Monday, July 20, 2009

Getting My Keralan Fix in London

I got my Keralan fix in London--meals at three different Keralan restaurants. As I've mentioned before, Kerala is my favorite part of India, Keralan is possibly my favorite Indian regional cuisine, and the only Keralan restaurant in the New York area isn't very good. But London has Keralan choices in all price ranges, in the center and in far-flung neighborhoods. In fact, it was Keralan food that brought me to parts of London I'd otherwise never have visited. My going to Stoke Newington and East Ham would be like a Londoner in New York for a week heading out to Flushing or Sunset Park.

I'd eaten Keralan food in London before, about ten or so years ago, at Malabar Junction, near the British Museum. While it was good, it wouldn't be one's first choice for Keralan in London, unless you were looking for a place near the museum.

Keralan food has gained a much higher profile in London in recent years since the advent of cookbook-writing Das Sreedharan's Rasa chain, which includes a seafood restaurant, a black pepper-themed restaurant, and a restaurant serving the Syrian-Christian specialties of Kerala. But the original, all-vegetarian Rasa in Stoke Newington has the best reputation of the group, so I decided to eat at that one. Stoke Newington, in North London, is a pleasant multi-ethnic residential neighborhood. Actually, I don't think it has an especially large Indian or Pakistani population; you're more likely to see Turks or Satmar Hasidim.

At Rasa I ordered the Kerala feast, an enormous multi-course meal that goes for 16 pounds. First I was brought out a basket of crisps and an array of chutneys and pickles. I made sure not to eat it all, since I knew it was only the tip of the iceberg, but I'd say that the amazingly diverse and complex flavors of those condiments may have been the highlight of the meal.

Achappam
A flower shaped snack made of rice flour and coconut, black sesame seeds and cumin seeds. This snack began life in the Christian homes of Travancore and is now eaten all over Southern India.

Pappadavadai
Pappadoms dipped in a light batter of rice flour, cumin and sesame seeds and fried to give them extra “crunch and crackle” - these are Pappadoms with a difference.

Pappadoms
Plain crispy snack made of black gram lentils and rice.

Banana Chips
Crispy banana chips

Murukku
Crunchy sticks made from roasted rice flour, black sesame seeds and cumin seeds.


That was followed by a plate of three different kinds of fritter (eggplant kathrikka, potato bonda and banana boli) served with a tomato-coconut chutney. They were all good of their kind, though I don't get especially excited by fried Indian appetizers.

I was then served two main courses, a mixed vegetable curry (rasa kayi) and an eggplant dish in a yogurt sauce (which I found too rich), a shredded Savoy cabbage "thoran," tomato rice (a rather tame, and not very memorable version), and a Keralan paratha, which is more like a flaky, multilayer Malaysian pancake than the North Indian flatbread of the same name.

Dessert was an excellent payasam, a warm vermicelli milk pudding.

The Keralan feast is an excellent deal at about half of what you'd pay for all that food a la carte, and it was certainly enough for two people (though the 16 pounds is a per-person charge, and I'm sure they'd frown on two trying to eat as cheaply as one). As far as the quality of the food is concerned, it was a mixed bag. Outside of the condiments, nothing really blew me away, though the rasa kayi was quite nice. Part of the problem was that some of the items that came with the meal were just not to my taste. I think you can make requests with the feast, but I put myself in the hands of the chef.

While Stoke Newington may not be an especially Indian neighborhood, East Ham most definitely is. The neighborhood is in the eastern part of the city (as is West Ham), considerably east of the East End (which is just east of the City of London). East Ham is a South Indian enclave, and the array of restaurants out there made me want to extend my trip by at least a week. There are a number of Tamil Sri Lankan, Tamil vegetarian, Chettinad (a Tamil non-vegetarian cuisine), Hyderabadi and Keralan restaurants in East Ham. I went for lunch at Thattukada, a small, simple restaurant that many (including my waiter at Rasa) consider to have the best Keralan food in London. Since I was on my own and wanted variety, I decided to go with the lunch special, the Keralan "meal." In South India, "meals" restaurants charge a fixed fee for all you can eat of a number of dishes, breads and rice, usually served on a banana leaf. This meal wasn't all you can eat, but it was all I could eat, and it was amazingly cheap (3 pounds 80). A meal is more informal than a thali, but the concept is similar. I ordered the fish curry meal. I got an enormous plate of rice with a pappadam, little bowls of fish curry, warm raita and dal, and a plate of side vegetables. The curry was excellent, with a robust flavor that brought my taste buds back to Kerala. It should be noted that South Indian curries are very different from North Indian ones. In South India, a curry denotes a dish made with fresh herbs and spices rather than a ground spice mixture (those dishes are called masalas in the south). Keralan curries tend to be tomato and onion-based.

The plate of vegetables included a mixed-vegetable curry similar to the one at Rasa (and just as good), some black-eyed peas, pickle, and most interesting of all a delicious mashed cassava dish I'd never seen before.

The meal at Rasa was good, the one at Thattukada was very good, but my meal at Quilon was one for the ages.

