By Anup Kutty
There’s an abundance of religion and politics in Kerala. But neither has invaded the Malayalee palate. In Kerala, you leave your ideologies behind when you dine. Feasts are meant to bring people together. The cuisine — an amalgamation of Indian, Dutch, Arab, Mediterranean and Portuguese influences — is a celebration of diversity and a matter of much pride.
I was born in Kerala and raised in Delhi, visiting the motherland only during vacations. This made me a Madrasi or a Hindikaaran depending on which side of Kerala Express I got off. My mother’s family were Hindus settled in a predominantly Muslim region of Kerala, and that was where I spent my summer holidays. Here beef was as serious a matter as bitter gourd. Some chose to eat it, some didn’t.
Cooking a Syrian Christian-style pothu erachi varratiyathu (popularly known as Kerala spicy beef fry) was an elaborate event at my grandparents’ home. To begin with, the men of the house cooked it. Usually on a Sunday. My uncles worked as a team. The older one would cycle over to the butcher in the morning as the early bird always got the best cut. He’d later head to the toddy shop out in the paddy fields to pack some for his sisters. If the toddy wasn’t fresh, a bottle of brandy would do just fine. Meanwhile, his brother would be in the kitchen chopping onions and weighing a precise measure of pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, curry leaves and green chillies. The women would wait in anticipation, delighted to be out of the kitchen. Finally, a boozy lunch would be served on the terrace under the shadows of tall coconut trees swaying gently in appreciation. Unexpected guests were always welcome. Umma, the old Muslim lady living next door; Jose, the cop on duty; or Unni, the auto driver… The chatty affair, where everything from films to music would be critiqued, would end with a siesta broken only by the fish-seller’s incessant hoots.
In contrast, the search for beef fry in Delhi has taken me on quests through the dark alleys of Gautam Nagar, Govindpuri, Mukherjee Nagar and Srinivaspuri. Mallu dhabas never have them listed on their printed menus but almost always serve them. Like bootlegged liquor, access is on a need-to-know basis. And most Malayalees do need to know where they can get a mean beef fry and Malabar porotta.
My friends and I launched The Toddy Shop a year ago hoping to recreate that magic where interesting conversations would accompany authentic Malayalee cuisine. As expected, beef fry became popular and now has a steady and growing fan following within Delhi’s discerning foodies. At a recent food festival held in Nehru Park, thousands tore through a ton of beef fry we’d prepared. By the end of the final day, we had to turn people away but not before promising them that we will deliver to their doorstep.
The writer runs a restaurant in Delhi