Kerala (Mallu) food: a party for all senses

Today, we went over to Chris’s mom’s cousin’s building a few blocks away for a family gathering, with relatives coming together from New York, Philadelphia, Australia, and India. Given our group was a bit larger, they rented the common space lounge of their condo building for the lunch. As soon as we arrived, it was clear the dinner table was laid out for a feast, with bright green, yellow, and orange table settings, plates, and napkins. Place mats were also laid out on three other tables where the eventual food would be placed for buffet-style serving. Although we showed up close to 1 when the event was meant to start at 12:30, they told us that the Kerala (Mallu) Indian caterers in New Jersey were supposed to deliver the food by 11am. So, needless to say, they were running quite a bit late.

But when the food eventually did arrive, it was clear it was all worth the wait (Chris’s uncle and aunt told us, “Their service is horrendous. They are always, always late and it’s nearly impossible to even place the order. It all has to be paid in cash. But we put up with them because the food is so, so good!”). I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the sheer variety of the foods delivered, but also how intoxicating it all smelled. This is what was served, with my rudimentary knowledge of the names of these actual dishes in Malayalam – 13 in total (!), in addition to the freshly fried pappadams, which were so fragrant that any time someone bit into one near me, I could smell the delicious spiced scent wafting towards me:

Nadan meen curry – Kerala style red fish curry

Kappa Puzhukku – Kerala-style mashed tapioca/cassava (to be eaten with the fish curry)

Kerala style beef cutlets with a side of raw red onions and chilis

Kerala / Malabar style parathas – “rounded” flakiness – the best!

Kerala beef fry Ularthiyathu – with big chunks of meaty coconut strips

Kerala-style chicken curry

Ghee rice with cashews and caramelized onions

Moru curry (Buttermilk/yogurt curry)

Yellow dal

Savory mango yogurt curry

Savory banana curry

Black-eyed pea and green bean thoran

Kerala red rice (AHHH, what a treat outside of Kerala!!)

I thought I had died and gone to food heaven. Every bite was beyond delicious. But because there was so much variety, it was hard to eat more than 2-3 bites of any one dish. It was truly such a treat to have this food in the middle of Manhattan, of all places — and delivered from the Northeast Capital of Indian Food: New Jersey!! But I did leave extra space for the kappa since we don’t ever see it on menus. The beef fry, with its thick, crunchy chunks of coconut, is truly one of my favorite Indian dishes, along with the fish curry — they are very unique flavors and textures. My brain wanted to eat more, but my stomach had to put the savory eating to a stop, especially since for dessert, we had my orange olive oil cake and some semiya payasam, as well, and I needed space for these.

While I was eating this sumptuous meal in the midst of all of Chris’s Mallu relatives, I thought back to the time when I was in Singapore in 2012 for my friend’s wedding. Her husband used to say that South Indian food wasn’t as prevalent in the U.S. “for a reason,” as in, it didn’t taste as good as North Indian food (but anyone knowing history and the demographics of India would know that on average, people from Delhi/the surrounds are far lesser educated than the people of Kerala, the state of India that has the highest literacy rate. So while North Indians were on average poorer and immigrating to western countries to open restaurants and pursue lower level service jobs, Keralites were moving for “knowledge work” careers and on average, not opening restaurants). So when I said I wanted to explore the Indian area of Singapore to try the South Indian food, he had rolled his eyes and said, “All South Indian food is is dosa and idli, which aren’t even that good.”

As I enjoyed every bite of my beef fry, fish curry, and Malabar-style parathas, all I could think was… how could anyone be so wrong and ignorant about how good this food is?!

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