Quilon is a high-end Indian restaurant run by the Taj Group, the Indian luxury hotel chain, specializing in traditional and inventive Keralan cuisine. It's named for a town in Kerala that actually has little reason to recommend it except as a jumping off point for a backwater boat trip to Alleppy. But the restaurant named Quilon has plenty to recommend; my lunch there was easily in the top five Indian meals I've ever experienced.

By Buckingham Gate, in the heart of royal London, Quilon is a wallet buster for dinner, but one can eat like a king for 22 (it just went up from 20) pounds at their fixed-price lunch. Not cheap, at roughly $35 at the current exchange rate, but well worth it, and a real deal by London standards.

I had the "Catamaran lunch (non-vegetarian £2.75 supplement): a combination of traditional vegetarian/non-vegetarian delicacies, a menu which includes fish and chicken, two vegetables, sambhar, served with rice, appams and parathas." They didn't charge me the supplement, perhaps because I was talking about Kerala with the staff, perhaps because I was taking pictures and looked like a potential reviewer, or perhaps because they forgot.

The meal opened with some pappadams (which are somewhat lighter than the flat northern ones, and without the addition of black pepper or cumin), punctuated by crispy lotus stems and accompanied by coconut and tomato chutneys, along with a rasam (a spicy coriander-scented broth) served warm in a wine glass. The sipping rasam was an interesting touch, and it was absolutely delicious, spicy and complex, reminding me of a Virgin Mary worthy of veneration.


The paratha was perfectly flaky and chewy, and not at all greasy, much better than the one at Rasa. The appam (not shown), a bowl-shaped rice-flour pancake also known as a hopper, was amazingly light, like angel's food; it was made by a woman at an appam station in the center of the room. The fish on banana leaf was topped with a moderately spicy, thick, tangy tomato-based sauce. I believe the chicken dish is the one described on the menu as Goan chicken, as it had a resemblance to vindaloo. The vegetable dishes were an avial (mixed vegetables in a yogurt-coconut sauce), perhaps the most famous Keralan vegetable dish; a thoran (another famous Keralan dish, served dry with shredded or chopped vegetables and coconut) made with tindori, a kind of baby cucumber; and a sambar (a spicy lentil soup/sauce with a touch of tamarind). All of the vegetable dishes were exquisite, and the tart lemon rice was a wonderful accompaniment. The slightly sweet, fruity raita was icing on the cake, but it wasn't dessert.

I'm glad as hell I took the waiter's recommendation for dessert. It may have been Goan instead of Keralan, but who am I to demand regional purity?

Here's the restaurant's description:

Bibinca and Dodhol

Bibinca and Dodhol are desserts which are Portuguese in origin and are very popular in Goa. Bibinca is made out of coconut cream, egg yolk, nutmeg, flour and sugar. It is prepared with a special cooking technique – baking one layer at a time, whilst applying a little butter and pouring the ingredients. It is cooked twice. Bibinca has around 5-6 layers. At Quilon, we make it more interesting by adding chocolate sauce in the layers.

Dodhol is a pudding made with palm jaggery, cashewnuts, rice flour and butter. The palm jaggery gives the dish a caramelised nutty flavour and is imported by Quilon from India. Bibinca and dodhol is served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

As good as that sounds, it was even better than that, and the homemade ice cream was fantastic, as was the rich South Indian coffee (also included in the lunch), served brewed with milk, but with sugar on the side, I'm happy to say (in India the sugar--and plenty of it--is usually already mixed in).


I went to Quilon on my second day in London, and every day I was tempted to go back for lunch, but as the saying goes, so many restaurants, so little time.

5 Comments:

Anonymous eric werner said...

That last meal looks amazing! I'm going to London in October and can't wait to try some great Keralan food.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Kate said...

What a wonderful trio! You've certainly inspired me to push Quilon and Thattukada up the 'To Do' list. The thali at the former looks excellent!

3:59 AM  
Blogger Ashvin said...

Hi Peter, I was searching for some recommendations for a British friend in London who misses Kerala food and came across your wonderful blog. Shall send him the link and also pass on your feedback to the owners of Malabar Junction (who we know).

Quilon (or Kollam which is the original name) is a small dusty, dirty little Indian town but once it had a glorious past, being one of the oldest ports on the Malabar coast with trade links going back to the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese (in fact a month or so back while dredging works were going on offshore, a huew quantity of Chinese artefacts and coins were found). Kollam also finds mention in Sir John Mandeville's Travels (first circulated between 1357 and 1371 C.E.) as Palombe, renowned for its Fountain of Youth !
Regards, Ashvin Kumar (ashvinkum@gmail.com)

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For home cooked kerala food at good prices and where u see majority of keralan people is in east ham. There are few small restaurants. Cannot say they are fine dining but they are indian style where people go because of good food.

12:31 PM  
Blogger TransformingTasha said...

Maliyalee food abroad... Looks amazingg... Where I am, my only option is to cook. So here I am, with my appum chutty (pot), amachis recipes and home bought ingredients... Will make it a point to try these places when im in London. Thank you

7:38 PM  

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