My love affair with Taste of Kerala (ToK) dates back to 2011, when I was a fresh faced teenager, discovering the charms and vagaries of living in India in general, and Bombay in particular.
I will try to make this short, but being concise isn’t really my cup of tea. So be warned.
Having just landed from Dubai in June 2011, mom and I were put up in a guest house for the six weeks it took us to find our first apartment. And suffice it to say our really nice Assamese cook at the guest house didn’t make us a single South Indian dish during that time and the cravings for normal Keralite food was at an all time high.
I happened to find a friend at college who had come from Cochin, Kerala, and her equally insurmountable cravings finally led the two of us and a few more friends to Taste of Kerala(TOK) on a rainy July afternoon after class.
At a first glance, I was circumspect. Because all you see is a small dining area past the cash register while walking in, and I was still the insufferable NRI brat wiping the rainwater off my feet with wet wipes and making faces at the sandwich vendors on the streets.
I know now that those guys churn out some pretty rad stuff, but yeah 2011 me was a little different.
But I braved my fears and made my way up the narrow staircase leading to their AC Section, and one taste of their parottas and naadan chicken curry sealed my patronage to them since.
I’m honestly not sure how many times I’ve visited the place since 2011. But the last weekend marked one of our many routine visits and this is the general mode of ordering that follows:
Word to the wise: if at a Keralite joint, ALWAYS choose chukku vellam over normal water (vellam). Loosely translates to dry ginger-water, but depending on the place it may include a range of spices like acacia, sandalwood and clove. Its generally a light rosy pink, very mildly flavoured and served boiling hot.
Pieces of seer fish cooked in a spicy tamarind and coconut based gravy. The fish is perfectly cooked and melts in the mouth and the gravy is tangy and spicy, pairing exceptionally well with rice or aappams
I think every Keralite joint has its special version of a chicken dish, and this is TOK’s specialty. Boneless pieces of fried chicken coated in a thick gravy with tomatoes, onions curry leaves and masalas topped with finely chopped coriander and a drizzle of coconut oil on top. It is so satisfying and delicious, and I never seem to tire of it because its a fixed order every time we visit.
And now for the piece de resistance:
To those who have not savoured a sadhya yet, here’s a basic descriptor:
(topmost row,left to right)
Papadam/Poppadum: A crisp disc of deep fried salted dough made with split black gram. Its salty and crispy and so easy to munch and eventually overdose on.
Chamandi/Thuvial: Its a chutney in its essence, and can be made with a variety of ingredients. This one contained fried shallots,fire roasted dry red chillies, raw mango and salt.
Beetroot Uppilittathu: A basic pickle made with sliced beetroots, vinegar and a touch of chilli powder.
Pulli inji: A chutney made with tamarind,ginger and jaggery. Its sour and sweet, with a mild hit of ginger every now and then.
Kumbalanga Kaalan: Chunks of ash gourd simmered in a gravy made with ground fresh coconut and roasted cumin seeds.
Cabbage Thoran: Shredded cabbage stir fried and tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves.
Ishtoo/Stew: A coconut milk based stew made with boiled potatoes, slivers of ginger and green chillies.
(bottom row, left to right)
Kootu Curry: Black chickpeas and yam in a coconut, chilly and tamarind based gravy
Matta Ari: Keralite brown rice, which is tradionally served in a sadhya. The picture includes sambhar, a lentil and vegetable staple ladled atop, but it can be had with any curry on the sadhya.
Avial: Mixed Vegetables in a coconut and curd based curry. This particular avial included yams, drumsticks, plantains, string beans and carrots.
Pachadi: A chutney made with ground coconut and raw mustard seeds into which a vegetable or fruit of your choice is tossed in. The version here had ripe papaya but it works very well with pineapples too.
The steels bowls outside the leaf contained:
Rasam: A hot almost soup like dish made with tomatoes, lentils, ginger and peppercorns. It goes well with rice when served hot and I personally attest to it curing even the toughest of colds, should they come your way
Sambharam: Not to be confused with Sambhar, this is buttermilk tempered with green chillies, curry leaves, ginger and salt
Payasam: A sweet pudding, fairly popular in India in general, each state having their renditions of it. This particular one contained roasted semolina, fried cashews and raisins in a sweet milk base.
(Our server Nasrul was also sweet enough to bring us both an extra bowl of payasam, with beaten rice sheets in a sweet jaggery base. Great stuff.)
Tradition follows that all the dishes mentioned are eaten on the side along with your rice. The rice is mixed in small quantities in four ways, mainly:
1. With paruppu (lentils) and clarified butter
2. With Sambhar
3. With Rasam
4. And finally mixed with plain unsweetened yogurt
TOK offers all of these and gives you the option of having appams or parottas on the side as well.
True to Indian heritage, everything is generally eaten with your dominant hand. And lastly, even though its much easier to just eat the payasam from the bowl provided, there is a whole other joy that can be derived from spooning the payasam onto your empty leaf after the meal, and going in for a little pickle or papadam in between bites when the payasam gets too sweet.
Even though most dishes have similar ingredients in different combinations, its really interesting how they all actually lend a different flavour profile to the palate. This is admittedly not a meal you can enjoy on a daily basis, but it truly hits the spot when you haven’t had it in a few months. Does for me, everytime I come to TOK.
This place has seen scores of my friends and colleagues as well as mom’s over the last few years. The food is downright delicious, and the prices are decent. And we would gladly keep recommending it to anyone with a deep rooted love for Malayali food or a penchant for trying something new.