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A journey through Kerala fuelled by nostalgia

A sense of discovery underpins the food and experience at Kappa Chakka Kandhari, the new Kerala speciality restaurant in Bengaluru

Chatti Meen Curry.
Chatti Meen Curry.

Chef Regi Mathew remembers raiding his mother’s fridge with his brothers in the middle of the night to steal her special “cloud pudding". Being the youngest of four brothers, he was the one deputed to do the actual stealing, and he would invariably get caught the next morning because his sharp-eyed mother would be able to identify the guilty party from the size of the fingermarks on the squishy surface of the pudding.

The “cloud pudding" is a must order at Mathew’s restaurant Kappa Chakka Kandhari, which opened in Bengaluru recently after a blockbuster debut in Chennai in 2018. Very mildly sweet, the pudding is made of equal parts tender coconut pulp and coconut water, set with agar agar. A Syrian Christian speciality, it is a complex dish to pull off, and very few people can make it well. “My mother has perfected it," says Mathew with a proud smile as we round off an enormous meal at Kappa Chakka Kandhari with the airy, almost insubstantial and ridiculously well-named dessert.

Most of the 90-odd items on the restaurant’s menu are not exactly staples of Kerala restaurants, which largely focus on appam-stew, Kerala parottas and biryani. Mathew, while creating the menu at Kappa Chakka Kandhari, gave them a pass because he “wanted to acknowledge that Kerala food is not just appam and stew, while wheat was introduced to Kerala only 25-30 years ago; growing up, we didn’t eat wheat at all and our mothers still don’t use it in their kitchens." As for biryani, Mathew devised his own spin on it, with a Puttu Biryani made in the traditional “puttu maker", used to make the famous breakfast dish—steamed cylinders of ground rice layered with coconut.

Before opening in Chennai, the team behind the restaurant—Mathew and his friends John Paul and Augustine Kurian—undertook a rather special journey. Over the course of three years, from 2014-17, the three foodies travelled across Kerala, eating at traditional toddy shops and the homes of friends and friends-of-friends in order to rediscover some of the flavours, dishes and ingredients unique to regions and communities in Kerala, a state where, they say, the cuisine changes every few kilometres.

“Initially, all three of us spoke to our own mothers and asked them to connect us with 10 more from among their own families and friends. Then we met those and asked them for more names and so on, till ultimately we met 265 home chefs and collected close to 800 recipes," says Mathew. “There were so many discoveries—for instance, one of the first meals we had was at a home in Fort Kochi where the lady of the house had made something called ‘Meat Vinyari’. We realized she had used toddy vinegar, and the dish, which is close to the Goan vindaloo, probably originated because of the Portuguese influence on food in Kochi."

After eating their way through the state, the team divided Kerala food into five distinct families : Malabar Muslim aka Moplah cuisine; the predominantly vegetarian Thrissur Brahmin cuisine; Syrian Christian; the food of the central Travancore region, with a mix of vegtarian and non-vegetarian dishes; and south Travancore, which has a strong Tamil influence. Besides these, says Mathew, there are smaller cuisines, such as Palakkad Iyer cuisine, the food of various local tribes, and the cuisine of Fort Kochi, with its Jewish and Portuguese influences.

Absolute Kandhari
Absolute Kandhari

“The diversity and scope of the food is simply mind-boggling, and it’s time someone explored it thoroughly instead of restricting the menu to the same popular dishes. The name of the restaurant is also an indication of that: Kappa (tapioca), chakka (jackfruit) and kandhari (bird’s-eye chillies) are all ingredients that are very popular in Kerala but are not so familiar to people outside the state," says Mathew, who used to work with the Chennai-based restaurant group Oriental Cuisines and conceptualized its popular restaurant brands Benjarong and Ente Keralam.

Many of the chefs at Kappa Chakka Kandhari are former toddy-shop cooks, and most of the ingredients come from specific suppliers in Kerala: The seafood comes from the small town of Paravur near Kochi, ginger from Thrissur, and the famous kandhari chillies from “a small farm near Thiruvananthapuram".

At the restaurant, even the person who makes Ramassery idlis—a special kind of flattened, delicate idlis from Ramassery town in Palakkad—is a member of the only four families in the region who still know how to make this delicious steamed carb-bomb.

To wash down all the complex flavours of the food at Kappa Chakka Kandhari, sips of the restaurant’s signature (non-alcoholic) drink, Absolute Kandhari, are a must. A concoction of bird’s-eye chilli, lemon and other “secret ingredients", this warm, slightly fizzy drink, with a burst of fresh flavours that seem to open up every pore from mouth to brain stem, is guaranteed to taste unlike anything you have had before. “What IS this magic potion?!" I ask Mathew, mystified, after taking a hesitant sip. “It is the distilled essence of Kappa Chakka Kandhari," he says, grinning.

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