to the restaurant, so this one will have to wait until next time.
Meanwhile, we were quite pleased with our day’s work — for just about Rs. 200, we’d partaken of a whole lot of good food, drink and conversation. You might even call it a “sir-fete”!